What Causes Anxiety?

Mar 20, 2023

Many individuals fail to identify their anxiety symptoms and instead perceive them as indications of a personal flaw or issue. Some individuals fixate on the physical symptoms of anxiety, such as shortness of breath, increased heart rate, or stomach aches. In contrast, others find it challenging to comprehend the experience, which only exacerbates their anxiety and self-awareness. Therefore, the initial step in managing anxiety successfully is learning to recognize and understand it.


What is Anxiety?

Anxiety is a feeling of unease and worry often exaggerated in response to a situation perceived as threatening. It can cause physical symptoms such as muscle tension, restlessness, fatigue, difficulty breathing, stomach tightness, nausea, and difficulty concentrating. Anxiety is linked to fear, a response to an immediate threat, while anxiety involves anticipating future threats. Those experiencing anxiety may avoid situations that previously triggered their anxiety.


Anxiety and Anxiety Disorders

Anxiety is a multifaceted reaction to perceived or real threats, encompassing changes in thoughts, bodily sensations, and actions. When the brain perceives danger, the release of adrenaline triggers the fight-or-flight response, which leads to various anxiety symptoms. Some people may experience anxiety in social situations or around important events.

In some cases, the intensity or duration of anxiety symptoms may be disproportionate to the original trigger, and physical symptoms such as increased blood pressure and nausea can also occur. If these symptoms persist, they can become anxiety disorders, disrupting daily life.

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Anxiety and Anxiety Disorders

Understanding Anxiety Disorder

Anxiety disorder is a mental health topic that causes an excessive and overwhelming fear or dread of specific situations or stimuli. Physical symptoms, including sweating and a rapid heartbeat, accompany it.

Although some level of anxiety is normal and helpful in alerting us to potential dangers, an anxiety disorder goes beyond this occasional nervousness. It can interfere with daily functioning, causing an individual to overreact or lose control when triggered.

This disorder can make it challenging to manage day-to-day activities. However, there are several effective treatments available to manage anxiety disorders.


Different types of Anxiety Disorders.

The DSM-5-TR is a classification system for mental health disorders that outlines different types of anxiety disorders. In earlier versions, OCD, PTSD, and acute stress disorder were categorized under anxiety disorders, but the current manual no longer groups these conditions as anxiety disorders.

Anxiety disorders are now classified into several main types, which include:


Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD)

Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) is a persistent condition characterized by excessive and prolonged worrying about various life events, situations, and objects without a specific trigger. It is the most frequent type of anxiety disorder, and those who suffer from it may be unable to pinpoint the cause of their anxiety.


Panic Disorder

Panic disorder is characterized by sudden and short-lived episodes of intense fear and anxiety, which can cause physical symptoms such as shaking, confusion, dizziness, nausea, and breathing problems. These panic attacks tend to arise quickly and may escalate rapidly.

While the panic disorder can result from traumatic experiences or prolonged stress, it can also occur without any apparent trigger.



A phobia is an anxiety disorder characterized by an intense and adamant fear of a specific situation or object. This fear can arise suddenly and lasts for at least six months. People with phobias often go to great lengths to avoid the object or situation that causes their fear, even if the perceived danger is insignificant. If they cannot avoid the object or situation, they experience absolute distress.


Separation Anxiety

Separation anxiety disorder is when individuals experience high anxiety upon separation from someone or somewhere that provides a sense of security or safety. While it is most commonly seen in young children, it can affect individuals of any age.


Biological Factors

What is the role of genetics in anxiety disorders?

While researchers are not entirely sure what causes anxiety disorders, studies suggest genetics may play a significant role. Individuals with biological relatives with anxiety disorders or other mental illnesses are likelier to develop anxiety disorders. Decades of research have explored the hereditary connections in anxiety, with studies linking specific genes to generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, and social anxiety disorder.


Can Anxiety Disorders be inherited?

The development of anxiety disorders can be influenced by genetics to a certain degree. Research indicates that anxiety disorders have a hereditary component, and people with a family history of anxiety disorders are more likely to develop them. Nonetheless, genetics alone cannot entirely account for the emergence of anxiety disorders.

Other factors, such as environmental influences and personal life experiences, also significantly affect their development. Therefore, having a family history of anxiety disorders does not guarantee that an individual will experience the disorder.


What genes are associated with anxiety disorders?

The RBFOX1 gene may make people more likely to develop a generalized anxiety disorder. In 2017, a review of studies concluded that GAD could be inherited, with GAD and associated conditions linked to multiple genes. Although both genetic and environmental factors influence anxiety, more research is required to understand the link between genes and anxiety disorders completely.


Brain Chemistry

Effects of neurotransmitters on anxiety

What causes anxiety in the brain?

The amygdala, a brain region, is responsible for triggering anxiety. When it detects a perceived threat, it releases hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline, which helps prepare the body for a fight or flight response. This natural response has been critical for human survival over thousands of years, allowing individuals to act quickly in dangerous situations. A strong and healthy brain is designed to activate this response when needed.


