Everyone feels anxious now and then, but ongoing anxiety can be a serious problem. Learn what causes anxiety and why getting help for anxiety is important.
Experiencing a certain amount of anxiety is a normal part of life. We’ve all felt anxiety at some point — “butterflies” in the stomach before taking a test or facing a difficult talk with a boss or feeling so nervous about a trip we can’t sleep.
But when anxiety lingers, keeping us from doing things we want to do and interfering with our quality of life, it makes us wonder — what causes anxiety?
The explanation isn’t always obvious. But researchers know what causes anxiety involves not only psychological and behavioral factors but also physiological ones.
The fight-or-flight response
Humans are “wired” with a biological fight-or-flight response that can be life-saving. But when faced with a potentially dangerous situation, part of the brain sends out signals to the nervous system, triggering a surge of stress hormones to help us fight or run. The heart beats faster to send more blood to muscles, blood pressure increases, and breathing becomes rapid.
But even when there’s no real physical danger, the fight-or-flight reaction can kick in and cause anxiety when we think about a worrisome task or even when we watch a frightening movie. Sometimes, the fight-or-flight reaction causes the more intense physical symptoms of anxiety, like an upset stomach, trembling, dizziness, and a rapid heart.
Thankfully, normal anxious feelings passfairly quickly. Taking some deep breaths, doing self-talk to remind ourselves this test or talk or whatever we are anxious about will soon be over can help. But when anxiety becomes pervasive, interfering with daily activities at work or school and with relationships, it can be a sign of an anxiety disorder, the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) explains.
Anxiety disorders, which include generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, and social anxiety disorder, involve more than temporary worry or fear. This type of anxiety does not go away without treatment and can get worse over time, according to the NIMH.
What causes anxiety to be serious?
The continuum of how individuals experience anxiety, and to what degree, varies widely. Some people seem to be more prone to anxiety while others are relatively fearless, with so-called nerves of steel.
Researchers studying what causes anxiety have found genetic and environmental factors frequently interact and raise the risk a person will experience higher levels of anxiety.
For example, family history appears to play an important role in your risk of developing an anxiety problem. If any close biological relatives had anxiety disorders, or if one or more of your parents had a mental disorder, your odds of being diagnosed with an anxiety disorder are increased, the NIMH explains.
When people suffer from social anxiety disorder, they have a fear of being in a social or performance situation and are overcome with anxiety about being embarrassed, judged, rejected, or offensive. Scientists have found a clue that an increase in cortisol (a steroid hormone produced in the body that impacts metabolism, the immune system, and how the body responds to stress) is somehow involved in this type of anxiety problem. Research shows having elevated afternoon levels of cortisol in saliva is linked to the risk of having social anxiety disorder, according to the NIMH.
Additional risk factors believed to play a role in what causes anxiety disorders:
- Being very shy or socially inhibited in childhood
- Having economic problems and few resources
- Being female
- Losing your spouse through divorce or death
- Being exposed to stressful life events in childhood and adulthood
Help for anxiety
If you suffer from ongoing anxiety, know that you aren’t alone. About 44 million adults in the U.S. suffer from anxiety disorders, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America.
However, only about a third of Americans with ongoing anxiety problems receive treatment. That’s a disturbing fact because anxiety disorders are highly treatable with psychotherapy, medication, or both.
A form of psychotherapy called cognitive-behavioral therapy has been shown to be highly effective in treating anxiety disorders, helping the overly anxious and those suffering from anxiety disorders to identify and manage the factors and thoughts that contribute to their anxiety, the American Psychological Association points out. Learning to change anxiety-producing thought patterns known to trigger anxiety in many people can reduce or eliminate the intensity of anxiety symptoms.
Medications can also be effective in the treatment of anxiety disorders, if needed, according to the National Institutes of Health — they include beta-blockers (which block an excessive response to norepinephrine, the body's fight-or-flight stress hormone), certain SSRI antidepressants (including Prozac, Zoloft and Paxil), and anti-anxiety benzodiazepines.
If anxiety is causing problems in your life, talk to your doctor about a treatment that’s right for you.
April 03, 2020
Janet O’Dell, RN