Are Anxiety Disorders Hereditary?

By: Dr. Anoosha Avni
Registered Psychologist

Do you believe that you were born a worrier, panicker, or phobic? Have you been told that worry and panic “run in the family?” The medical establishment and the popular media would like you to think so. You might even think so yourself. For years, researchers studying anxiety disorders thought so, too. The idea that people are born worriers, panickers, or phobics stems from the belief that biology and heredity are at the core of anxiety disorders. Now, the research is showing us that genes and biology are only a small part of the equation.

So what does this mean?

It means that people aren’t born with anxiety disorders. Researchers (e.g., Leonardo & Hen, 2006) have found that the genetic contribution to anxiety disorders is about 30-40%. While your genes may make you more vulnerable to an anxiety problem, it’s not the same as inheriting an anxiety disorder.

So what makes an anxiety problem cross the line to an anxiety disorder? A lot of it has to do with how you relate to anxiety and fear – what you do about anxious feelings and thoughts. How you relate to anxiety is important because it’s something you can control and change.

You can’t change your genes, but you can change what you do when anxious thoughts and feelings come up. And that makes a world of difference when you’re feeling anxious or worried.



Leonardo, E. D., & Hen, R. (2006). Genetics of affective and anxiety disorders. Annual Review of Psychology, 57, 117-137.

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Am I Going Crazy?

By: Dr. Anoosha Avni
Registered Psychologist

“Am I going crazy?”

This is a question I’m asked every week by some of my patients. When people come to see me, they’re experiencing symptoms that are out of the ordinary for them: rapid heartbeat, shortness of breath, stomach upset (peeing a lot or diarrhea), muscle tension, dizziness, headaches, irritability, insomnia, or lack of concentration. Some of my clients have experienced these symptoms for a few months while others have experienced them for many years. My answer is always the same:

No, you’re not going crazy.

The symptoms I’ve just described are typical of anxiety. Anxiety is the body’s natural response to danger. Think of anxiety as an automatic alarm that goes off when you feel threatened. For example, it’s normal to feel anxious or scared when you’re facing a challenging or stressful situation like an exam, a job interview, a presentation, a first date, or a confrontation with a friend, romantic partner, or co-worker.

Anxiety isn’t a bad thing in moderation. In fact, anxiety can help you stay alert and focused, get you going, and motivate you to solve problems. However, if your worries and fears are starting to feel overwhelming and are interfering with your daily life, you may have a problem with anxiety.

If you’re one of millions of Canadians who is experiencing the debilitating effects of anxiety, you’re not alone (though you may feel alone some days). You may think that nobody understands what you’re going through. You may have hidden the anxiety for so long that your family, friends, and co-workers would be shocked to learn that you’ve been struggling emotionally.

It’s important to remember that anxiety problems respond very well to treatment – and often in shorter amounts of time than you may think. While you may feel like you’re going crazy, it’s important to remember that you’re not. Help is out there if you’re ready.

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Being Too Nice Can Literally Make You Sick

By: Dr. Anoosha Avni
Registered Psychologist

In my private practice, I focus primarily on teens and adults struggling with anxiety. Over the years, I’ve noticed that the majority of my clients who struggle with anxiety all have one thing in common: They’re all nice. Too nice, actually. Their kindness and generosity was making them sick. Literally. They suffered from excessive worry, headaches, shakiness, muscle tension, irritability, sleep difficulties, nausea, and gastro-intestinal problems. Some even developed ulcers.

It was hard for many of my clients to accept that the very qualities they were taught were desirable were the very qualities that were making them sick. They were people-pleasers. They sought approval from everybody. They were afraid of saying “no.” They avoided conflict at all costs, even at the cost of their own health.

Out of the many theories of anxiety, the Hidden Emotion Model is one that a lot of people who struggle with anxiety can relate to. This model is based on the idea that niceness is the cause of all anxiety. People who are prone to anxiety are almost always people-pleasers who fear conflict and distressing emotions such as guilt and anger. They ignore the guilt and anger they’re afraid to express. They do this so well that they’re usually not aware they’re doing it. These distressing emotions resurface in disguised forms as anxiety, panic, worry, and fear.

