When asked if obsessive-compulsive disorder or anxiety disorders are caused by genetic or environmental factors, the standard answer has always been “a combination of both.” Certainly OCD often runs in families.
While there’s not much we can do about our genes (at least not yet!), there is a lot we can do about various environmental factors that might contribute to the development of obsessive-compulsive disorder.
In this wonderful article, Dr. Suzanne Phillips addresses the question, “is parental anxiety contagious?” I highly recommend reading this informative article, which discusses everything from recent research to anxiety-reducing strategies for parents of teens. The bottom line? “Yes, parental anxiety is contagious. The greater our anxiety — the greater the anxiety of our kids.”
Yes, my heart sank too when I read this conclusion, which to many of us is not really new information. While I don’t have OCD, I had anxious parents who worried about my every move as a child. So it’s not surprising that I developed anxiety myself. For many years, I actually thought anxiety was normal, because that is all I knew. Words such as relaxed and calm were not in my vocabulary.
But, as Dr. Phillips points out, the fact that parental anxiety is contagious is actually good news. If we parents can learn how to reduce and control our own anxiety, our children will benefit as well. We have the power to break the cycle!
In fact, a 2015 study conducted by University of Connecticut Health Center psychiatrist Dr. Golda Ginsburg and her colleagues at Johns Hopkins University concluded that with appropriate family intervention (which includes, not surprisingly, some exposure exercises), anxious parents can actually raise calm children: “Only nine percent of children who participated in a therapist-directed family intervention developed anxiety after one year, compared to 21 percent in a group that received written instruction, and 31 percent in the group that did not receive any therapy or written instruction.”
According to Dr. Ginsburg, the focus here needs to shift from reaction to prevention: “In the medical system there are other prevention models, like dental care, where we go every six months for a cleaning. I think adopting that kind of model — a mental health checkup, a prevention model for folks who are at risk — is I think where we need to go next.”
I love the idea of a prevention model for not only anxiety, but for other mental health issues as well. How great it would be if we could identify anxiety early on, and treat it before it becomes a significant problem. In the meantime, I think we should pay close attention to the fact that anxiety is indeed very treatable, and parents who learn to manage their own anxiety are not only helping themselves but helping their children as well.
While we might not be able to prevent their developing OCD, we can teach our children the skills needed to respond appropriately to anxiety, and model these behaviors ourselves. Laying this groundwork will certainly prove helpful should our children find themselves face to face with obsessive-compulsive disorder.