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Complete List of Anxiety Causes - The Anxiety Guide

Anxiety is a disease. Those that have never had anxiety often do not understand what it is like to feel fear – or the symptoms of fear – 24 hours a day. They do not understand the heaviness of living with anxiety, and how it alters how you think, feel, and act.

But most of all, they don’t understand that no one wants to have anxiety. It’s not a choice. It has a cause. While the cause of anxiety is not the same for everyone, once anxiety forms, it is not something that simply goes away. Anxiety causes your brain and body to change in a way that makes you more susceptible to anxiety and its symptoms. It takes time to change your body back.

Yet long before you can cure anxiety, it helps to understand what caused it in the first place. Why were you one of the 20% of those that have anxiety? The following is a comprehensive guide to the causes of anxiety, and an exploration of what causes anxiety symptoms.

What Causes Anxiety Disorders?

It’s a question that is so difficult to answer. It’s not like having a cold - you can’t simply wake up with an anxiety disorder because you forgot to wash your hands before picking your nose.

Anxiety disorders are forged over years of experiences. They have a genetic component, an upbringing component, an environmental component. Every experience you’ve ever had can craft your anxiety disorder, just as any experience you’ve had in life can ensure you never get one.

Anxiety may even have no real cause at all.

There are also many forms of anxiety. There are different causes of OCD, causes of panic attacks, causes of PTSD, causes of generalized anxiety disorder, causes of phobias – every experience and every anxiety is unique in some way.

Still, the best way to understand what created your anxiety disorder is to break it down into the two main causes:

  • Biology
  • Environment

These do not account for all anxiety symptoms. In fact, anxiety can, in some ways, create itself – something that we will explore near the end of the guide. But generally, the two causes of anxiety are your body, and your experiences in the world around you.

Biological Causes of Anxiety Disorders

Genetics and biology play a role in the creation of anxiety disorders. Not only does anxiety appear to run in families - if you take two people with similar experiences, one may have an anxiety disorder, one may not, and the only difference between them may be genetic, or at least influenced by the body more than the mind. Biological causes include:

Deregulation of Brain Chemistry

Several studies have shown that brain chemistry imbalances are a very likely cause of anxiety disorders. This research has shown that those suffering from anxiety often have issues with several neurotransmitters (brain chemicals), including serotonin, norepinephrine and gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA).

It’s not entirely clear if the imbalance was due to poor coping strategies, or if the imbalances came first and lead to the experience of anxiety. Therapy - without any medicinal intervention - has been shown to improve chemical regulation, indicating that even though there may be a biological component, the mind can overcome them and improve the flow of neurotransmitters throughout the brain.

But in some cases, doctors prescribe medicines for these issues that are specifically designed to improve neurotransmitter regulation, and they can often work – at least in small doses. This indicates that neurotransmitters are something that can be changed both biologically and environmentally.

Serotonin, norepinephrine, and GABA also play a role in sleep, mood, and emotional stability, each of which can affect experiences that lead to anxiety disorders.

For more information, consider the following:

Brain Activity Alterations

In addition to the chemicals themselves, studies of brain imaging have shown that some people with anxiety have different brain activities than those without anxiety. Those with anxiety disorders may have anomalies in blood flow and brain metabolism, as well as structural abnormalities in different parts of the brain.

Don’t let this scare you, however. Studies have also shown that with effective anxiety treatments, these changes are only temporary – in other words, even if changes to your brain activity were due to some external factor (a natural change in the brain), it can still be improved with treatment.

These changes may also be a result of anxiety, rather than a cause of anxiety, indicating that they should disappear when your anxiety is treated.

For more information, consider the following:

Genetics

Studies have shown time and time again that some people are more genetically prone to anxiety disorders than others. Anxiety disorders appear to be passed down from parents and immediate family to children, especially with regard to panic disorder.

It’s not entirely clear what component of that is still related to upbringing (it’s also been shown that children that see anxiety in their parents are more likely to become anxious themselves), but there is still a genetic component at play. Those that have immediate family suffering from an anxiety disorder should be especially careful about reducing stress and anxiety in their lives.

For more information, consider the following:

Medical Factors

Less commonly, there may be some medical conditions that lead to increased anxiety. This occurs when some disease or illness effects the brain, causing a disruption in brain chemistry. In these cases, treating the underlying condition will generally prevent further anxiety.

