What causes my anxiety? Why am I so anxious? As if anxiety itself weren’t bad enough, not knowing what causes anxiety can make matters even worse. It’s natural to want to know just what is making you feel the worry and fear of generalized anxiety disorder, the dread of people and social situations of social anxiety disorder, the unease of separation anxiety disorder, the frights of phobias, or the death-grip of panic disorder/panic attacks. Knowing what causes any type of anxiety can be an important part of the puzzle and can help you move forward.
Ten Possible Causes of Anxiety
Before discussing some of the causes of anxiety, it’s important to note that researchers don’t agree on a single cause or set of causes for anxiety. Anxiety is complex and each individual person is unique. Just as anxiety is experienced differently by different people, so, too, are the causes.
Medical researchers do know that anxiety can be a response to factors outside of us as well as within us.1 With this in mind, here are 10 possible causes of anxiety:
- Background: Events we’ve experienced or behaviors we’ve learned (maybe a parent that modeled anxious behavior) can contribute to anxiety.
- Trauma and/or stress: Life experiences can have a negative impact on our mental health, including the development of significant anxiety.
- Behaviors: Sometimes, the things we do or don’t do, the actions we take or don’t take, can cause anxiety. Things such as avoidance or making decisions driven by worry can cause anxiety to tighten its grip.
- Substance use: Drugs and alcohol create changes in the brain, including altering serotonin and other neurotransmitters, potentially causing anxiety. Further, using these substances to ease anxiety serves to worsen anxiety, leading to increased use and more anxiety in a vicious cycle. It’s noteworthy that 20 percent of people with social anxiety are also dependent on alcohol.
- Physiology: The brain itself can cause its own anxiety. Structures within the brain as well as brain chemistry impact how we think, feel, and act, including the anxiety we experience.
- Genetics: Researchers are finding that one’s genetic makeup can cause anxiety disorders to develop and have even begun to pinpoint specific genes, such as the RBFOX1 gene as culprits.2
- Medical factors: Health issues can cause anxiety. Thyroid, respiratory, heart, and other conditions can underlie anxiety. For this reason, it’s important to check in with your doctor to rule out medical problems.
- Personality type: Some personality types, such as type A, are prone to be intense, driven, and susceptible to stress and anxiety.
- Thoughts: Our thoughts can be our own worst enemy. We overthink things. We have automatic negative thoughts that cause worries and anxiety, and we have what’s known as a negativity bias that can cause anxiety.
- Emotions: Our emotions are closely tied to our thoughts, one following the other in a downward tumble that can lead to intense anxiety. When we feel bad, our view of ourselves and the world is clouded and anxiety rains down.
You Don’t Cause Your Anxiety
While researchers don’t have a definitive, single cause of anxiety, one thing is known with certainty: you’re not the cause of your anxiety, and anxiety isn’t your fault. Yes, multiple factors are involved in anxiety, and many are things within your control. That doesn’t mean you’re intentionally being anxious. What it does mean is that you can act on those things to make positive changes and reduce your anxiety.
What if, upon reading these ten causes of anxiety, you still can’t pinpoint a cause? That’s perfectly okay. Knowing some of the causes of your anxiety can give you a starting point in overcoming it, but you can also focus on things like your anxiety symptoms and your goals for an anxiety-free life to feel less anxious and live well.