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What Causes Anxiety

Have you ever wondered what causes anxiety? It’s the most common mental health malady, experienced by 30 percent of the population at some point. While everyone experiences anxious feelings occasionally, some people experience the feelings and sensations of anxiety most of the time. These feelings may become so severe that they interfere with daily life.

Symptoms vary depending on the type of anxiety disorder. However, the most common signs are elevated heart and respiration rates, a sense of nervousness or tension, and difficulty concentrating on anything other than the present worry. Alternatively, you may have a strong desire to avoid certain places or situations.

Underlying Causes of Anxiety

Chronic anxiety has many causes and for most people, a variety of factors are involved.

  • Genetics plays a role as anxiety tends to run in families. It’s thought that about 30 percent of anxiety is inherited.
  • You may be more likely to have an anxiety disorder if you have certain personality traits. If you are inhibited, you have a cautious attitude toward new people or situations. People who are high in neuroticism tend to experience more uncomfortable emotions or moodiness. Shyness in childhood is linked to a higher chance of developing an anxiety disorder as an adult. If you had perfectionist tendencies as a child or teen, you are more likely to experience anxiety as an adult.
  • Unresolved trauma can cause anxiety because the body’s nervous system continues to act as if the threat is still present.
  • Some medical conditions, such as heart problems, lung conditions, and metabolism issues can cause anxiety.
  • Many medications and other substances interact with your body chemistry to cause anxiety. Caffeine, alcohol, cannabis, and opioids are among them.
  • Learned coping patterns refer to how individuals react to anxiety. While some methods may help you deal with the source of anxiety, others can increase symptoms and make them more likely to return.


When anxiety’s effects have reached the point that they are interfering with your life both at home and either in your work or social life, it typically presents in one of about 10 disorders. Two of the most common are Generalized Anxiety Disorder and Social Anxiety Disorder.


Generalized Anxiety Disorder

Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) is characterized by excessive worry that is difficult to control, causes significant distress or impairment, and occurs on more days than not for at least six months. Other symptoms include apprehension and irritability, as well as physical symptoms such as increased fatigue and muscular tension.

People with GAD have excessive worry or anxiety about health, work, interpersonal relationships, or other life events. Sometimes these worries seem realistic. However, they are often out of proportion to the impact of the anticipated event.

GAD is a chronic illness with fluctuating severity of symptoms. In many cases, there are intervening periods of time with no symptoms.

Research has shown some behaviors that could contribute to Generalized Anxiety Disorder. One is avoidant behavior, which is staying away from situations that cause a physical response like anxiety. Another is hypervigilance, which is a biological adaptation to stress which keeps you away from harm by being highly alert and aware of your surroundings. Trauma denial is a way to put distance between yourself and an unpleasant experience, so you may feel uncomfortable when people get emotional about it or you may minimize what happened.

Biological causes of anxiety disorder, or genetics, appear to predispose some people to the development of generalized anxiety disorder. GAD shares a common heritability with major depression and with the personality trait of neuroticism. In addition, studies have shown that early developmental trauma and recent stressful life events interact with genetic markers in the development of GAD and anxiety sensitivity.

Related Reading: How to Recognize Generalized Anxiety Disorder in Teens

Social Anxiety Disorder

Social anxiety disorder includes fear, anxiety, and avoidance of social situations to the point that it interferes with relationships, daily routines, work, school or other activities. Social Anxiety Disorder (SAD) is caused by a combination of biological and environmental factors.

Anxiety tends to run in families, but it isn’t clear how much of this is genetic and how much is learned behavior. Some people may develop anxiety after an unpleasant or embarrassing social situation. There may also be a link between Social Anxiety Disorder and parents who either model anxious behavior in social situations or are more controlling or overprotective of their children.

Related Reading: Social Anxiety Therapy

Brain structure can also contribute to Social Anxiety Disorder. A part of the brain called the amygdala plays a role in controlling the fear response. People who have an overactive amygdala may have a heightened fear response, which causes increased anxiety in social situations.

In addition to genetics or a negative experience, there are some risk factors which can also cause social anxiety disorder. Children who are shy, timid, or restrained when facing new situations or people may be at greater risk. Social Anxiety Disorder symptoms usually start in the teenage years, but giving a speech in public or making a work presentation may also trigger symptoms for the first time. People who have an appearance or condition that draws attention, such as facial disfigurement or stuttering can have increased feelings of being self-conscious, which can lead to social anxiety disorder.

Anxiety disorders are highly treatable, especially when treatment addresses the ways that you react to anxiety. Therapists at Life Care Wellness are trained in various techniques for treating anxiety, such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), Somatic Experiencing (SE), and Mindfulness. If you are struggling with anxiety symptoms, please reach out to us in our Illinois locations in Glen Ellyn, Chicago (Jefferson Park), Sycamore, and Yorkville.

Rhonda Kelloway is the owner and principal therapist at Life Care Wellness, a group psychotherapy practice in Glen Ellyn, Sycamore, Yorkville, and Chicago (Jefferson Park neighborhood), Illinois. She is a trauma specialist utilizing a Somatic Experiencing framework to utilize the body’s wisdom in healing. She also uses EMDR and a variety of traditional psychotherapy approaches in her work. In addition to being a psychotherapist, she is a trained divorce and family mediator.