Medical conditions can also be considered “environmental,” since you are not born with the issue. But it is still anxiety caused by your biology.

However, diseases that cause anxiety are less common than most people believe, and anxiety can make you fear that you have these conditions even without medical evidence. That is why it is best to assume that a medical condition is not causing your anxiety unless you already know you have a medical condition.

For more information, consider the following articles:

Environmental Causes of Anxiety Disorders

We have spent a lot of time on CalmClinic discussing the biological and genetic components of anxiety. But for most people, anxiety is going to be largely environmental. For some, it may be difficult to find the cause at all, because not all anxiety is as simple as pointing to a specific moment.

Even if you have a genetic predisposition to anxiety (such as parents with anxiety), your environment is going to play a key role in whether that anxiety affects you. Most believe that environment plays a triggering role in anxiety disorders, and in some cases may cause anxiety disorders by themselves.

In this case, environment includes everything that is not genetic - every experience you have, every place you go, and everything you’ve been taught.

According to a study of monozygotic twins (identical twins) and dizygotic twins (fraternal twins), monozygotic twins - who both share the same DNA - were twice as likely to develop anxiety disorders than fraternal twins, but in each of these cases their genetics did not guarantee an anxiety disorder, which indicates that environment still plays a role.

It’s also strongly believed that men and women can develop anxiety disorders from the environment alone. This is supported by the idea that anxiety can be treated without any medicine or surgery, indicating that a great deal of mental health is forged by life experiences.

Common environmental causes of anxiety include:

Stress

Traumatic life events can cause anxiety disorders. But simple life stress is easily one of the most common reasons that people develop anxiety. Stress - especially long term stress, like one would experience in a job they disliked or in a relationship that was emotionally damaging - appears to create anxiety disorders.

The link between stress and anxiety is extensive. Those that feel stress for any reason tend to be significantly more likely to struggle with anxiety than those that have not experienced long term stress. The reason for this isn’t entirely clear, but has been linked to many theories. The possible reasons stress causes anxiety include:

  • Stress may weaken the part of the brain that controls coping or anxiety control.
  • Stress may affect the balance of hormones, neurotransmitters, and nutrition.
  • Stress may overwhelm the mind, making it harder to push anxiety away.

Many of those with panic attacks (although not all) will report that their first ever panic attack occurred during a period of stress, like a bad relationship, a bad job, overcoming a breakup, feeling overwhelmed in school, etc. PTSD is almost literally an anxiety disorder brought on by the trauma of a stressful event. These are all common links between stress and anxiety.

This is made more complicated by the idea that stress may create itself.

We mentioned that stress may weaken a part of the brain that helps you cope (or the system your brain has in place to cope with stress). As a result, you may not be able to handle stress as easily in the future.

Thus, events that would normally not cause you stress do end up causing you stress, which in turn weakens your coping ability even more. That is why even those that say they were not under a lot of stress when they had anxiety may have still struggled to cope as a result of stress they were under in the past.

Many of those that suffer from persistent stress for an extended period of time find that the anxiety and stress doesn’t leave them, even if the stressful situation goes away.

Stress, in some form, is likely to be one of the main environmental factors that causes anxiety.

For more information, consider the following:

Upbringing/Life Experiences/Parenting

Your life is forged on millions of experiences, and each of these experiences can promote or prevent developing an anxiety disorder.

  • You can learn anxiety from your parents, simply by watching the way they react to fear when you’re younger.
  • You can also learn anxiety from their teachings. If your parents tell you to fear things when you’re younger, you can grow up to be a more anxious person.
  • You can create social phobia simply because of a few poor social reactions in your youth.
  • You can become fearful as a result of bullying, or you can develop anxiety because you’re worried about school, teachers, classmates.

Anxiety disorders can be forged or prevented in nearly every life experience you’ve had, sometimes in small ways and sometimes in much larger ways.

We’ll discuss the larger ways in a moment (in the “trauma” section) but even the smallest interaction – an awkward phone call with a friend, comparing yourself with people on Instagram, not having someone respond fast enough to your text – all of these can build or take away from anxiety in some small way.

This is often why anxiety is also complex to treat. Small things can create larger setbacks. But the right decisions and choices still have the power to eliminate anxiety in the future.

