anxiety · family · life · social anxiety

Anxiety in the Family

I attended my first day of group therapy on Friday at 11 AM. A feeling of sickness (clenched stomach, tightened jaw, dry throat, increased heart rate, restlessness) overcame me every time it was my turn to speak on whatever topic we were discussing. Somehow I persevered, although I often had to dig my nails and press my palms into my knees as I spoke as a way to hide how terrified I was. Good thing the table blocked everyone’s view of my hands.

One of the session topics was talking about where we believe our anxiety originated from. Many people, including myself, briefly spoke of experiences that influenced us when we were children. More specifically, one common denominator mentioned again and again was how their parents treated them significantly contributed to their anxiety.

I know how the last sentence must sound. So everyone in the therapy group blames their parents for their anxiety tendencies? The answer is yes and no. Everyone there recognized that at least some of their parents’ actions had a negative impact on them whether their parents intended them to feel that way or not. But, I also felt everyone understood that people can say things to others or react in a certain way to somebody under the pretense they are doing it for valid and necessary reasons without realizing the recipient is reacting to it as a bad thing.

An example that I feel might fit in this category is when one of the therapy attendees spoke of his parents constantly criticizing him, which in turn he perceived as very negative. This feedback from his family caused him to be unconfident in his own abilities, yet his parents tell him they criticize and yell at him for his own good. While his parents believe they are acting in a manner that benefits their son, it is actually having the opposite effect by giving him anxiety and insecurities about himself. Then again, I am certain there are people out there who may have received similar criticism from their parents but it didn’t lead to them into developing intense anxiety. Why is that? Are some people just mentally stronger or more mentally balanced than others?

In my opinion, I think I was already genetically predisposed to being more susceptible to anxiety in addition to exposure to some environmental factors. I have almost always held this belief about myself, but it wasn’t until sometime last year that I observed and noticed things about my own parents’ behaviors when they are in what appears to be a state of worry. Only today, at this moment, it has hit me as a very real and solid idea that my parents have their own forms of anxiety. However, I am more certain that my mother has anxiety while I suspect my father also does but his anxiety might be milder.

Once, my mother was preparing to leave for an outing with her younger brother and I noticed she took a whole hour just to get ready. I used to think she simply likes taking her time with things and maybe she does if she knows no one is going to rush her. Had my father been the one to go out with her that day instead of her brother (who was apparently patiently waiting for her in the living room for that whole hour), he would have started hollering for her to hurry up once ten or fifteen minutes had passed. I was in my room when I heard her come upstairs to use the restroom and then go downstairs. I heard what sounded like clothing being shuffled around downstairs and assumed she was putting on her jacket. I was confused when the noise continued. I wondered to myself, How long does it take for someone to slip on a jacket? Perhaps five or eight minutes passed and I still did not hear the front door close to signal their leaving. Instead, my mother came up again on her way to the restroom. She actually said out loud, “Why is it that I feel worried?” I got the impression that she was experiencing anxiety but that she mistook the discomfort for a phantom sensation of a bladder that wasn’t actually full. How do I know her bladder wasn’t full? Because she already used the restroom several minutes earlier. I would also rule out the possibility of a bladder issue because if she did have a condition like that, I’d know about it. Then there is also how paranoid she is about having our house broken into. I do think it’s linked to anxiety. She always insists on having the ground level floor windows and doors closed when no one is present on the ground floor itself. I can remember a time either from last summer or two summers ago that she and my father were going out on their usual evening walk. I decided not to go with them and stayed in the basement where the temperature was a lot cooler. I didn’t even know until I came up to the ground level that all the windows were now closed. In the moment, I did feel upset because her behavior was irrational and ridiculous in my point of view. It’s not as if the windows are being left open when no one is home, which might be a situation reasonable enough to warrant a lockdown like that. She’s been like this for as long as I remember and the handful of times my father has tried to reassure her there is nothing wrong with leaving the windows open as long as someone is home, his words have gone unheeded by her and she does as she wants anyway. Now my father doesn’t bother to say anything when she starts shutting all the windows. Another time, my brother was upstairs in his room while my parents and I decided to go out. A different circumstance with the same problem. She still ended up closing everything on the ground floor

Then there is also how paranoid she is about having our house broken into. I do think it’s linked to anxiety. She always insists on having the ground level floor windows and doors closed when no one is present on the ground floor itself. I can remember a time either from last summer or two summers ago that she and my father were going out on their usual evening walk. I decided not to go with them and stayed in the basement where the temperature was a lot cooler. I didn’t even know until I came up to the ground level that all the windows were now closed. In the moment, I did feel upset because her behavior was irrational and ridiculous in my point of view. It’s not as if the windows are being left open when no one is home, which might be a situation reasonable enough to warrant a lockdown like that. She’s been like this for as long as I remember and the handful of times my father has tried to reassure her there is nothing wrong with leaving the windows open as long as someone is home, his words have gone unheeded by her and she does as she wants anyway. Now my father doesn’t bother to say anything when she starts shutting all the windows. Another time, my brother was upstairs in his room while my parents and I decided to go out. A different circumstance with the same problem. She still ended up closing everything on the ground floor just because my brother was not on that floor. It was frustrating for me in the past to try to understand why she is like this, especially during times when it was quite easy to feel annoyed at her and thinking she was being a total nuisance for no reason. It didn’t enter my mindscape to consider then if she has anxiety. I don’t even think my mom recognizes her own behavior as anxiety and a very real issue.

