Many things — genetics, environment, life events, and so much more — can all play a role in the causes of anxiety.
Everyone experiences anxiety at some point, but if you live with an anxiety disorder, chances are you know how it makes you feel: tense, stressed, overwhelmed, and exhausted.
But what takes you from anxiety to anxiety disorder?
It turns out there are a lot of factors that go into what causes anxiety — your family history, genetics, environment, and the ways you learn to cope, for instance. If you live with anxiety, it’s likely caused by a unique blend of these.
Not all anxiety is harmful though. Some anxiety allows you to respond accordingly to a threat — but an anxiety disorder magnifies that response and applies it to situations that aren’t necessarily dangerous.
There are many factors that cause anxiety, and several things can contribute to having a higher chance of developing an anxiety disorder.
Anxiety and fear are usually thought of as nearly the same thing — but they’re different in a few key ways.
Differences between fear and anxiety depend on what causes them:
- Fear is an emotional and physical response to a present, known threat.
- Anxiety is emotional and physical anticipation of a threat in the future.
Both fear and anxiety involve your awareness of danger and risk. But while fear is linked more closely to the fight, flight, or freeze response of your sympathetic nervous system, anxiety also involves preparation for future danger.
Sometimes this future danger is a real threat, but other times it may be perceived or unlikely to actually happen.
If you’re always anticipating danger, you’ll likely feel tense and stressed. Meanwhile, your mind could be whirling round, replaying possibilities and scenarios.
Anxiety is distinct from fear in that it tends to cause people to overestimate danger.
To sum it up: Fear tends to be caused by the presence of danger — what causes anxiety can be a bit more complicated.
When people say, “Anxiety is all in your head,” they’re both right and wrong.
The fact that anxiety disorders start in the brain doesn’t make their effects on the rest of your body any less real.
Anxiety disorders affect how you think and react. They do this by activating your nervous system (that fight, flight, or freeze response) more often than necessary.
In other words, your body is amped up on anxiety even when you aren’t encountering something truly dangerous.
The amygdala is the part of your brain that prepares you to deal with threats. When you have an anxiety disorder, your amygdala may be triggered by situations that aren’t a threat. Once the amygdala is activated, it starts preparing your body to deal with the threat (even if it’s nonexistent).
It’s possible for your brain to become “wired” to respond with anxiety to certain situations. This is why many anxiety therapies focus on “rewiring” the brain to respond to anxiety triggers in ways that don’t cause unwarranted stress.
For example, many anxiety coping strategies focus on how you respond to anxiety.
Treating anxiety disorders often centers around recognizing patterns of thoughts and behaviors that lead to unnecessary anxiety, then consciously changing those patterns over time.
Anxiety doesn’t have just one cause. If you have an anxiety disorder, it’s probably due to a combination of factors including:
- learned coping patterns
- personality traits
- childhood and family history
- chronic stress
- traumatic events
- medical conditions
- substance or medication use
While it’s not necessary to know the causes of your anxiety disorder in order to manage it, this info may provide some context if you’re looking to gain a deeper understanding of anxiety.
Learned coping patterns
Anxiety disorders often stem from how you’ve coped with anxiety and its triggers in the past.
Everyone reacts to anxiety in one way or another. While some styles of reacting help you deal with the source of anxiety, others can actually increase your anxiety and make it more likely to return.
When a coping style makes it more difficult rather than easier to adapt, it’s called a maladaptive response or behavior.
For instance, if you use avoidance to cope with anxiety, you might procrastinate or avoid tasks or situations that make you feel anxious. This avoidance can increase your anxiety when you encounter these things in the future.
Genetics and family history
It’s fairly common for anxiety disorders (and other mental health conditions for that matter) to run in families.
Research suggests you have about a
Certain genes may also affect personality traits that have been linked to anxiety disorders.
For example, people with higher levels of neuroticism tend to have more anxiety and depressed mood. There may be at least some genetic aspect that means you may be more likely to have this trait.
Stress, especially early in life, could play a role in anxiety disorders. Exposure to the stress hormone cortisol may be why.
In a 2015 animal study, researchers found that when pregnant voles were subjected to stress, their offspring showed more signs of anxiety than the offspring of voles that weren’t stressed. These findings support the idea that exposure to stress hormones is connected to anxiety.
While it’s still not clear how big of a role stress plays in the development of anxiety disorders, growing evidence suggests it could be a contributing factor.
If you’ve been through a traumatic event or experienced abuse, it’s possible that you may have a higher chance of developing an anxiety disorder.
Some research supports the theory that living through trauma as a child could contribute to anxiety in adulthood.
For one 2017 study, participants who reported anxiety symptoms also reported that they’d had a hard time coping with childhood trauma.
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) also has some links to anxiety disorders.
According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), people with PTSD are about 80% more likely to have another mental health condition, including an anxiety disorder.
Some medical conditions cause anxiety. The DSM-5 lists the following medical issues that include anxiety as a potential symptom:
- hyper- and hypothyroidism
- heart problems
- lung conditions including asthma and pneumonia
- metabolism issues
- seizure disorders
In this case, anxiety caused by a medical condition refers to anxiety as a symptom of an illness. Health anxiety, on the other hand, involves worry about a medical condition.