Trauma

Specific traumas may also lead to the development of anxiety disorders. Traumas are forms of severe, instant stress, caused by an external factor – near death experiences, violence, sexual assault, witnessing death, and much more.

This is especially common in those with PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), but may also affect those with generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, social phobia, and more. Trauma can occur at any time in life and can affect you right away, or possibly not until years later (some children that experienced trauma get anxiety only in adulthood).

Trauma not only seems to cause anxiety – it also seems to change a person’s anxiety baseline, like so:

Essentially, before trauma, the person had a lot of stress they could handle before they reached the “red” phase – a phase of extreme stress. But then after trauma, the person starts at a higher number. While at “low stress” they may not feel much stress that all. But it takes much less stress for it to become quickly overwhelming, because they don’t have much more they can handle.

Trauma is not the most common cause of anxiety, but those that have experienced trauma are likely more prone to getting it.

Change

Change can actually lead to anxiety disorders as well. Some people adapt to change quickly, but many others do not. This includes smaller changes, like a new job or a new home, or larger changes, like the loss of a loved one, a divorce, or a significant move.

Change puts people in an emotional place that feels unfamiliar, and that unfamiliarity can lead to significant stress and ultimately the creation of an anxiety disorder.

Abuse/Neglect

This can likely fit under “trauma” but deserves its own special section.

As children and as adults, abuse and neglect can also lead to the creation of anxiety disorders. Some psychologists point to a person’s childhood as the sole creator of anxiety, and often believe that abuse and neglect as children play significant roles.

But in reality, some form of abuse and neglect can occur at any time. Those in emotionally damaging relationships, for example, often find that the emotional instability these relationships create ultimately ends up leading to anxiety. Both abuse and neglect can create very powerful responses, and anxiety is one of these responses.

Anxiety Caused by Anxiety

Anxiety is also self-sustaining. Earlier we mentioned panic attacks, and how they can often be caused by periods of stress that become overwhelming. But once you’ve had your first panic attack, you may get them again and again because of a fear of panic attacks, or because your body becomes more attuned to how it feels, which ultimately triggers them in the future.

We see this in other ways too:

  • If you found yourself nervous about a plane ride, you might be fearful on future plane rides.
  • If you find yourself worried about a negative thought, you may have that thought more often.
  • If you experienced severe anxiety symptoms, you may be anxious about experiencing them again.

Essentially, anxiety and a fear of anxiety symptoms can create more anxiety in the future. They become their own self-sustaining cycle. So even justifiable anxiety (like feeling nervous because your child or parent has not answered their phone in 2 days) can lead to unprompted anxiety.

Anxiety Caused by Lifestyle Habits

Never underestimate the effect your lifestyle can have on your anxiety levels. For example, some research has shown that those that do not exercise are more prone to developing anxiety, because their body has unused energy, and because they start producing less stress coping hormones.

Similarly, although diet does not traditionally cause significant anxiety, it can still play a role. Caffeine, for example, can exacerbate mild anxiety symptoms. Unhealthy foods can cause you to feel unhealthy, which in turn causes stress that leads to anxiety. Drug use is frequently a cause of anxiety.

This is why even with therapy and medicine, a change to lifestyle habits is often necessary.

For more information, consider the following:

Anxiety Caused by Nothing at All

Anxiety is rarely caused by nothing. But the causes of anxiety can be so minute – so minor – that trying to figure out what caused it may not help. Even those that experienced a trauma they can point to as a cause of their anxiety may have experienced other issues along the way that put them at risk for developing anxiety.

So while environment may have played a role, it is also important to note that finding your anxiety causes may not result in any actionable information.

Understanding the Causes of Anxiety is Part of the Journey

Anxiety disorders are often incredibly complex - much more complex than many people want to give it credit for. It may be hard to figure out the exact cause of your anxiety, and in some cases, there may not be a specific cause to point.

But understanding the potential causes of anxiety are still important. And perhaps even more important is understanding that no matter what caused your anxiety, it can always be treated.

It doesn’t matter whether the cause of your anxiety was biological or environmental - anxiety is a treatable condition, and if you make smart decisions you can even cure your anxiety completely, no matter how you were raised or how your body is designed to react.

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