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Anxiety Disorder Causes - Myths & Reality

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 eating.

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.

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

  • Biology
  • Environment

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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.

Serotonin, norepinephrine, and GABA also play a role in sleep, mood, and emotional stability. If you haven't yet, make sure you take our free 7 minute anxiety symptoms test.

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


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.

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. 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.

Environmental Causes of Anxiety Disorders

Of course, even in those with a genetic component, most believe that environment plays a triggering role in anxiety disorders, and in some cases may cause anxiety disorders by themselves. In this cases, 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:


There are certainly some very serious causes of 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.

How you react to stress and cope with stress plays a significant role in your ability to prevent stress from causing an anxiety disorder, and 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.

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. 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 are either forged and prevented in nearly every life experience you've had, sometimes in small ways and sometimes in much larger ways.


Specific traumas may also lead to the development of anxiety disorders. 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 early in life has the potential to have serious, long term repercussions that may lead to anxiety later in life.


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.


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 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.

Still, the most important thing to remember with all of these environmental causes of anxiety is that in some cases you may never know exactly what lead to your anxiety symptoms.

Anxiety could have been created in your childhood as a result of the way that your parents raised you. But it also may have been created by smaller interactions that you've had over the course of your life, each one reinforcing the anxiety you experienced. Psychologists will often try to work with you to discover the origin of your anxieties, but in some cases the answer may never be known, because it may have developed over the course of years of minor experiences that ultimately left you feeling more anxious.

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 it may be almost entirely genetic related - indicating that you may have developed your anxiety through nothing more than your genes.

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.

There are countless anxiety causes, but there are also effective anxiety treatments. I've helped many people overcome their anxiety, and to start, I always tell them to learn more about anxiety causes and take my 7 minute anxiety test. It's a test designed to take the answers you provide about your anxiety and give recommendations for next steps in controlling it completely.

So if you haven't done so yet, take the test here.


Skre I, Onstad S, Torgersen S, Lygren S, Kringlen E. A twin study of DSM-III-R anxiety disorders. Acta Psychiatr Scand. 1993 Aug;88(2):85-92. PubMed PMID: 8213211.

Steven G. Kinsey, Michael T. Bailey, John F. Sheridan, David A. Padgett, Ronit Avitsur, Repeated social defeat causes increased anxiety-like behavior and alters splenocyte function in C57BL/6 and CD-1 mice, Brain, Behavior, and Immunity, Volume 21, Issue 4, May 2007, Pages 458-466, ISSN 0889-1591, 10.1016/j.bbi.2006.11.001.

Maddux, James E. (Ed), (1995). Self-efficacy, adaptation, and adjustment: Theory, research, and application. The Plenum series in social/clinical psychology., (pp. 69-107). New York, NY, US: Plenum Press, xvii, 395 pp.

Causes of Anxiety. Student Life and Counseling. Belmont, n.d. Web.

Serotonin in Anxiety. Malacasater, n.d. Web. 08 Dec. 2012.

Cowely, D.S. (1991). The Biology of Generalized Anxiety Disorder. Chronic Anxiety, p.p. 52-75.

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