Your question: Why do I get anxiety around my family?

My reply:

Hi, I hope this message finds you well. My name is Cesar Guedez, a psychologist trained in cognitive behavioral therapy.

Too often we hear that at the end of the day, we only have our family, and that our family members are the only people we can trust. This idea, although well-intentioned, is false. Not everyone is fortunate enough to have pleasant family dynamics because no one chooses their family.

There are different reasons why you may feel anxious about being close to your family. Studies (1) have shown that the most common cause is domestic violence. Even if a person is not the direct victim of physical, emotional or sexual assault within the family, the chances of feeling anxiety when with family members is still high.

A particular problem with this is that people often underestimate the meaning of “violence” within their families. We are taught to respect our elders (parents, uncles, aunts, uncles, grandparents and so on), but we do not learn to question when our family members are acting in a wrong way that we should not allow.

As we become adults, we must learn to take responsibility for our well-being, and part of that involves confronting our families. If your family generates anxiety for you, this is not your fault. No one is responsible for suffering from anxiety, much less if it is caused by other people.

However, you have the ability to identify what is happening in your family dynamics to make you feel anxiety, and to apply changes to your life for the better on your own, because at the end of the day, the only person we have, is ourselves.

Why does your family make you anxious?

The causes are multiple, as each family is unique and has very specific dynamics. If you only experience anxiety when you are with your family and not with, for example, your group of friends, co-workers or classmates, without a doubt, the problem is in your family dynamics. Some of the most common causes that generate anxiety when you are with your family are:

Constant verbal arguments

Every family establishes its own patterns and forms of communication, however, not all of them are healthy. Families that constantly yell, fight and insult each other are dysfunctional, and generally the younger members of the family, such as the children, are the ones who suffer the greatest consequences. It has been shown (1) that living in families in which there is constant fighting increases the probability of suffering anxiety or depression.

Demanding or overprotective families

There are families in which the pressure and demands can be emotionally overwhelming. If your family is characterized by being very strict, constantly demanding perfection in your work, studies and/or personal life, you are likely to feel more anxious than people whose parents are less strict and more understanding.

Families that don’t accept you

A common problem in family dynamics is that love is often conditional. Family members often reject others for many reasons: for having a different sexual orientation or gender identity, for choosing a college career that is not to their liking, or in general, for having a lifestyle they do not approve of. Rejection and hurtful comments from family about your life inevitably generate anxiety.

How to deal with anxiety caused by your family?

It is difficult to unlearn the ideas related to the family, since we grow up feeling that we can only count on them and that we must tolerate anything just because they are our family. This is not true, as we should always give priority to our physical and mental health.

If the cause of your anxiety is your own family members, it is necessary to make changes in your relationship and dynamics with them, and of course, work on your own emotions and self-esteem.

Set limits

You must set limits to your relatives. This, because they often believe they have the right to intervene in your private life and make comments that can generate anxiety. It is necessary that you write down what you want to say to your relatives, as a kind of rehearsal that helps you to prepare yourself to face them and tell them what bothers you.

Once you have it clear, you can communicate it to them in the modality of your preference, either face to face or through a message. The purpose is that, through your message, your family members understand that you are not willing to tolerate mistreatment and that the dynamic they have affects you emotionally, so you have decided to mark the distance you think is right.

Although you may feel bad at first, separating yourself from spaces where there is violence (whether or not you are the victim) is good for you, gives you more security and freedom, and significantly reduces your anxiety.

Expand your social circle

When you set limits to your family and cut ties that you consider problematic, you may feel lonely. That is why it is necessary to expand your social circle, meeting new people in spaces of your choice. We can’t choose our family, but we can choose our friends and partners, so by surrounding ourselves with people who bring positivity to our lives, we are taking a step towards feeling better about ourselves.

Learn to breathe and relax

Breathing is key when you feel anxious. Inhale slowly for three seconds and exhale for another three seconds. Repeat this exercise several times, while keeping your eyes closed and resting your hands on your chest. You can do it sitting or lying down, and you will notice how the tension and worry typical of anxiety gradually diminishes.

In my experience…

Although feeling anxious about your family is a common experience, it doesn’t mean you have to allow it. There are changes you can make to deal with this situation, and it all starts with prioritizing yourself. The changes are incremental, so don’t put pressure on yourself to change your entire family dynamic overnight.

Dealing with anxiety is difficult, even more so when it is caused by the people who are supposed to protect you. It is hard work, but it is possible with dedication, trust and above all, with the certainty that you are making the right decision by prioritizing your emotions over anyone else.

The fact that you are seeking professional help through this medium proves it to me, and I applaud you for making that decision and being on track to improve your mental health and overall, your physical health.

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