When you expose the hidden, distressing feelings and solve the problem that’s bothering you, your anxiety will often decrease. Your health will improve and you’ll begin to see the world through a different lens. You’ll find the courage to set and maintain boundaries with others.

Remember: Being nice shouldn’t cost you your health.

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Go Ahead! Make A Mistake!

By: Dr. Anoosha Avni
Registered Psychologist

Did you grow up hearing that if you do things slowly and carefully enough, you won’t make any mistakes? Or that if you take the time to learn from other people’s mistakes, you can avoid making your own?

As well-meaning as this advice probably was, it likely did you more harm than good. How? By teaching you that it’s unacceptable to make mistakes and not to try anything new because of fear of failure. Research shows that perfectionists fear challenging tasks, take fewer risks, and are less creative than non-perfectionists

No wonder so many people struggle with perfectionism and the feelings of anxiety and fear that can come with it.

So how do you break free from perfectionism and allow yourself to make mistakes? Read on to find out:

1)Determine where your perfectionism comes from.

Many people are afraid to make mistakes because they’re afraid of being criticized or seen as incompetent by parents, teachers, friends, co-workers, or people in general. Were you judged harshly or criticized for making mistakes growing up? Were you singled out in class for making a mistake and ridiculed by your teacher or peers? Think about where your perfectionism comes from. These early childhood experiences can have a lasting effect on you.

2)Examine your beliefs about failure.

‘Failure’ is the other f-word that people don’t like to hear. Examine your thoughts about what would happen if you failed at something. For many people, if they fail at something, they automatically think that their mistake will lead to a catastrophe.

For example, I failed my very first midterm in university. When I received my mark, I automatically thought that I would fail out of university and end up poor and homeless. Obviously, these thoughts were illogical, but that’s the nature of perfectionism – perfectionism is illogical because nobody can be perfect. What are your beliefs about failure? Chances are, they’re probably illogical. Think of an instance when you were scared to fail or make a mistake. What’s the worst thing that could happen if you failed or messed up? What would happen after that? How do you think you’d handle it?

3)Find examples that prove your beliefs about failure are wrong.

I’ve failed more than one test since my first midterm in university and forgotten what to say during more than one presentation. Guess what? I didn’t get kicked out of school and become homeless. More importantly, the world didn’t come to an end. Can you think of any facts that challenge your beliefs about making mistakes?

4)Develop new and healthy beliefs.

One reason why we fear making mistakes is because of the negative or critical reactions of others to our screw-ups. When we see others respond negatively to our mistakes, we learn to think that making mistakes is bad. Yet making mistakes is actually a good thing! How else would you learn? Think about when you were learning how to ride a bike. If you hadn’t fallen off your bike a few dozen times, you wouldn’t be able to ride a bike today.

5)Allow yourself to make a mistake.

So many people beat themselves up for making a mistake that they lose sight of the fact that they’ve just been given a great learning opportunity. You may feel ashamed or embarrassed and tell yourself you’re a loser, an idiot, you’ve let down your family and friends, and think about your screw up over and over again. When you notice yourself doing this, stop and notice the emotions you’re experiencing and where you’re experiencing them in your body. Observe the thoughts going through your mind and label them as just that – thoughts. Thoughts are not facts. Ask yourself what you’ve learned from your mistake and how you might use what you’ve learned in the future.

It’s easy to feel the pressure to excel in a society where our worth is largely dependent on how others evaluate us. Yet if you wish to learn and grow, you need to allow yourself to not only make mistakes, but to also learn how to handle the inevitable disappointment that comes with making them.

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How to Stop Struggling Against Anxiety

By: Dr. Anoosha Avni
Registered Psychologist

In my previous post, I talked about why your anxiety isn’t getting better, no matter how much you exercise, sleep, eat better, or take vitamins or anti-anxiety medication. The reason is because these strategies teach you that anxiety is abnormal and should be avoided or managed in order to live a rich and fulfilling life.

So what are you supposed to do when anxiety starts to creep up on you?