If you have anxiety caused by an underlying medical condition, you might not even know you have a medical condition. Your doctor can help you find out where your anxiety comes from.
Medications and substance use
Many medications and other substances interact with your body chemistry in a way that can cause anxiety.
While anxiety is often a side effect of these substances, it may feel no different from any other kind of anxiety.
Substances that may cause anxiety include:
Some of these substances, such as sedatives, tend to cause anxiety only after you’ve stopped taking them as part of the discontinuation process or potentially, withdrawal.
When it comes to anxiety, knowing your risk factors can help in a couple of ways.
First, this knowledge can give you some background on what may be adding to or worsening your anxiety. It can also help you learn more about anxiety by showing when and where it tends to occur.
For instance, women are twice as likely as men to have an anxiety disorder.
Age may play a role in when you start experiencing anxiety. While anxiety can affect anyone of any age, being a young adult appears to be a risk factor.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), about 1 in 5 adults may develop an anxiety disorder, compared to about 1 in 3 teens. These statistics suggest that teens are more likely than adults to have an anxiety-related diagnosis.
It’s not uncommon for people with anxiety to wait to seek help or support. Diagnosis of generalized anxiety disorder peaks in middle age. This could mean that many people live with anxiety for years before getting a diagnosis.
There’s been some evidence to suggest that ethnicity is a factor for developing anxiety.
According to data from a 2020 Mental Health America survey, people of American Indian/Native American descent reported the highest levels of anxiety, followed by people who identified as white.
Hispanic participants reported higher levels of anxiety than Asian and Black participants.
These trends tend to line up with other reports on anxiety and ethnicity, but future studies can help provide more accurate data by reducing gaps in reporting. Health inequities may also play a factor in some data.
Certain personality traits have been connected to anxiety disorders. You may be more likely to have an anxiety disorder if:
- You’re “inhibited.” Psychologists use the term “behavioral inhibition” to refer to a cautious attitude toward new people or situations.
- You’re high in neuroticism. According to the Big Five personality scale, neuroticism is a tendency to experience more uncomfortable emotions or moodiness.
- You were a shy kid. Shyness in childhood is connected to higher chances of experiencing an anxiety disorder, especially social anxiety, as an adult.
- You tend to be a perfectionist. According to a 2020 study, you may be more likely to experience anxiety as an adult if you were sensitive to making mistakes during your teen years.
These personality traits are thought to stem from the way your temperament — how you’re genetically predisposed to act — interacts with your environment.
When it comes to environment as a risk factor for anxiety, research is mixed. Your environment can include your life circumstances, your physical surroundings, and your relationships.
Overprotective parenting styles and adversity in childhood have been connected to anxiety later in life.
In addition to your past environment, your present circumstances can also increase your risk of developing an anxiety disorder. Traumatic events and situations that put you under constant stress can heighten your risk of anxiety.
You may be wondering: If I can find out what causes an anxiety disorder, can I prevent one from developing in the first place?
While prevention isn’t always possible, anxiety disorders are highly treatable — especially when treatment addresses the ways you react to anxiety.
It’s also important to remember that everyone experiences anxiety from time to time. But if you have an anxiety disorder, strategies like medication, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), and other coping techniques can help.
If you believe your child may have anxiety, helping them learn to manage it and cope can help reduce the severity of anxiety they experience as an adult.
Children who experience anxiety may also be at risk for the following in adulthood:
How can you help a child with an anxiety disorder? Encouragement.
Children whose parents warmly encourage them to participate in activities — rather than parents who help their children avoid those activities — may have an easier time managing anxiety as adults.
If you’re still not sure if you have an anxiety disorder — and you want to find out — it can help to learn more about what these conditions look like.
There are a few types of anxiety disorders. You can read more about each of them and their symptoms below:
While each subtype of anxiety has its own set of symptoms, anxiety disorders can also affect people in similar ways.
Some common signs and symptoms of anxiety disorders may include:
- persistent feelings of worry
- a strong sense of overwhelm
- intense fear in certain situations
- muscle tension
- increased heart rate
- shortness of breath
- dizziness or lightheadedness
If you have an anxiety disorder, you may not experience every symptom on the list. Your symptoms can depend on the type of anxiety you experience and its severity.
Managing anxiety often involves learning more about what’s causing it.
While addressing anxiety early can make treatment easier, strategies exist to help you cope with anxiety however long you’ve had it.
Therapy is highly effective for learning to manage anxiety. A therapist can help you by taking a closer look at your beliefs, thoughts, and behaviors.
No matter the cause of your anxiety, there’s a coping strategy out there that fits your needs and goals. Learn more about treatment options for anxiety.
A variety of factors, including genetics, environment, coping patterns, and life events can contribute to anxiety.
Certain risk factors — like age and personality traits — may also help you understand if you’re more likely to develop an anxiety disorder.
It’s not always necessary to know the exact cause of your anxiety in order to manage your symptoms — after all, it’s often a combo of several things. But learning the contributing causes may help with your approach to treatment.