Anxiety is the most commonly reported mental illness in Australia today, with approximately 14% of Australians being affected by an anxiety disorder in any given year (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2007).

Did you know that anxiety is more common in survivors of childhood trauma than other people (Cougle, Timpano, Sachs-Ericsson, Keough, & Riccardi, 2010; Maniglio, 2013).

Anxiety and Child Abuse

A few facts

57.8% of people diagnosed with an anxiety disorder have suffered some form of childhood trauma (Hovens, Giltay, Wiersma, Spinhoven, Penninx, & Zitman, 2012).

What is Anxiety?

Most people feel stressed or worried from time to time, but this does not mean they have a problem with anxiety. Stress and worry are normal responses to any situation that puts someone under pressure. Anxiety is when these feelings don’t go away after the situation has changed or the pressure has been relieved. In other words, it continues for longer than it should and may not have an easily recognised cause. Everyone experiences stress, worry and anxiety now and then but if these feelings aren’t easily controlled or start to have negative impacts on day-to-day living, anxiety has become a problem (Beyond Blue, 2014).

Possible symptoms of anxiety

Anxiety symptoms may be emotional and/or physical in nature. Physical symptoms can occur due to our biological fight-fight-or-freeze response, which may become activated to protect us when we are exposed to actual or perceived danger (Smith, Robinson, & Segal, 2014).

Typical physical anxiety symptoms include:

  • Racing heart beat
  • Clammy skin/sweating
  • Sleeping difficulties
  • Headaches
  • Feeling short of breath
  • Feeling tired a lot of the time
  • Tenseness of muscles
  • Experiencing body tremors and/or twitches
  • A frequent need to urinate and/or diarrhea
  • Dizziness
  • Upset stomach

Anxiety can also produce emotional symptoms when we experience constant fear and worry in our lives. While the main emotional symptom of anxiety is experiencing an irrational and/or excessive level of fear relative to the perceived danger of a situation, other symptoms may be present (Smith, Robinson, & Segal, 2014).

Typical emotional symptoms of anxiety can include:

  • Feeling irritable or restless
  • Being overly alert to signs of potential danger
  • Expecting the worst
  • Decreased concentration
  • Feeling “zoned out” and that your mind has gone blank
  • Being overly jumpy and feeling tense
  • Feeling apprehensive and/or dreading situations

When we talk about childhood trauma, most people think of sexual abuse, incest, neglect, physical abuse, natural disasters and war. There is no doubt that all these things can result in anxiety. But childhood trauma may also include things like parental divorce, bullying, poor parenting, overly harsh discipline, and the death, injury or illness of close relatives or friends.

Our childhood experiences are unique, trauma can mean different things to different people, and sometimes these traumatic childhood experiences can result in anxiety. Particularly if you are trying to ignore your childhood experiences or minimise their impact you may well be suppressing the emotions and fear you felt which can lead to anxiety. That constant feeling that something bad is going to happen and that you must escape it by hiding/avoiding, getting angry, or turning to drugs and/or alcohol to numb the fear.

There are many effective treatments for anxiety but little focus exclusively on the role of childhood trauma in anxiety (Cuijpers, Sijbrandij, Koole, Huibers, Berking, & Andersson, 2014).

Research has shown us that people who don’t receive treatment for anxiety take longer to recover. The same is true for people who have suffered childhood trauma.

If you or a loved one suffer from anxiety and feel that your childhood experiences are a contributing factor, please call or email the HFL Foundation and we will help you.

If you are interested in the role of childhood trauma in anxiety or other psychiatric disorders, please see the Australian Trauma Recovery, Growth and Resilience Research Bulletin for some of the most current research in the field.


Australian Bureau of Statistics. (2007). National survey of mental health and well-being: Summary of results. Catalogue No. 4326.0. Canberra, ACT: Australian Bureau of Statistics.

Beyond Blue (2014). Anxiety. Retrieved from

Cougle, J. R., Timpano, K. R., Sachs-Ericsson, N., Keough, M. E., & Riccardi, C. J. (2010). Examining the unique relationships between anxiety disorders and childhood physical and sexual abuse in the National Comorbidity Survey-Replication. Psychiatry research, 177, 150-155.

Cuijpers, P., Sijbrandij, M., Koole, S., Huibers, M., Berking, M., & Andersson, G. (2014). Psychological treatment of generalized anxiety disorder: A meta-analysis. Clinical psychology review, 34, 130-140.

Hovens, J. G. F. M., Giltay, E. J., Wiersma, J. E., Spinhoven, P., Penninx, B. W. J. H., & Zitman, F. G. (2012). Impact of childhood life events and trauma on the course of depressive and anxiety disorders. Acta psychiatrica scandinavica, 126, 198-207.

Maniglio, R. (2013). Child sexual abuse in the etiology of anxiety disorders: A systematic review of reviews. Trauma, Violence, & Abuse, 14, 96-112.

Smith, M., Robinson, L., & Segal, J. (2014). Anxiety attacks and anxiety disorders. Retrieved from

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