The most important step you can take is to stop struggling against anxiety. Stop trying to control unwanted thoughts, feelings, images, fears, and worries. Stop the relentless tug-of-war. Allow yourself to feel the anxiety just as it is, in its entirety, without judgment, and without beating yourself up. One way of doing this is by practicing mindfulness.

Mindfulness involves paying attention to your present experience on a moment-to-moment basis in a curious, open, and nonjudgmental way. It involves being aware of what’s going on in your mind, body, and heart. Mindfulness is about connecting with yourself and appreciating the richness and fullness of each moment of life (yes, even those anxiety-filled moments!).

Mindfulness can help you learn to experience unwanted thoughts and feelings AND learn how to distance yourself from them so you can keep doing what you want to do, like go to the movies, ride on an airplane, take an elevator, meet new people, etc. Mindfulness can help you live a rich and full life, in spite of anxiety and fear.

When you’re no longer struggling against anxiety, you’re doing three things:

1) You’re acknowledging the struggle itself

2) You’re allowing yourself to experience just how exhausting and pointless that struggle is (and has been and will continue to be)

3) You’re facing how the struggle has kept you stuck in the same place for months, or even years. This can be an incredibly liberating experience

No longer fighting or running away from your anxiety is probably one of the hardest things you’ll ever do. Yet trying to control your anxiety will make your life worse, not better. Practicing mindfulness can help you become aware of what you’re avoiding while allowing you to experience unpleasant thoughts and feelings safely while developing self-acceptance and compassion for yourself.

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The Real Reason Why Your Anxiety Isn’t Getting Better

By: Dr. Anoosha Avni
Registered Psychologist

If you’re struggling with anxiety or worry, you’ve probably been told by well meaning friends, and even some health care professionals, to exercise more frequently, eat better, sleep more, make time each day for relaxation exercises, sign up for yoga, or take vitamin supplements or anti-anxiety medication.

Guess what?

None of these strategies will work in the long run. In fact, they can make the anxiety you’re experiencing worse.

How is this possible? What these strategies teach us is that intense anxiety is abnormal and must be avoided or managed to live a worthwhile life. This is not true. Intense anxiety is not abnormal; it’s not a sign of weakness; and it’s not a sign of ‘bad genes.’

Many people often confuse fear with anxiety. Fear is an intense, present-oriented emotion needed for survival when your health or safety is threatened. When you’re afraid, your body will do many things to make sure you get moving to take care of yourself, like increase your heartbeat and blood pressure, or stop digestion (who has the energy to digest a pie when you’re faced with a black bear?). Sometimes, your body will ‘freeze’ to prevent you from being harmed even further in the face of danger. These are all adaptive responses to fear that will help you take fast action to protect yourself.

Anxiety, by contrast, is a future-oriented emotion. People who are anxious feel a sense of doom, worry, or apprehension about the future. Their muscles become tenser. The bodily changes that accompany anxiety are much less intense than those associated with fear. Yet anxiety can last a lot longer than fear, sometimes for weeks, months, or even years. How is this possible? It’s because anxiety tends to be fed more by what your mind says than by real sources of threat or danger.

Anxiety is not the enemy; it’s the rigid avoidance of anxiety that’s preventing you from living a calmer and healthier life. Research has shown that avoidance is the most important factor responsible for turning anxieties, fears, and worries into serious physical and mental health problems. Avoidance means you’re running away from the people, places, or situations that bring about unpleasant feelings. No amount of exercise, sleep, or anti-anxiety medication will help with avoidance behaviours.

So if the well-meaning advice of your friends, family, and health care professionals isn’t helpful, then what can you do? Stay tuned for my next article on the most important step you need to take to stop struggling with anxiety and start living your best life.

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Who Are You Trying To Impress?

By: Dr. Anoosha Avni
Registered Psychologist

Do you find yourself exhausted most of the time, yet feel that you’re not doing enough?

Do you resolve to do things differently every year, but then fall back into the same habits?

Do people tell you that you take on too much or that you need to slow down?

