The reality is, scientists don’t really know what causes depression and anxiety. Although there are a number of theories about the root of mental illness, ranging from chemical imbalances to childhood trauma, they’re just that — theories. Whether or not depression and anxiety are caused by genetics, environment or some combination of the two, is still a matter of debate, but that hasn’t stopped many young people from blaming (and sometimes invoicing) their moms and dads for their psychological struggles.
Or as many Twitter users put it: You break it, you buy it.
As convenient of a conclusion as this is, new research from the University of South Australia reveals it might not be true. So when psychology PhD candidate Bianca Kahl noticed that earlier studies showing an association between childhood environment and mental health hadn’t been replicated with larger samples and improved measurement strategies, she decided to uncover the data with the help of psychology professors David Gleaves and Phil Kavanagh. “The inspiration for this study was to test some assumptions about the role of early developmental influences from an evolutionary theory, and the extent to which they may or may not influence people’s mental health as an adult,” Kavanagh tells me.
After analyzing the childhoods of over 300 adults, they found that although trauma and unstable environments resulted in higher rates of depression, anxiety and paranoia in adulthood, the flipside was far more surprising: People who had happy childhoods weren’t protected against mental illness in any significant way. Kavanagh suspects that mental distress has more to do with a discrepancy between people’s expectations of life and their reality. This explains why our childhoods are relevant, but not to the extent that we tend to think. “Our early environments set up a blueprint for how we might expect the world to be and how to interact with others,” Kavanagh says. “If the world doesn’t fit that blueprint, we may find ourselves struggling to appropriately adapt and cope.”
So if you get lucky and grow up having parents who meet your every need, it makes sense why you might become chronically disappointed by people who fall short of this, which is almost anyone and which can cause depression, anxiety and plenty of other problems. “If, as children, we learn how to adapt to change, and we learn how to cope when things do not go our way, we may be in a better position to respond to stress and other risk factors for poor mental health,” Kahl said in a statement. “Testing this hypothesis is the focus of the next research study.”
This is partially why many therapists use cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) more than Freudian forms of psychoanalysis; it takes the focus off the past and helps people reframe their perspective on the present. It also explains why many individuals who had challenging childhood experiences tend to have higher levels of resilience, or the ability to cope with high levels of stress and come back from crisis quickly, because they aren’t weighed down by the same entitled expectations of what life should be like.
“Parents may have done a brilliant job and then someone gets into an abusive relationship or experiences bullying at work, or a traumatic event; that’s not the parents’ fault,” Kavanagh says. Of course, in some cases, looking at your childhood for potential patterns that led up to mental health issues can be useful, “but the solution isn’t in the past, it’s now and in the future,” he stresses.
The good news is that although we can’t change how we were raised, we can shift our expectations about what life should be through therapy, meditation and talking out our disappointments with supportive friends and family. The bad news is that it takes a lot of fucking practice. And the worst news of all? You probably owe your parents an apology.