Effects of neurotransmitters on anxiety

GABA, a neurotransmitter, plays a crucial role in the anxiety response, both in normal and disordered anxiety. The amygdala, the brain’s part that processes fearful and threatening stimuli and elicits fear-related behavior, relies heavily on GABA. It is located in the medial temporal lobe, anterior to the hippocampus. Studies on various animals indicate that infusing GABA into the amygdala decreases anxiety and fear, while administering GABA antagonists produces the opposite effect.


Role of the amygdala in anxiety

The amygdala evaluates emotional significance and identifies potential threats. When a threat is detected, it triggers the body’s fight or flight response to deal with danger. While this response is crucial for safety, it can cause problems when activated unnecessarily or too easily, leading to prolonged anxiety and anxiety disorders. Emotions and memories can trigger this response, creating fear and anxiety and perpetuating the fight or flight cycle.


Dysregulation of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis in anxiety

The hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis regulates stress responses by releasing cortisol when a person experiences stress or danger. In individuals with anxiety disorders, the HPA axis may not function correctly, leading to excessive cortisol levels even in non-stressful situations, which can worsen feelings of anxiety.

Additionally, long-term dysregulation of the HPA axis can lead to changes in the body and brain that increase the risk of developing anxiety disorders and other mental health issues. Understanding the HPA axis’s role in anxiety is essential for developing effective treatments for people with anxiety disorders.

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Environmental factor

What environmental factors contribute to the development of anxiety?

According to a review from 2020, anxiety is a mood state focused on the future.[2] It involves complex cognition, emotions, physiology, and behavior responses to prepare for perceived threatening events or circumstances. Several environmental factors, including family composition, cultural and religious background, and childhood experiences, may contribute to higher anxiety levels. This was stated in a review from 2018.[3] Additionally, research has shown that childhood traumas are associated with an increased risk of experiencing anxiety symptoms in the future.


How does a person’s upbringing influence their risk for anxiety?

A person’s upbringing can influence their risk for anxiety through environmental factors such as family composition, cultural and religious background, and childhood experiences. Children who grow up in households full of conflict or lacking care and affection have a higher risk of developing anxiety disorders. Moreover, a history of parental mental health problems or substance abuse can also increase a child’s anxiety risk.

Different cultures and religions have unique values, beliefs, and expectations that shape how children perceive and cope with stress. For example, certain cultures that emphasize emotional suppression or avoidance may increase the risk of anxiety disorders by hindering the development of adaptive coping skills. Lastly, childhood traumas such as physical or sexual abuse, emotional neglect, or bullying can significantly increase a person’s risk for anxiety.


Relationship between anxiety and stressful life events?

Stressful life events like financial difficulties, loss of loved ones, relationship issues, work-related stress, and traumatic experiences can trigger anxiety symptoms. This is because stressful life events activate the body’s stress response system, which releases stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline. Chronic activation of the stress response system can alter the brain’s structure, increasing vulnerability to anxiety and other mental health problems.

Stressful life events can also lead to negative thinking patterns and cognitive distortions, such as catastrophizing or overgeneralizing, which worsen anxiety symptoms. Cognitive-behavioral therapies that help individuals challenge and modify these negative thinking patterns can reduce anxiety symptoms and improve overall mental health.


How do cultural and societal factors impact anxiety levels?

Anxiety is a complex psychological phenomenon influenced by cultural and societal factors. Different cultures have unique values, beliefs, and expectations that shape how individuals perceive and cope with stress and anxiety. For example, cultures prioritizing individualism and self-reliance may view seeking help for mental health issues as a weakness, leading to higher levels of stigma and underutilization of mental health services. In contrast, cultures prioritizing collectivism and community support may have more positive attitudes toward seeking help and rely on social support networks to manage anxiety.

Cultural and societal factors can also influence the prevalence and expression of anxiety disorders. For example, certain cultural factors, such as the emphasis on emotional suppression or avoidance, can increase the risk of anxiety disorders by inhibiting the development of adaptive coping skills. Societal factors such as economic inequality, discrimination, and political instability can also impact anxiety levels.

Discrimination based on race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or gender identity increases the risk of anxiety and other mental health issues. Moreover, economic insecurity and political instability can also lead to higher anxiety levels by creating uncertainty and a lack of control.

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Behavioral factors

Lifestyle choices and habits

Lifestyle choices and habits play a significant role in determining one’s overall well-being, including mental health. There is a strong correlation between certain lifestyle habits and the likelihood of developing anxiety. Habits such as lack of physical exercise, smoking, excessive alcohol consumption, unhealthy diet, and irregular sleep patterns can increase the risk of anxiety. Chronic stress and anxiety can also lead to unhealthy coping mechanisms, such as substance abuse, further exacerbating the problem.


Can certain medications or substance abuse trigger anxiety?

Certain medications and substance abuse can trigger anxiety. For instance, some prescription drugs like asthma medication, steroids, and birth control pills may have anxiety as a side effect. Illicit substances like cocaine and methamphetamine can cause psychological problems, panic attacks, and anxiety.