Stop and ask yourself why you’re doing so much. Is it because you want to do it all? Or do you feel obligated to do it all? If you truly enjoy doing it all – making nutritious home cooked meals every day, keeping an immaculate home, making sure you buy the perfect gifts for the people in your life and truly feel satisfied, then keep doing it.

If you find yourself feeling more tired and resentful at the myriad of things you have committed to, then stop and ask yourself the following questions: Who is telling you to “do it all”? Do you feel like a failure if everything isn’t perfect? Do you think others will think you’re a failure if you haven’t done something “just so” or according to what you think are their standards?

Read no further if you truly enjoy doing everything for everybody and don’t feel an ounce of resentment when being pulled in many different directions by different people (and still enjoy making a ten course meal).

If, on the other hand, you find yourself doing things for others hoping to impress them, one-up them, seek their love or approval, or otherwise distract yourself from pain and hurt in other areas of your life, then it’s time to seriously re-evaluate why you are catering to the needs to others while neglecting your own health and well-being.

You’re not doing anybody any good by being unkind to yourself. If anything, you’re showing others how to treat you. And you’re probably not setting a very good example, right?

When you don’t treat yourself kindly, then why should others?

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Ten Tips for Living your Best Life

By: Dr. Anoosha Avni
Registered Psychologist

What does living your best life mean? It means honouring your most important values, needs, and complexities. It means living a life you are proud of. If you’re ready to live your best life, follow these ten tips:

1) Know what is truly important to you and why.

Take the time to write down what’s important to you and what’s not. Some questions to ask yourself: What makes you feel alive? What gives you purpose and meaning? What type of person would you loathe to become? What are you planning for and why? Your values are your compass, which help to draw the map of your life and guide you in your daily decision making.

2) Make your health a priority.

The time to make your health a priority is all the time. When life gets hectic, our health is often the first thing we compromise. Make sure you eat a balanced diet and drink plenty of water. Exercise regularly and consistently. Be emotionally healthy. Find a faith or spiritual community if this is important to you. When you don’t have your health, what do you really have?

3) Throw away the people-pleasing scripts.

Take charge of your life by making your own decisions. Learn to recognize and throw away the people-pleasing scripts that have been holding you back. Write your own script and make it your mission to live your life for yourself and not others. Create a life you feel good about.

4) Make mistakes.

It’s easy to feel the pressure to excel in a society where our worth is largely dependent on how others evaluate us. Yet if you wish to learn and grow, you need to allow yourself to not only make mistakes, but to also learn how to handle the inevitable disappointment that comes with making them.

5) Take responsibility for your life.

Your actions cause your rewards and consequences. Take control of your thoughts, feelings, and behaviours. Change the way you think. Take control of your feelings. Stop blaming your parents, siblings, friends, teachers, etc., for your problems. Don’t rely on anybody for your happiness, self-esteem, and financial security. Start taking control of your life.

6) Give back to your community.

Part of living your best life is sharing the lessons and gifts you were given with others. Volunteer. Be a mentor. Care about your community and the environment. Get involved in a cause that you’re passionate about. Think about the legacy you want to leave.

7) Re-think how you view romantic relationships.

A lot of people place too many expectations on their partner. Ask yourself why it is you expect your partner to meet all of your needs when you can have some of these needs met in other ways (e.g., through friends, family, hobbies, yourself). Don’t make someone your everything because when they’re emotionally or physically gone, you’ll have nothing.

8) Be kind and compassionate to yourself and others.

Treat yourself and others with the kindness, compassion, and respect that you wish to be treated with. Set and maintain healthy boundaries. Learn to give and accept compliments. Celebrate your accomplishments, no matter how small they may appear. Give yourself permission to live the life you want.

9) Surround yourself with supportive people.

Surround yourself with people who love and support you and accept you for who you are. Let go of negative, toxic, and dishonest people. How do you know which relationships need to be reconsidered? One sure fire way to know is to monitor how you feel before, during, and after a get together with someone. If you dread seeing that person, feel like your time with them is forced, and are relieved when it’s time to say good-bye, chances are, this relationship has run its course.

10) Learn to forgive.

