Research Findings on Anxiety and Childhood Adversity
Researcher Samantha Pratt’s article, The Impact of Childhood Adversity on Later Anxiety (1) says there’s a high correlation between traumas associated with childhood adversity and the appearance of anxiety disorders later in life. The rise in the severity of adversity simultaneously increases the sensitivity to stress, and ultimately the likelihood of developing an anxiety disorder. The most common causes of anxiety disorders are social adversity, a negative family environment, experiences of abuse and loss, and problems with school functioning.
Pratt says there is also a lot of information about the onset of anxiety disorders at different stages of life development. Some studies focused on the onset of anxiety issues during adolescence and early adulthood, while other research looked at the correlation between childhood adversities and the appearance of affective disorders at mid-life.
All of the studies showed that the appearance of anxiety issues related to trauma and childhood adversity are more common in adolescence than in early adulthood and mid-life. Some early childhood traumas such as social adversity, financial difficulties, low economic status, parental unemployment, and lack of parental education proved to have little or no influence on the emergence of anxiety symptoms in later years. The lack of parental education, however, correlated with the emergence of anxiety disorders during early and mid-life.
A negative family environment characterized by a lack of family cohesion, illness in the home, and parental mental illness were strong predictors of anxiety issues that emerged later in life. Negative family environments are also considered as a chronic stressor, one that increases the risk of anxiety disorders over time.
Other traumatic childhood experiences involving abuse, loss, poor academic achievement, physical abuse, sexual abuse, and emotional abuse increase the odds of having anxiety disorders. Academic achievement difficulties were specifically linked to higher anxiety in adolescence and early adulthood. The loss of a close relationship, such as the death of a family member or friend, parent separation, sibling separation, and hospitalization of family members, is highly predictive of anxiety issues across the entire lifespan.
Multiple Adverse Experiences and Anxiety
Pratt’s article says that research studies consistently show that it is not only the type of childhood adversity that has an impact on anxiety, but also the number. Though very little research begins with the intention of analyzing the impact of multiple adversities on the onset of anxiety, the data looking at the correlation between childhood adversity and anxiety revealed that larger numbers of adversity childhood experiences increased the odds of anxiety in later years.
According to Pratt’s article, the likelihood of having anxiety disorders dramatically increased in participants who reported more than three childhood adversities, particularly negative family environments and abuse. This group demonstrated high stress reactivity to minor life events. The association between multiple childhood adversities and the emergence of anxiety disorders are largely influenced by level of exposure to adversities. The greater the exposure to childhood adversities, the more stress that participants reported when they faced life events later in life.
Higher levels of adversity in childhood also lead to more than just anxiety issues. Studies show that there is also a high rate of depression. Depression often also manifests along with anxiety as a result of childhood adversities. Major depressive episodes, PTSD, and anxiety disorders often get triggered when people with childhood adversities in their background experience major life stressors in adulthood.
(1) Pratt, Samantha (2014). The Impact of Childhood Adversity on Later Anxiety. NYU Department of Applied Psychology. http://steinhardt.nyu.edu/opus/issues/2014/spring/pratt