Childhood development and Anxiety

Researchers in early childhood development regard anxiety in adult life as a residue of childhood memories of dependency. Humans learn during the first year of life that they are not self-sufficient and that their basic survival depends on others. It is thought that this early experience of helplessness underlies the most common anxieties of adult life, including fear of powerlessness and fear of not being loved. Thus, adults can be made anxious by symbolic threats to their sense of competence or significant relationships, even though they are no longer helpless children.


The psychoanalytic model gives a lot of weight to the symbolic aspect of human anxiety; examples include phobic disorders, obsessions, compulsions, and other forms of anxiety that are highly individualized. Because humans mature slowly, children and adolescents have many opportunities to connect their negative experiences to specific objects or events that can trigger anxious feelings in later life.A person who was frightened as a child by a tall man wearing glasses may feel panicky years later, without consciously knowing why, by something that echoes that person or experience.

Freud thought that anxiety results from a person’s internal conflicts. According to his theory, people feel anxious when they feel torn between moral restrictions Page 115 and desires or urges toward certain actions. In some cases, the person’s anxiety may attach itself to an object that represents the inner conflict. Someone who feels anxious around money may be pulled between a desire to steal and the belief that stealing is wrong. Money becomes a symbol for the inner conflict between doing what is considered right and doing what one wants.


Phobias are a special type of anxiety reaction in which individuals concentrate their anxiety on a specific object or situation and then tries to avoid it. In most cases, the fear is out of proportion to its cause. According to the Anxiety Disorders Association of America, 19 million American adults, representing nearly 9% of the population, have specific phobias. Some phobias—agoraphobia (fear of open spaces), claustrophobia (fear of small or confined spaces), and social phobia, for example—are shared by large numbers of people. Others are less common or are unique to individuals.

Social and environmental stressors

Because humans are social creatures, anxiety often has a social dimension. People frequently report feelings of high anxiety when they anticipate or fear the loss of social approval or love.

Social phobia is a specific anxiety disorder that is marked by high levels of anxiety or fear of embarrassment in social situations.

Another social stressor is prejudice. People who belong to groups that are targets of bias have a higher risk of developing anxiety disorders. Some experts think, for example, that the higher rates of phobias and panic disorder among women reflects their greater social and economic vulnerability.

Several controversial studies indicate that the increase in violent or upsetting pictures and stories in news reports and entertainment may raise people’s anxiety levels. Stress and anxiety management programs often recommend that patients cut down their exposure to upsetting stimuli.

Environmental or occupational factors can also cause anxiety. People who must live or work around sudden or loud noises, bright or flashing lights, chemical vapors, or similar nuisances that they cannot avoid or control may develop heightened anxiety levels.


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