Forgiveness is giving up the hope of a different past. While it’s important not to deny your past, it’s also vital not to let it define your future. Reframe the trials and tribulations you went through by learning from them and forgiving yourself for what you did or did not do, as well as the person who hurt you. Forgiveness is not for the person who hurt you; it’s for you.

Take a good look at how you’re living your life: Are you surviving or thriving? If you’re surviving, you’re settling. When you’re thriving, you’re living a life that fills your soul with vitality and energy. Make it your mission to live the life you truly want: your best life.

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The Importance of Values

By: Dr. Anoosha Avni
Registered Psychologist
What are your values?

This may seem like a silly question, but read it again and take a moment to think about it.

What are your values? What is important to you? Why is it important to you?

Part of living a healthy life means knowing what your values are. Values are the standards you choose to live your life by. Your values are your compass, which help to draw the map of your life and guide you in your daily decision making. They help you live a life that you feel passionate and excited about.

Many people are unaware of their value system. They may have been instilled with certain values growing up, but may come to a different conclusion about what’s important to them when they’ve reached a certain age or have accumulated more life experience. This is perfectly okay. Values can change according to age, life stage, or going through an experience that challenges us to rethink our standards.

What isn’t okay is living a life according to other people’s standards. Some people are afraid to live the life they want because they’re worried about what others will think of them.  When you let others dictate how to live your life, you are letting them impose their values onto you. For example, if you don’t think marriage is important for happiness or fulfillment, then don’t get married. If material wealth isn’t important to you, then don’t buy ‘stuff’ for the sake of having ‘stuff’.

Don’t be afraid to live the life you want because of what others may think. Let go of the ‘shoulds’ and ‘musts.’ Remember that what others think of you is actually a reflection of them. When they try to impose their values onto you, they are being selfish. What good can come out of a relationship in which somebody is telling you what you should think is important and, even worse, how to live your life?

The challenge for many people is to identify their values without letting others influence what these values should be.Forget what others want you to think is important. Remember that the key to failure is trying to please everybody.

Ask yourself not only what your values are, but why they’re important to you. When you know what’s important to you and why, the world will look and feel much clearer. You will make decisions more easily. You will live life more fully.

Most importantly, you will live your life on your own terms.

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Take Charge of Your Own Changes

By: Dr. Anoosha Avni
Registered Psychologist
Are you looking to change something in your life? In this podcast, host Michael Anne Conley includes an experiential exercise to support you in starting your changes.

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The One Step To Take To Achieve Your New Year’s Resolutions

By: Dr. Anoosha Avni
Registered Psychologist
It’s the beginning of a new year and, chances are, you’ve created some new year’s resolutions. You’ve probably heard that the majority of people who create new year’s resolutions don’t achieve them. This is true. Why is this the case?

One reason is because many people don’t track their progress.

You’ve probably thought long and hard about your new year’s resolutions. You may have even written them down, and that’s a great start.

But it’s not enough.

In order to maximize your chances of fulfilling your new year’s resolutions, you need to track your progress. This means measuring and tracking your efforts. Take the time to map out the efforts, steps, and actions you take along your journey, including the things that are hindering your progress. Write them down regularly.

In order to make tracking and measuring your efforts a regular part of your journey to fulfilling your new year’s resolutions, ask yourself these three questions on a weekly basis:

1)What have I tried this week to maximize my chances* of achieving my new year’s resolution?

2)What have I tried that isn’t working and, as a result, decreasing my chances of achieving my new year’s resolution?

3)What are the lessons I’m learning as I work towards fulfilling my new year’s resolution?

Be creative in your measurement efforts. It’s not all about numbers. And it’s not about whether you’ve fulfilled the final outcome of your new year’s resolutions. The lessons and insights you learn about yourself during this process are invaluable.

Happy New Year and happy tracking!

*An excellent resource for goal-setting is Allison Foskett’s book, “How Smart Women Achieve Big Goals – Motivation to Focus and Follow Through with your Life Dreams.” Allison developed a solid approach to goal-setting by reviewing the research on how people actually succeed in achieving their goals.

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