Causes of anxiety
Understanding the causes and risk factors can help you recognise and deal with your anxiety disorder. An anxiety disorder may have biological causes or be triggered by a major life event. For many people there are often several causes that lead to severe anxiety.
Experts are still discovering more about anxiety. They think a combination of factors leads to extremely high levels of anxiety rather than one isolated cause.
Scientists are interested in investigating different parts of the brain and their role in anxiety and other mental health problems. For example, they're researching the role of:
- the amygdala - the part of the brain that processes emotions like fear
- the hippocampus - the part of the brain that stores memories
- brain chemistry
Sometimes, doctors talk about biological causes, such as genetics, brain chemistry and personality. Or they might talk about life events, such as the death of a loved one, long-term stresses, trauma and abuse. Often, a combination of these things can lead to anxiety. It's important to know that anxiety can be a normal reaction to a situation. Each of us is unique and will respond differently when exposed to environmental, social or psychological triggers.
Seek help for anxiety
The most important thing is to get help for your anxiety when it starts to interfere with your everyday life. There are many types of treatment and people who can help. Start by talking to your GP.
Find out more about getting help for anxiety.
Family history (genetics)
A history of mental health issues in your family may increase your likelihood of developing anxiety. There’s also a possibility we can ‘learn’ anxious responses from family members. Family history does not necessarily mean you will have anxiety but it can be a contributing factor.
Persistent worries associated with chronic health problems, work issues, finances and family conflicts can be associated with developing anxiety.
Biochemical factors (brain chemistry)
Neurotransmitters are chemicals that carry signals from one part of the brain to the next. In people who experience an anxiety disorder, the mood regulating neurotransmitters may not function normally.
Pregnancy and childbirth
We often hear about ‘baby blues’ or postnatal depression. Anxiety during and after pregnancy is very common too.
Other medical problems
Some medical conditions can contribute to anxiety, such as heart disease, diabetes and thyroid problems. Magnesium and other nutrient deficiencies may also play a part.
Events that cause considerable distress, such as witnessing a death or accident, earthquakes, severe storms, fires, sexual abuse and violence, can contribute to anxiety.
Some personality types are thought to be more likely to develop anxiety. These include perfectionist, sensitive and shy personalities, or people with low self-esteem. Sometimes, high achievers or ‘alpha’ people can develop anxiety.
Use of drugs and medications such as cannabis, alcohol and sedatives can trigger anxiety. Withdrawal from such substances can contribute to anxiety too.
Anxiety can occur at the same time as other mental health problemsWe can experience more than one anxiety disorder or other mental health issue at the same time. This is also called a ‘co-condition’ or ‘comorbidity’. For example, someone with generalised anxiety disorder can also have depression at the same time. This happens quite often. It’s always important to seek help from your GP so they can give you a thorough health check and the best advice.
Just as there are risk factors for anxiety, researchers tell us there are also some factors that may protect us from developing anxiety, such as our level of social support and our coping style.
Having strong relationships with your friends and family, and knowing that you can ask them for help when needed, may assist you when there are negative life events and ‘protect’ you from developing anxiety.
Coping styleThis is the way we frame our behaviour and thoughts according to the challenging demands we encounter. Coping can influence how we respond to stressful events, and affect our psychological wellbeing. Anxiety is a complex condition. There are a number of factors that ultimately affect whether someone will develop an anxiety disorder. Protective factors need to be considered as part of a much broader picture.