As for my father, I suspect he has anxiety but I’m also unsure. What I notice is the times I’ve helped him fix stuff on his phone, he can’t just be patient and wait. Instead, as I am actively working on the phone, he keeps asking me questions like, “what’s the problem?”, “can you fix it?”, “how is it now?”, etc. This in itself can be a trigger for my own anxiety because I don’t like being prompted with so many questions when I’m trying to do something. Another thing I see he does is he is unable to keep quiet when he is seemingly anxious. Like a few days ago when I had gone out to have breakfast with my parents and brother for Father’s Day. My brother was driving me directly from the restaurant to the subway station since I had plans afterward to meet up with friends. On the way there, it appeared he was not content with letting my brother use GPS to navigate the car to the station. First, he prompted my brother to turn the car at a certain corner, but when my brother declined, my father said, “but you have to turn eventually if you mean to get to the subway”, almost as if he assumed my brother didn’t know which way to go unless he told him. His tone made me think he was afraid we were not going to get to the subway in time. He still did not let the topic rest after my brother said it’d be fine to just follow the GPS route. Minutes later when the car already passed several streets, he asked my brother if he would be turning yet. At this point, I held back a sigh of irritation and could not help thinking, What is his deal? The driver knows where to go; he doesn’t need your constant suggestions.  I felt more annoyed when he started counting out loud as the car continued to pass streets, “38, 37, almost to 36th street.” This is not the first time I’ve witnessed the “counting” phenomenon he does. If I could guess, it’s almost like when he is anxious, he can’t help but chatter aloud even if it’s to himself.

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8 thoughts on “Anxiety in the Family

  1. Hey Nat, my dad does stuff like that and it has ALWAYS been a trigger for me. If I can’t help him fast enough, he says FORGET IT which freaks me out. It doesn’t help that I’m always trying to please him. I can totally relate to this. I’m glad you’re going to your group sessions!

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  2. Yeah, it’s hard feeling obligated to please someone. I often have to keep myself from getting angry at him and his stream of questions. It’s like… I’m already trying to help you right now and I get that you want answers because you want to know what is going on, but constantly badgering me is not going to make me work faster. I believe my father went through a similar incident at a hardware store where he tried to get help activating something on his phone and was pissed off that the guy there rebuffed his questions in a rude way. However, the way he described the manner in which he approached the guy and basically bombarded him with like 3 different questions at once, I kind of can see why the guy balked and probably felt overwhelmed, although it is true he could have refused to help him in a more polite way.

    Therapy is scary! I thought one on one was frightening but group therapy is a whole other level. I’m unsure if I will ever get used to having about eleven pairs of eyes (there are eleven other people in the group) staring at me as I speak. I actually almost chickened out at the last moment by not walking through the door because I was that scared. I don’t know if it’ll get easier for every week I go there…

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  3. i wish i could press a love button then like, i’m starting therapy tonight for the first time and this post has really helped calm my nerves, and i totally agree i don’t blame my parents for my anxiety but it hasn’t helped x

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  4. My parents are both super, super paranoid people. I’ve always known this, but only in the last few months recognized it as anxiety. I’m so glad my anxiety doesn’t manifest in the same way as theirs because it seems so sad to always be worried about someone breaking into their home, into their car, stealing from them, etc. But it did have a huge impact on me, making me feel like I always needed to be on edge and looking out for strangers, particularly when I was home alone when I was young. I’m hoping to have children in the next few years and I want to make sure my parents keep their paranoia somewhat away from my children so they don’t grow up with quite as much fear as I did.

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    1. I feel for you. I too am also glad my anxiety isn’t the same as my parents’ anxiety. It definitely is hard to acknowledge that your parents act or behave has influenced you while knowing they likely didn’t mean to contribute towards your anxiety. I hope the best for you if you have children.

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  5. My mom called it “constructive criticism”. My dad wasn’t around so it was all her. It was much later in life when I realized that constrictive criticism is just criticism. I always thought everything was my fault. Every time I was corrected, criticized or controlled in some way, it was because I made a mistake or did something wrong (even if that wasn’t true) until I learned that I didn’t make a mistake, I was a mistake. I didn’t do anything wrong, I simply wasn’t good enough. No matter how well I did, it would never be enough. I got straight A’s in school, not because I was told to, but because I knew that was what would be expected. I never actually knew what was expected because I never asked. But the message was to excel at everything, be the best. How could a child not crumble under all the pressure?

