Can someone ‘grow out’ of an anxiety disorder?
I’m going to say never say never. That’s my short answer. My longer answer is, well, a lot longer.
Let’s talk about the word disorder. That’s a clinical term that basically says that your functioning is being harmed or limited by the issue, in this case anxiety and has been for at least six months. Functioning is described as the ability to maintain your day to day activities, work your job or go to school, and manage your relationships. If your anxiety is so bad that you’re not leaving your house or you’re constantly arguing with your partner, that would be poor functioning.
That’s the clinical definition and the clinical definition is one made up by researchers and practitioners and may be subject to change as new research comes to light and we reconsider what functioning means. I mention this because an anxiety disorder is both a clearly defined thing but people are messy and don’t always meet clear definitions.
The other thing is that diagnosing professionals don’t always agree. While we all diagnose under the same defining criteria, that which is put forth in whatever the current DSM model is — and we’re about to come out with a new revision — our judgment is ultimately subjective. We might see functioning differently. Our clients might see functioning differently. There are cultural differences in what healthy relationships look like so we might assume something is dysfunctional and the client may not. And another clinician may not.
What I’m saying is that getting agreement on what makes for a disorder is more complicated than you’d think.
That’s kinda taking us into the weeds but I always love a good diagnosis discussion because before I was a therapist I thought the DSM was like a flowchart with clear, obvious answers and it is not that. This is especially true when we talk about diagnosing kids.
To accurately diagnose a child you have to really understand child development, you have to really understand the family culture, you have to a strong sense of whether or not the expectations of the other institutions in which the family lives are realistic. I think often of a child who ended up with a diagnosis that I thought was an extremely poor fit because that child was in a care center that had unrealistic expectations for kids that age. That child went to another center and we saw the issues not exactly disappear but become more like realistic challenges.
I think the person who asked this question is really asking if someone can learn to deal with their anxiety without intervention. And I’d say, yes, sure. Some people can do that.
Because people with anxiety have brains that are primed to worry. And their brains aren’t going to change. Those of us with anxiety will always have anxious brains and that comes with all kinds of gifts, too. Anxious people tend to be sensitive in other ways. Some have busy and interesting brains who can see all kinds of danger but all kinds of creative and interesting connections, too. Some are super sensitive in relationships, which can make them worry about their impact on other people or how people see them but also make them loving, and compassionate people. Some see all the things that could go wrong first, but that also means that they’re terrific at things like being a surgeon, or a safety monitor, or a white hat hacker.
Basically an anxious brain has gifts but it also has big challenges and generally we need to learn how to cope with those challenges and learning that is hard, especially if you’re left to do it alone.
I think about my own coping with social anxiety as an older elementary student and later as a teen and I think about how some of the coping mechanisms I came up with were the kinds of coping mechanisms I might have been taught by a therapist. In particular I had a whole visualization I would do at night when I was trying to fall asleep that I use with kids I work with now. But I also see how I came up with some really unhealthy coping mechanisms, too. And I see how my social anxiety curdled into pretty severe depression. So you could say I grew out of it — I mean I did graduate high school, I did end up going to college — I but I could have used the help since the journey was quite messy.
I do believe in people’s inherent ability to grow and to heal. I also think that those people who are really committed to growing and healing will seek out resources and support. They don’t just grow out of their struggles — they face them and they find ways through them including getting help.
And the help is here. There’s help in so many forms. There’s counseling and there are self help books, there are programs like mine. And I think if we really want to support our kids to grow out of anxiety then we should connect them with those resources and we should connect ourselves to those resources because we have such an enormous impact on how our kids function. Especially when it comes to anxiety, how the parents deal with it ultimately decides how the kids deal — or don’t deal — with it.