What Causes Anxiety?

By Sherry Baker @SherryNewsViews
July 20, 2023
What Causes Anxiety?

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. Everyone has felt anxiety at some point — “butterflies” in your stomach before taking a test, facing a difficult talk with a boss, or feeling so nervous about a trip you can’t sleep.

But when anxiety lingers, keeping you from doing things you want to do and interfering with your quality of life, it makes you wonder: What causes anxiety?

The explanation isn’t always obvious. But researchers know that what causes anxiety involves not only psychological and behavioral factors but also physiological ones.


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The fight-or-flight response

Humans are wired with a biological fight-or-flight response that can be life-saving. But when you’re faced with a potentially dangerous situation, part of your brain sends out signals to your nervous system, triggering a surge of stress hormones to help you fight or run. Your heart beats faster to send more blood to your muscles, and your blood pressure increases and breathing becomes rapid.

Your fight-or-flight reaction can also kick in and cause anxiety if you think about a worrisome task or 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 heartbeat.

Normal anxious feelings pass fairly quickly. Deep breaths or a self-talk to remind yourself that whatever makes you anxious 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. Those types of anxiety do 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 anxiety have found that 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 increase, 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 your body that impacts metabolism, your immune system, and how your body responds to stress) is somehow involved in social anxiety disorder. Research shows that elevated afternoon levels of cortisol in saliva is linked to the risk of having social anxiety disorder, according to the NIMH.

Additional risk factors that may play a role in anxiety disorders include:

  • 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. More than 40 million adults in the U.S. suffer from anxiety disorders, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America.

Only about a third of Americans with anxiety problems receive treatment, yet anxiety disorders are highly treatable with psychotherapy, medication, or both.

A form of psychotherapy called cognitive behavioral therapy can treat 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 can reduce or eliminate the intensity of anxiety symptoms.

Medications can also treat anxiety disorders, according to the National Institutes of Health. Medications include:

  • Beta-blockers (which block an excessive response to norepinephrine, your body's fight-or-flight stress hormone)
  • Certain SSRI antidepressants (including Prozac, Zoloft, and Paxil)
  • Anti-anxiety benzodiazepines

If anxiety is causing problems in your life, talk to your doctor about a treatment that’s right for you.


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July 20, 2023

Reviewed By:  

Janet O’Dell, RN