“The million dollar question is why some people suffer this extreme anxiety and some people don’t,” says Clinical Psychologist Dr Epenesa Olo-Whaanga.
Anxiety New Zealand Trust National Manager Goldie Hamilton says anxiety can sometimes run in families.
“Sometimes that’s potentially genetic – but it’s also because we share the environment at home,” she explains. “Maybe there’s some trauma in the home, or maybe the whole family went through a traumatic event together.”
What we do know is that for many people, anxiety begins in childhood.
“Young children can develop anxiety disorders,” says Olo-Whaanga. “Often people think ‘oh they’ll grow out of it’, so they don’t give it the attention that it really needs. If it’s untreated with no intervention that can persist into adolescence, and then that can persist into adulthood.”
Dr Terry Fleming, Associate Professor at Te Herenga Waka Victoria University of Wellington, has spent her career researching how to improve youth mental health.
“If you were exposed to racism, and homophobia, and social exclusion, and systematic bullying and violence – then of course you’re much more at risk of developing an anxiety problem or a depression problem,” she says.
For people like Ivan Yeo, Deputy Director Asian Family Services, anxiety can be a reaction to traumatic life events.
“As a kid I knew I wasn’t like other kids,” Yeo says. “I believe my father back in Malaysia was a gangster, so as kids we’d move a lot. I think that is the reason my anxiety was created, because we always had to pick up and run.”
Yeo started having panic attacks while he was still a school student.
“On one occasion the schoolteacher had to call an ambulance, because I thought I couldn’t breathe.”
Social media personality Krystine Nation also developed anxiety at a young age.
“My teens to early adulthood were a very, very messy time for me,” she says. “If I was in trouble or if I was in an uncomfortable situation, I would literally clam up – and it’s weird to say now, but I would just hit myself and cry and hyperventilate. I only realised as an adult that that was anxiety.”
Split Enz musician Mike Chunn believes his anxiety was brought on by the anticipation of a traumatic event.
“I actually think why I got it in the first place was the fear that Split Enz was going to break up,” he says. “My brother left the band. My brother and I had spent all our teenage years dreaming of being Beatles, and all of a sudden he was gone – and bang, I went down.”
Recent extreme weather events and the COVID-19 pandemic were triggers for many people, says Olo-Whaanga.
“Anxiety can be about lack of control, and one of the things that we definitely had during Covid has been that lack of control.”
The virus triggered some of our deepest underlying fears about mortality and contagion, but Anxiety New Zealand Trust National Manager Goldie Hamilton says that in some ways the pandemic has been positive for anxiety awareness.
“If there is a good thing that Covid brought, it’s that we’re talking more about mental health, and I think that’s fantastic.”
Unravelling Anxiety follows the first Misconceptions series by Digital Alchemist, The Truth About Miscarriage.
Where to get help
If you think you may be experiencing anxiety, you can ask your GP or a counsellor for advice. You can also reach out to the following organisations:
- National Anxiety 24-hour Helpline
0800 269 4389
0800 ANXIETY Helpline | Anxiety NZ
- Lifeline Aotearoa
0800 543 354 (0800 LIFELINE) or free text 4357 (HELP) (available 24/7)
- Suicide Crisis Helpline
0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO) (available 24/7)
0800 376 633
- Need to Talk?
Free call or text 1737 (available 24/7)
0800 543 754 (available 24/7)
0800 942 8787 (1pm to 11pm)
- Depression Helpline
0800 111 757 or text 4202
- Eating Disorders Carer Support NZ
EDCS Eating Disorders Carer Support NZ | Facebook