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Causes of Anxiety

I have noticed that when anxiety strikes we are often compelled to search for a cause for it. I think we do this naturally because we have learned that when we know what causes our anxiety then we can often do something about it.

The causes of anxiety are many but the emotional and physiological basis of any expression of anxiety is the Fight or Flight response. Humans have evolved a complex set of biochemical, physiological, emotional and behavioral responses to threatening situations. This response set is called the “Fight or Flight” response. Any time we feel anxiety, the Fight or Flight response is to blame.

When we appraise a situation as a potential threat almost every physiological system within our body is coordinated to prepare us to either attack or run away. The brain is kicked into action mode and the sympathetic nervous system is activated. Hormones are released into the bloodstream where they remain active for at least 20 to 30 minutes, keeping us vigilant and prepared for action.

Anxiety is the emotional experience that accompanies the fight or flight response. This response allows us to adapt to the profoundly challenging, constantly changing circumstances of life. When we perceive there is a problem, anxiety motivates us take direct action, or to get away from the situation. This is a good thing.

There are several problems with anxiety, though. When anxiety is too high or if it continues too long it cripples your ability to solve the problems that it is warning you about. It can also create problems of its own such as physical and psychiatric illness. And finally, you may have been warned but you still have to figure out what is causing the anxiety so you can tend to the problem.

So what are the causes of anxiety? What triggers the Fight or Flight response? And why do some people have more anxiety than others? There are hereditary factors, developmental causes, internal causal factors and external or situational causes.

Hereditary Factors

Anxiety runs in families. Carefully controlled genetic studies show there is a hereditary basis for anxiety. Even at birth, infants differ in how they respond to loud noises and other startling situations. People have different temperaments. Some people are born anxiety prone, and remain so through out their life.

Research has identified genetic causes for these differences between people. People differ in the availability of different brain chemicals, or neurotransmitters, including those that are involved in the Fight or Flight response. Many studies demonstrate how people with specific gene variations show greater physiological and emotional responses to stressful situations.

Developmental Causes

Many people who suffer from anxiety disorders have a childhood history of stress, trauma and abuse. These early traumas heighten the body’s Fight or Flight response to later stress. During the course of development traumatic events can create hyperactive arousal systems.

For example women who have childhood histories of sexual and physical abuse have hormonal stress responses that are far greater than women who don’t have these childhood traumas. One study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that women who had been abused in childhood had a six-fold greater hormone response to current stress than non-traumatized women.

Psychiatric disorders develop over the course of our life because of the interaction between our genetic predispositions and our experience. Some people are born with a genetic vulnerability for depression, others for anxiety, others for a psychotic disorder, and so on. When they go through certain kinds of experiences, like a series of losses, abuse, or trauma, people fall prey to their vulnerabilities. As a psychiatric disorder develops, it feeds into the Fight or Flight response and causes further anxiety.

Internal Causal Factors

A variety of medical problems can cause anxiety, including endocrine, cardiovascular, neurological, metabolic and respiratory conditions. These conditions stimulate or mimic portions of the Fight or Fight response and increase physiological arousal. The end result is greater anxiety.

Your anxiety changes over the course of day, in part because of things that happen to you, but also because of cyclic variation in the physiological processes that underlie the Fight or Flight response. Anxiety rises and falls throughout the day following a 24 hour diurnal pattern that corresponds to the rise and fall of stress hormones.

Psychiatric disorders result from experiences that accrue over time. However, once they are established psychiatric disorders often create and maintain a biochemical imbalance that assures that anxiety persists unless the anxiety or the disorder is dealt with.

A smorgasbord of inner experiences can cause anxiety. Inner conflicts, such as guilt or ambivalence, express themselves as anxiety. Negative, self-berating, pessimistic thoughts trigger and maintain anxiety. A great many people question the meaning and purpose of life. If they don’t find satisfactory answers to these questions, anxiety and depression slowly sneak in and become a part of day to day life.

External Causal Factors

Food and beverages, such as chocolate and coffee, both of which contain caffeine, stimulate anxiety. Many drugs have side effects of causing anxiety.

Environmental stressors such as overcrowding, sensory overload, and heavy traffic cause anxiety.

There are a great many situations that happen to us that cause anxiety. Often, our own attitudes, beliefs, thoughts, decisions, and behaviors contribute in some way to the situation that distresses us. Still, we can think of these situations as external events that happen to us. Examples of anxiety-inducing events include losing a job, getting a job, getting married, getting a divorce, money problems, serious illness, accidents, going to school, and death or illness of a loved one.

Interpersonal conflict is a great source of anxiety. When you disagree or fight with a friend, lover, spouse, boss, coworker, or whoever, you quickly enter the anxiety-zone. You can feel the effect of a fight for hours, days, or even longer, depending on how well you resolve the issues.

I have observed that there are people on this planet who are exceptional at creating anxiety in others. Critical, judgmental, negative, abusive, demeaning, destructive, controlling, untrustworthy, duplicitous, cheating, thieving, overly dramatic, and obnoxious people are toxic to themselves and to others. If you spend time around people with these qualities, you will feel anxiety.


When you peruse the above causes of anxiety it can, well, produce anxiety. I suggest that you “flee” for a few moments. Take a few deep breaths. Now the real work begins. Review these many causes to see which ones apply to you. Then roll up your sleeves, and start figuring out how you can deal with them.

Learn more about the causes of anxiety that are particularly relevant to you. Then learn about ways to deal with those particular problems. Many of the causes of anxiety listed above can be improved or resolved with the help of friends, family, therapy and medicine. Identifying the causes of your anxiety is just the first step in a long trip. Enjoy the trip.