Alcohol and caffeine can worsen anxiety symptoms in some people. And substance abuse can complicate anxiety treatment by causing other disorders, making a recovery more challenging. Therefore, consulting a healthcare provider and discussing medication use or substance abuse is pivotal to identifying potential triggers and developing an effective treatment plan.


Negative thought patterns and coping mechanisms

Negative thought patterns and coping methods can influence anxiety. Negative thoughts like catastrophizing, overgeneralizing, and assuming the worst can exacerbate anxiety symptoms. These thoughts can increase worry and stress, fueling negative thinking and anxious behavior.

Avoidance, substance abuse, and excessive reassurance-seeking are coping mechanisms that may provide temporary relief but can worsen anxiety in the long term. Recognizing negative thought patterns and ineffective coping mechanisms is crucial in managing anxiety effectively. Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) can assist in reframing negative thoughts and promoting healthier coping strategies to manage anxiety.


Can anxiety disorders be prevented?

Although there is no guaranteed way to avoid developing anxiety disorders, some measures can reduce the risk of developing one. Maintaining healthy lifestyle habits, including regular exercise, a balanced diet, and adequate sleep, can help to regulate stress levels and improve overall well-being.

Furthermore, avoiding or minimizing drug and alcohol use can prevent worsening anxiety symptoms. Seeking treatment for mental health disorders like depression or post-traumatic stress disorder can also decrease the risk of developing anxiety. Early intervention and treatment can be beneficial in managing symptoms and halting the progression of anxiety disorders.

Can anxiety disorders be prevented


In conclusion, anxiety is a normal human response to danger or perceived threat. However, when anxiety becomes excessive and prolonged and interferes with daily life, it becomes an anxiety disorder. Anxiety disorders are multifaceted and can arise from various biological and environmental factors, including genetics, brain chemistry, and life events. Anxiety disorders can exhibit in different ways, including phobias, panic disorders, generalized anxiety disorder, and separation anxiety disorder.

The initial step in managing anxiety is learning to recognize and understand it. People with anxiety often fixate on physical symptoms, exacerbating their anxiety and self-awareness. Identifying anxiety symptoms and seeking appropriate treatment from a qualified mental health professional is crucial.

Although genetics plays a role in anxiety disorders, environmental factors, such as life experiences and stressful situations, also contribute. Understanding the underlying causes of anxiety can help individuals seek effective treatment and make lifestyle changes to manage anxiety successfully. Therefore, seeking help for anxiety disorders is important, as they can negatively affect daily life and lead to other mental health issues if left untreated.

Get help for anxiety from Thrive Counselling’s qualified professionals. We create a secure and supportive environment for people to recognize and manage anxiety and regain self-esteem and confidence. Contact us now to get started.

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What is Anxiety FAQs

What is a panic disorder?

A panic disorder is an anxiety disorder where panic attacks occur repeatedly. These attacks result in severe physical symptoms like sweating, trembling, and heart palpitations, along with intense feelings of fear and panic. Panic disorder can severely affect a person’s life, but it can be treated with therapy and medication.


What are phobias?

Phobias are a form of anxiety disorder that results in extreme and irrational fear of certain things or situations. Some examples of phobias include acrophobia (fear of heights), arachnophobia (fear of spiders), and aviophobia (fear of flying). Such fears can be so strong that they can cause difficulty in a person’s daily life. Treatment for phobias may include therapy, medication, or both.


What causes anxiety and panic attacks?

The causes of anxiety panic attacks are not entirely clear, but they are thought to result from genetic, environmental, and psychological factors. Stressful life events like the death of a loved one, financial issues, or trauma can trigger panic attacks. In addition, certain medical conditions, such as hyperthyroidism or heart disease, may also contribute to panic attacks.


What happens if I don’t get treatment for my child with an anxiety disorder?

Untreated anxiety disorders can significantly harm a child’s mental health and well-being, affecting their school performance and social relationships and putting them at risk for depression or substance abuse later in life. Treatment can help children with anxiety disorders manage the symptoms and improve their overall quality of life.


How do I know if my child has an anxiety disorder?

Signs of anxiety disorder in children include excessive worry, irritability, trouble sleeping, avoidance of certain situations, and physical symptoms like stomachaches or headaches. Consult a healthcare professional if you suspect your child has an anxiety disorder. They can provide a diagnosis and recommend the appropriate treatment.


What hormone causes anxiety?

Cortisol is a hormone linked to anxiety because it’s released in response to stress. It prepares the body to respond to stressful situations by raising heart rate, blood pressure, and glucose levels. However, when cortisol levels remain persistently high due to chronic stress, it can cause anxiety disorders and other health issues like depression, weight gain, and a weakened immune system.

Carson Kivari

Carson Kivari

Carson Kivari is the Founder and Clinic Director of Thrive Downtown, with years of experience helping individuals and couples overcome anxiety, depression, and burnout. He guides clients on a journey of self-exploration and trauma release to find purpose, connection, and safety. Take the first step towards healing and contact Carson today to schedule a session.

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