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What Causes Anxiety? And How to Help

Kristin Hall, FNP

Medically reviewed by Kristin Hall, FNP

Written by Our Editorial Team

Last updated 5/9/2021

Anxiety affects everyone at certain times, whether it’s before making an important decision, sitting an exam or giving a presentation in front of others. 

It’s normal to feel anxiety occasionally. However, some people are affected by anxiety disorders that may cause them to either experience persistent feelings of anxiety, or severe anxiety that’s related to certain environments and situations.

According to the Anxiety & Depression Association of America, 40 million adults — or more than 18 percent of the US adult population — are affected by anxiety disorders every year.

While experts aren’t fully aware of what causes anxiety, research shows that certain personality traits, life experiences and behaviors may contribute to anxiety disorders.

Below, we’ve listed these potential anxiety causes and risk factors. We’ve also discussed what you can do if you’re experiencing anxiety symptoms, from seeking professional help to making changes to your habits and lifestyle.

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Causes & Risk Factors for Anxiety

Currently, researchers aren’t fully aware of the precise factors that can cause anxiety disorders to develop.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, the most recent research into anxiety tends to suggest that both environmental and genetic factors may contribute to your risk of developing an anxiety disorder. 

While these factors aren’t necessarily the causes of anxiety, they do appear to be closely linked to certain anxiety disorders. We’ve described these risk factors in more detail below.

Shyness and Behavioral Inhibition

Research shows that temperamental traits of shyness or behavioral inhibition during childhood are a risk factor for anxiety disorders.

This means that you may have a higher risk of developing anxiety if you had a tendency to feel fearful or withdrawn in new or unfamiliar situations as a child.

Signs of behavioral inhibition include retreating from unfamiliar objects or people, taking a long time to interact with unfamiliar adults, crying, fretting and other childhood behaviors.

Some researchers believe that identifying these signs and intervening early may help to reduce the risk of anxiety during adulthood.

Exposure to Stressful or Negative Life Events

Research suggests that anxiety disorders may develop, at least partly, in response to negative events that occur during childhood, adolescence or adulthood.

You may have a higher risk of developing an anxiety disorder if you’ve experienced a stressful, negative or traumatic event at some point in your life, or if you have a lifestyle that causes you to experience ongoing stress.

Examples of negative or traumatic experiences include accidents, injuries and violent attacks, particularly those that occur unexpectedly.

Other causes of trauma may include the sudden death of someone close to you, the end of a significant relationship, surgery or an experience that causes you to feel humiliated.

Factors that may cause ongoing stress include illness, bullying, domestic violence or living in a neighborhood with significant amounts of crime and danger.

Exposure to traumatic, negative or highly stressful events can play a significant role in specific types of anxiety disorders, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Negative life events during childhood may also play a role in social anxiety disorder, a common form of anxiety that affects an estimated 12.1 percent of US adults at some point in life.

In a cross-sectional survey published in the Brazilian Journal of Psychiatry, researchers found a clear link between certain negative life experiences during childhood and social anxiety in young adults.

In particular, the researchers found an association between family violence and higher levels of social anxiety.

A Family History of Mental Illness

You may have a higher risk of developing an anxiety disorder if your biological relatives have a history of anxiety or other mental illnesses.

This suggests that anxiety may be at least partly caused by genetic factors that you can inherit from your predecessors. 

Although researchers haven’t identified an “anxiety gene” with any degree of certainty, studies show that certain genes may play a role in some anxiety disorders.

For example, one twin study published in the journal PLoS One found that generalized anxiety disorder may be linked to variation within the RBFOX1 gene.

An older study published in the American Journal of Psychiatry noted that generalized anxiety disorder and panic disorder were more common in people with first-degree relatives who had been diagnosed with the same conditions than in a sample of the general public. 

In addition to anxiety, common mental illnesses that your hereditary may play a role in,  include depression and other mood disorders, personality disorders, eating disorders and psychotic disorders such as schizophrenia.

Physical Health Conditions

Several physical health conditions are risk factors for anxiety, including heart arrhythmias and diseases that affect your production of thyroid hormones.

For example, anxiety, tremor and sweating are all well-known symptoms of hyperthyroidism — an uncommon issue in which the thyroid gland produces excessive amounts of hormones.

Interestingly, research shows anxiety is also a common issue for people with hypothyroidism — a condition in which the thyroid gland doesn’t produce enough hormones.

Drug or Alcohol Use or Misuse

Some medications and illicit drugs may worsen anxiety or cause a form of anxiety referred to as substance or medication-induced anxiety.

It’s also quite common to develop anxiety as a result of withdrawal from certain drugs and other substances, including alcohol.

If you have a substance use disorder, you may be more at risk of developing an anxiety disorder or experiencing more severe anxiety symptoms.

Even substances that aren’t typically thought of as “drugs,” such as caffeine, can cause mild to moderate anxiety and increase your risk of panic attacks if you have a panic disorder. 

Other Factors That May Cause or Worsen Anxiety

In addition to the risk factors listed above, other aspects of your health or lifestyle may increase your risk of developing an anxiety disorder. 

Research shows that anxiety disorders are more common in women than in men. Other factors associated with anxiety include:

  • Your ethnicity. Research suggests that white people have the highest risk of developing an anxiety disorder, with the exception of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

  • Your level of educational attainment. According to research, anxiety disorders tend to be more common in people with lower educational attainment.

  • Your financial security. Research has found that both generalized anxiety disorder and panic disorder are more common in people with fewer economic resources.

  • Your smoking status. Certain forms of anxiety, such as panic disorder, are associated with cigarette smoking.

It’s important to understand that these are all risk factors for anxiety, not necessarily causes of anxiety. While research has gone a long way into understanding anxiety, we still aren’t able to pinpoint the precise genetic or environmental causes of each anxiety disorder. 

How to Treat Anxiety

Anxiety disorders are treatable. Depending on the severity of your anxiety, you may be able to treat your anxiety and manage your symptoms with self-care, therapy, anxiety medication or a combination of different treatment methods.

Self-Care and Lifestyle Changes

Anxiety often improves with self-care and changes to your lifestyle. Simple habits like getting regular exercise, avoiding your anxiety triggers and practicing relaxation techniques can help you to manage your symptoms and reduce the severity of your anxiety.

Our guide to coping with anxiety shares self-care techniques that you can use to get control over feelings of anxiety and improve your quality of life. 

Therapy

Most cases of anxiety improve with therapy. Several different methods of therapy are used to treat anxiety, including cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and exposure therapy. 

We offer online individual therapy and support groups for a range of mental health conditions, including anxiety. 

Anxiety Medications

Several medications are used to treat anxiety, including selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) and short-term anxiety medications called benzodiazepines. 

You’ll need a prescription to use anti-anxiety medication. Our online psychiatry service allows you to connect with a licensed psychiatry provider and, if appropriate, access FDA-approved medication to manage your anxiety symptoms. 

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In Conclusion

Anxiety disorders are common, with more than 40 million adults in the United States affected by some form of anxiety every year.

While we aren’t aware of the specific cause of anxiety, we are aware of specific risk factors that are linked to forms of anxiety such as generalized anxiety disorder and panic disorder.

If you’re affected by anxiety, it’s important to talk to a licensed mental health provider to find out what you can do to gain control over your feelings, thoughts and behavior.

We offer a range of online mental health services to help you find a path forward, from individual therapy to psychiatric evaluations, anonymous support groups and more. 

This article is for informational purposes only and does not constitute medical advice. The information contained herein is not a substitute for and should never be relied upon for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment.

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