If you suffer from anxiety – or, chronic bouts of nervousness, fear, sweating, trembling, sleeping issues, and more (1) – you’re not alone. In fact, anxiety is the most common mental illness in the US (2), with 18.1% (40 million) of all adults suffering every year from various anxiety disorders, like generalized anxiety disorder, social anxiety disorder, and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) (2).
In current scientific literature, it is commonly acknowledged that anxiety could stem from many complex but well-known causes, like brain chemistry, anxiety-causing foods, personality disorders, and traumatic life events (3):
However, there is one potential cause of anxiety that remains seldom discussed among the general population today – narcissistic abuse.
Narcissistic Abuse May Cause Anxiety Disorders
Narcissistic abuse refers to the mental and physical harm inflicted by severely self-centered people (i.e. narcissists).
By definition, narcissists think highly themselves and desire admiration from others, but lack the ability to care about others (4). As a result, they may appear charming at first to win your admiration, only to become demanding and manipulative later on, when you eventually turn your attention to other aspects of your life. However, for all the love and attention they force out of you, narcissists will only return your feelings when it serves them (i.e. when they “feel like it”). Consequently, people who are close to narcissists may find themselves feeling neglected, guilt-tripped, unworthy of love, and extremely anxious (4).
Accordingly, studies have confirmed a strong link between abuse in adulthood – like domestic violence and abuse from a narcissistic partner – and the presence of many physical and mental health issues, as well as anxiety (5).
But what about narcissistic abuse from childhood?
Recent studies indicate that narcissistic abuse from childhood could contribute to the formation of anxiety disorders, both in youth and later in life. After all, narcissistic abuse experienced in one’s childhood can have detrimental effects on one’s physical and mental health, in both the short-term and long-term. Indeed, bullying behavior and systematic abuse of power (6) – such as verbal abuse and threats from narcissistic parents (7) or traumatic physical abuse (9)- can make the child internalize and externalize their hurt feelings (8).
Mentally, the child may develop low self-esteem, anxiety, depression, and PTSD, both in the short term and in adulthood. (11, 12). Physically, the child may also act out, developing delinquent behavior, substance abuse, anxiety, and aggression (11), both in their youth and later in life (10, 13).
In other words, narcissistic abuse in both childhood and adulthood may contribute to the development and exacerbation of anxiety disorders!
How to Recognize Signs of Narcissistic Abuse
The problem with any type of abuse is that the symptoms can be hard to difficult to spot due to denial, self-victimization, or emotional manipulation (14).
So take some time and review the signs of narcissistic abuse below. You might have experienced narcissistic abuse in your childhood – or more recently – if you have experienced the following from people close to you (4, 15) :
- Abuse and manipulation. The abuser verbally or physically belittled or bullied you. The abuser was always “right” – and made you believe you were responsible for their unhappiness.
- Blackmail. The abuser criticized you harshly if you did not behave as they wanted you to. The abuser withheld love or friendship from you as a conditional reward to control your behavior, rather than giving them to you unconditionally.
- Gaslighting. The abuser often made you doubt yourself – or made you feel incompetent by constantly comparing you to people who are more accomplished than you.
- Exploitation and isolation. The abuser took advantage of your feelings and generosity for their personal gain. The abuser ignored your personal boundaries and kept you isolated from supportive friends or family members.
- Lying and cheating. The abuser constantly lied to you or cheated on you, whether to avoid responsibility, stroke their ego, or achieve their selfish ends. The abuser spread gossip and lies about you.
- Neglect. The abuser was supportive only when they felt like it. The abuser did not reciprocate your friendship, love, or respect when you truly needed them.
- Projection (in the case of a narcissistic parent). The abuser sought to live vicariously through you and loved you only when you acted in accordance with their wishes (i.e. just like them). The abuser depended on you to emotionally or mentally support them – and they wanted you to be dependent on them, so that you may never leave them.
Tips for Dealing with Narcissistic Abuse and Anxiety
If you have experienced the above symptoms in childhood or are undergoing similar experiences now, consider following the tips below (16, 17):
- Seek professional help. If you are in immediate physical or emotional danger, or in a situation where you cannot get away from the abuser without serious difficulty, you should contact the police, a medical professional, a helpline, or a local shelter for victims of abuse. If you’re not in immediate danger, consider contacting a psychotherapy professional to discuss any mental traumas from the past or present.
- Cut ties with the abuser. In many cases, the best option for dealing with an abusive acquaintance, friend, significant other, or family member is to ignore them or break ties with them as soon as possible. Minimize the time you spend with your abuser and foster relationships with positive, supportive others instead.
- Keep a positive outlook. Recognize that the abuse was not your fault and that your abuser was wrong about you. You have immense worth – and there are many ways you can overcome abuse.
- Learn more about narcissistic abuse here and here, courtesy of Psychology Today.
As for anxiety, you should always consult a doctor or medical professional if you experience severe anxiety that does not improve over time.
Anxiety is, in reality, highly treatable (2), usually by way of talk-based psychotherapy in conjunction with medication like selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs)(18). Consider undergoing highly effective methods of psychotherapy, like cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT)(19):
If you would prefer to try alternative treatment options or lifestyle changes before contacting medical professional professionals, try following these tips first:
- Eat healthier. Ditch sugary, processed foods and start eating more fruits, vegetables, healthy proteins, and good fats instead. A regular diet full of healthy fats and very little added sugar can help prevent and reduce anxiety (20). Additionally, try these naturally anxiety-reducing foods.
- Cut down on alcohol and drugs. Substance abuse disorder, as well as heavy alcohol and drug use, have been strongly associated with the presence and development of anxiety disorders (1, 6).
- Stay active for at least 30 minutes a day. Exercise and physical activity can help prevent and reduce anxiety (1, 21). Even light exercises, like chair stretches or walking instead of taking the bus, may help.
- Aim to get at least 7 hours of sleep each night. Sleeping difficulties have been strongly associated with anxiety disorders (22, 23). Consult medical professionals to help you sleep – or try these methods to improve the quality and duration of your sleep.
- Practice meditation. Try to practice mindfulness exercises, like these yoga stretches, as often as you can. Mindfulness meditation has been shown to help reduce anxiety (24, 25).
- Seek social support. Try to spend more time with supportive friends and family members. Strong social networks may help reduce anxiety and increase resilience to anxiety-causing stresses (26, 27).
- Learn to manage your time effectively. Following an efficient schedule can help structure your life and give you more time to practice anxiety-fighting mindfulness (28).
- Learn more about dealing with anxiety from the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. (29)
Anxiety can be difficult to deal with, especially if it stems from past or present narcissistic abuse from people you trusted, respected, or loved. But by recognizing and seeking the right help, you can move on from painful experiences – and start living a better, healthier life, surrounded by people who truly care about you.