    With eating disorders, studies found we are more sensitive then usual and so things like criticism are so much more damaging. They also found a genetic component. It would seem that both of those things would apply to anxiety as well, don’t you think? I’m certain my mom would probably have been very anxious if she hadn’t suppressed every emotion she had. She was a stone.

    I find it interesting that so many in your group have similar experiences. Oh, as far as feeling more comfortable, that ought to happen over time as you all become more familiar with each other. That’s how it was when I was in the program and also how it is in iOP. We are always getting new people in which makes it a little off balance but then that person gets integrated and it’s all good after that.

    Because of a terrible experience with one of the staff, most of my group anxiety is when she is leading, which is tonight actually, ugh. I’ve learned to turn her off, so to speak, but that diminishes what I can get out of group. My therapist is working on it with me. It’s tough.

    I commend you for going! I commend you for being willing to open your eyes to family dynamics. And I commend you for moving forward no matter how scary it is.

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    1. I can see how having your mother’s constant criticism, as well her as your only parental figure, while your father was absent, has done a number on you. 😞 I did not have the experience of a nitpicky mother, but she did have quite the temper. I have very mixed feelings when I think about how she acted towards me when she was in one of her “fits” if I had done something to incur her wrath. She wouls get very loud and say some horrific and intimidating things to me. I vaguely remember not feeling anxious at all when she first started being this way and then eventually I would feel anxious and afraid at the sound of her raised tone. I get the sense now that she felt it was her right as a mother to discipline me that way, but I also do not think she was right in the way she went about it. For example, the fact she would not only yell but actually scream at me. Does this sound like someone who has her emotions under control and who is rationally using reason or a calm attitude to work through an issue with her own child? And also, some of the select threats she’d often throw my way. The most common I recall were she’d threaten to leave or ignore me and that she would beat me to death. She never did beat me to death, although there was one incident where she hit me in a fit of pent-up anger that still traumatizes me to think about.

      My father was absent a lot too… I do not begrudge him for it because it was years later I learned why he was that way. The short story is my parents married and had children very quickly, in addition to buying a house and having the pressures of holding down full time jobs that weren’t necessarily ones they liked. My dad had to work at unseemingly hours. Many times he would be gone by the time I would be up to get ready for school and not even be home yet by the time I would be in bed. I actually have memories of thinking of my father has a mythical figure bc I saw him so infrequently. And yet I do fault him for the times I was around him when he was home but he’d be busy cooking or doing stuff around the house but never seemed to take the time to pay attention to me. I felt so ignored and unseen. My father’s older brother lived with us during this period and I even recall him giving me more attention and talking to me; so much that the line between reality and fantasy started to blur for me and I thought my uncle could be my real father. That is the funny thing about children. They do notice things and understand when they are missing something. I was like that, except it took me until years later to be able to look back and acknowledge what I had felt in those situations bc as a child, I did not know how to verbalize those things. Then later on my father started spoiling me with gifts. I know now that he did that bc he obviously felt guilty for not being around. For child, yes, maybe material items can buy happiness temporarily but honesty I think that was the wrong approach for my father to do.

      Sorry if I went into too much detail about my parents… This might call for separate blog entry on this topic alone.

      I do agree that it makes sense for criticism to be more damaging to a person. I don’t know if this counts as actual criticism I got from my mother, but I was having a lot of trouble learning basic math. I was struggling with school in general as well bc I did not like participating in class and had no real concept of reaching out to my teacher if I didn’t understand the lesson. I was also terrified of being shipped off to after school homework help. The idea alone often made me anxious and I got so hysterical that I remember being on the verge of sobbing. So my mom tried to teach me at home. After many times in one day where I kept writing in the wrong answer, she got fed up and declared that I was stupid. She even commented to my dad how stupid I was. I felt both very hurt and angry and this was the first time I held back tears. I do not remember if my dad said anything in my defense, but if he did, it still was a poor attempt on his part to be anywhere involved with my upbringing. It appears he was comfortable letting my mother handle most of it.

      It is too early to say if I will be comfortable enough to ever engage with the other group members outside of therapy. Surprisingly, one of them is someone I previously met at one of the first social anxiety meetup events, but that Friday was my first time seeing him in over at least 6 months. I feel nervous over whether there is some expectation, whether from my own mind, his mind, or the minds of the other group members, that he and I are supposed to hang out together outside of therapy.

      Thanks for noticing that it definitely was a big step for me to go to the first therapy session. There is another one this coming Saturday and I admit I would much rather hide under my blankets and not go. I can’t say if I will give into my weakness by canceling. If I do, I still have to make up the session sometime before the next one. 😐

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