There’s no single cause for anxiety. Anxiety disorders can be caused by several possible factors including difficult life experiences, poor physical health, genetic factors, personality, or even an imbalance in hormones or brain chemicals. The exact cause of specific anxiety disorders is not known. Each person who experiences anxiety can have unique causes.
Here, we’re looking at what researchers have learned about the triggers of anxiety. We’ll also review the most common known causes of anxiety and offer practical advice about what you can do to ensure long-term, effective symptom management.
What Research Says About What Triggers Anxiety
According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), anxiety disorders including generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), social anxiety disorder (SAD), panic disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), are more prevalent today than ever before.
In fact, anxiety disorders are the most common type of mental health condition in most western societies. In the United States, about 1 in 3 people will experience some type of anxiety disorder in their lifetime. Chronic anxiety disorders are a leading cause of global disability.
A lot of research continues to explore what causes anxiety disorders and what triggers anxious episodes. Many experts believe that a variety of things, including everyday social stressors and genetic factors, can be an anxiety trigger.
While much past research on anxiety triggers focused on the amygdala and hippocampus in the brain, newer research suggests that a tiny region in the basal forebrain called the bed nucleus of the stria terminalis (BNST) may hold the key in how to recognize and how to treat anxiety disorders. More research is still needed to fully understand the complex interrelationships between different areas of the brain that process and respond to danger and can contribute to anxiety.
9 Most Common Causes of Anxiety
What causes anxiety disorder? There are numerous things that can contribute to anxiety and eventually lead to an anxiety disorder. Let’s take a look at the nine most common.
Alcohol or substance use
It’s not uncommon for someone living with anxiety to try and numb their pain and stress with alcohol or drugs. Sometimes, however, use can lead to dependency and addiction. Ultimately, some research shows that drugs and alcohol can result in increased anxiety sensitivity (AS).
Everyday stressors like paying the bills, dealing with family problems, or coping with the death of a loved one can take a toll on our psyches. Major life events like getting married, having a baby, or buying a home are also known causes of anxiety.
While it’s normal to feel stressed out now and then, if you’re constantly and excessively trying to cope with or manage your anxiety condition, and it’s interfering with your ability to function, it might be time to seek help.
“Our environment can be a major contributor to how anxious we feel. Limiting our exposure to anxiety producing stimulation may be the first line of defense.”Talkspace therapist Karmen Smith, LCSW, DD
Although more research still must be done on the topic, growing evidence suggests that genetics can play a role in anxiety disorders. If one or both of your parents dealt with anxiety, you might have a higher risk of developing an anxiety disorder too.
“We are learning more and more about the cause and the genetic markers that can make some more susceptible to severe or chronic episodes of anxiety. This also may mean that there are multiple causes that can be identified and different treatment modalities.”Talkspace therapist Karmen Smith, LCSW, DD
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) notes that some studies suggest females are more likely to experience anxiety than males. They’re also more likely to develop certain chronic anxiety disorders than males, including:
- Post-traumatic stress disorder
- Generalized anxiety disorder
- Separation anxiety disorder
- Specific phobias
- Panic disorder
However, males may be more likely than females to develop obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) or social anxiety disorder. The reasons why are unclear, but they’re believed to be related to a combination of cultural, social, and biological factors.
Some research suggests some personality traits can increase the risk factors of developing an anxiety disorder. A study of 489 university students over 6 years suggests that people who tend to experience negative feelings and depression are often more prone to developing an anxiety disorder.
Witnessing or experiencing sexual abuse, physical abuse, an explosion, or any other type of violence may increase your risk of developing anxiety. It’s important to point out that it doesn’t have to be you who experiences trauma first hand or directly. You can be a witness and still be affected deeply.
Many people experience acute stress disorder (ASD) after witnessing a terrible incident, but often the anxiety symptoms self-resolve. Lingering symptoms of anxiety, however, might indicate a chronic anxiety disorder like PTSD.
Medical causes of anxiety
Certain physical health conditions can contribute to anxiety and stress, including:
- A chronic disease or illness that affects daily life
- A hormonal imbalance or other medical condition that’s marked by anxiety
- A disease that presents very challenging physical symptoms, such as heart palpitations associated with heart disease
Note that these health conditions don’t necessarily cause anxiety, but they can contribute to it.
Mental health conditions
Though anxiety on its own can be considered a mental health condition, additional mental health conditions can exacerbate an anxiety disorder. Co-occurring disorders may include substance abuse, eating disorders, and depression.
Various prescription medications can cause anxiety as an adverse side effect. Some of the culprits could include corticosteroids like dexamethasone, asthma medications like fluticasone-salmeterol, ADHD drugs like Ritalin, and Parkinson’s disease drugs like Rytary.
“It is important to keep in mind that we are unique individuals and one mode of treatment may not fit with your specific blueprint. Be open to being an active participant in finding ways to decrease your anxiety.”Talkspace therapist Karmen Smith, LCSW, DD
Understanding More About Anxiety
Learning more about anxiety can help you figure out how to manage your symptoms. Everyone is different, and anxiety manifests uniquely in each person. What can cause anxiety? The main theory is that it’s likely caused by combined physiological, physical, and psychological factors.
Remember that it’s not always easy to identify what’s causing your anxiety, and changing difficult circumstances to address it might not be simple. That said, one of the best things you can do is recognize symptoms and signs of anxiety as they occur. Then you can take some of the proactive steps to calm yourself down and not let your anxiety get the best of you.
Get help: Scheduling regular time with a mental health professional is a good way to tackle your anxiety symptoms. You’ll learn new, effective coping skills. There are also many things you can do on your own, at home, beginning today, to alleviate anxiety.
Meditation: Consider practicing mindfulness meditation and deep breathing exercises. Meditation has the potential to complement therapy for anxiety and is a low-cost and beneficial way to manage your anxiety condition.
Eat healthy, workout, create a sense of calm: If you don’t already, you should consider eating a healthy diet of unprocessed foods, getting exercise every day, and engaging in peaceful, relaxing activities — like diffusing relaxing essential oils, burning candles, listening to tranquil music, enjoying the serenity of nature, taking a warm Epsom salt bath, getting a massage, or engaging in stimulating conversations with loved ones. These natural remedies for anxiety can go a long way and can be a great addition to therapy and medication.
If you’re ready to get help with your anxiety, Talkspace makes the process easy. Our online therapy is geared toward those who want help, but might have trouble finding the time. With a holistic treatment approach to anxiety, you can acquire a variety of tools you need to manage your anxiety.
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