8 Common Causes of Anxiety

Anxiety can be miserable and frustrating to live with, and many people who experience it want to know what the common causes of anxiety might be. While the answer isn't always straightforward (worry and fear, after all, are complex conditions with multiple causes and contributing factors that are different for each individual), there are some common anxiety causes. Knowing what they are can help you identify what might be increasing your own anxiety. Then, you can address them as part of your process of beating anxiety. 

8 Common Causes of Anxiety

Researchers and mental health professionals regularly point to these common causes of anxiety:

  1. Biology--Researchers continue to investigate the connection between anxiety and genetics as well as between anxiety and brain chemistry. Gene studies are still in their infancy, but numerous studies show evidence that anxiety may be heritable and that there seem to be a large number of genes that have slight effects on anxiety (rather than just a few genes that have a significant effect).1 If you have a parent or sibling with an anxiety disorder, your risk of developing one, too, may be slightly higher than it is for someone with no family history of anxiety.
  2. Brain chemistry--The chemical imbalance hypothesis is one theory attempting to explain the cause of anxiety.2 Many believe that anxiety is brain-based; indeed, much happens in the brain when we're experiencing the racing thoughts and roiling emotions of anxiety. When neurotransmitters and hormones like gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), adrenaline, norepinephrine, and cortisol are off balance, we may experience anxiety symptoms
  3. Learned behavior--Many mental health professionals and theorists assert that anxiety is learned. In childhood, we might learn from watching parents and other role models that the world is scary. If this belief is reinforced strongly enough, we may even develop a sense of learned helplessness, the belief that we are powerless to control our negative response to the world and those in it.3 Further, We often respond to worries with unhealthy coping mechanisms like avoidance. The more avoidance works, the more we do it; thus, we learn anxious behaviors.4
  4. Traumatic events--Experiencing or witnessing traumatic events at any stage of life is a major cause of anxiety. In fact, a 2013 British study found trauma to be the biggest factor causing anxiety.5 This was just one study, however, and researchers continue to disagree on what, if anything, is the single biggest anxiety cause. Nonetheless, if you were exposed to something traumatic and are experiencing anxiety, there may be a strong connection between the two. 
  5. News and social media exposure--News is intentionally negative and creates intense feelings of impending doom, and the more we tune in, the more anxious we become.6 Likewise, continued exposure to social media, especially negative posts, directly impacts pathways in the brain that contribute to anxiety.7
  6. Adjustment difficulties--While there are disorders called adjustment disorders, adjusting to new stages of life or big changes in your life can cause significant anxiety in addition to or instead of adjustment disorder. Change can be unsettling, especially because it involves a lot of unknowns that cause stress, fear, and worry.8 Graduating, getting married, having a baby, starting a new job, and moving into a new home or to a new community are among anxiety-causing life transitions. 
  7. Stressors of daily life--Big stressors like trauma and transitions aren't the only factors contributing to negative thoughts and excessive worry or fear. Small daily stressors can add up to big feelings of anxiety.9 Stress impacts the brain and body to jumpstart anxiety throughout our being. 
  8. Existential matters--Sometimes, we experience anxiety simply because we exist and are curious enough to ask big, tough questions about life itself.10 Existential anxiety can be vague or hyperfocused on a concept such as the purpose of life or fear of death; either way, it can interfere in our ability to live freely. 

What Do the Causes of Anxiety Mean for You?

Knowing what causes your anxiety is beneficial if it helps lead you to solutions for overcoming your anxiety. Identifying the root of even a portion of your anxiety is one way to address it because you can stop it right at the source. Next week, we'll look at ways to address some of these common causes of anxiety. 


  1. Shimada-Sugimoto, M. et al, "Genetics of Anxiety Disorders: Genetic Epidemiological and Molecular Studies in Humans." Psychiatry and Clinical Neurosciences, March 12, 2015.
  2. Cafasso, J., "Chemical Imbalance in the Brain: What You Should Know." Healthline, Updated December 4, 2019.
  3. Meek, W., "Understanding Learned Helplessness and Anxiety." Verywell Mind, Updated February 7, 2020. 
  4. AnxietyCentre., "Anxiety is Caused by Behavior, Not Genes." Updated May 31, 2020. 
  5. University of Liverpool, "Traumatic Life Events Biggest Cause of Anxiety, Depression." ScienceDaily, October 16, 2013. 
  6. Gregoire, C., "What Constant Exposure to Negative News is Doing to Our Mental Health." HuffPost, February 19, 2015.
  7. Polish, J., "What Happens in Your Brain When You See a Negative Tweet, According to Experts." Bustle, December 10, 2019.
  8. Kennard, J., "Transition Anxiety." HealthCentral, July 7, 2017.
  9. Abraham, M., "How to Solve Stress and Anxiety." CalmClinic, October 28, 2018.
  10. Hurd, S., "Existential Anxiety: A Curious and Misunderstood Illness That Affects Deep Thinkers." Learning Mind, March 11, 2017. 

APA Reference
Peterson, T. (2020, June 11). 8 Common Causes of Anxiety , HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, June 22 from

Author: Tanya J. Peterson, MS, NCC, DAIS

Tanya J. Peterson is the author of numerous anxiety self-help books, including The Morning Magic 5-Minute Journal, The Mindful Path Through Anxiety, 101 Ways to Help Stop Anxiety, The 5-Minute Anxiety Relief Journal, The Mindfulness Journal for Anxiety, The Mindfulness Workbook for Anxiety, and Break Free: Acceptance and Commitment Therapy in 3 steps. She has also written five critically acclaimed, award-winning novels about life with mental health challenges. She delivers workshops for all ages and provides online and in-person mental health education for youth. She has shared information about creating a quality life on podcasts, summits, print and online interviews and articles, and at speaking events. Tanya is a Diplomate of the American Institution of Stress helping to educate others about stress and provide useful tools for handling it well in order to live a healthy and vibrant life. Find her on her website, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

Ann Ketchum
June, 16 2020 at 5:54 pm

Excellent article Tanya Peterson!! All of your articles have been helpful to me, but especially this one which hits upon lots of causes of anxiety for me.

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