Causes of anxiety

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What might be causing you to feel anxious?

Humans have evolved to feel the emotions of stress and anxiety as a way to keep us safe, by noticing and preparing for threats or dangers.

Although anxiety is a natural human reaction, anxiety disorders are a complex mental health condition we’re still learning more about. Scientists think that it is caused by a combination of both biological and environmental factors.

So what can cause problematic anxiety?

  • Past or childhood experiences

    You may experience anxiety if your childhood wasn’t stable, nurturing or emotionally supportive. In an unstable environment, our brains try to keep us safe by looking out for threats, which is helpful in the short term, but can also lead to a constant feeling of being ‘on edge’ or at risk, even when you’re not.

    Equally, if you grew up with an anxious parent or family, you may have learned anxious thinking patterns and behaviours from them, just as we learn so many other things from those around us when we’re young.

    Some childhood experiences that could lead to feelings of anxiety include:

    • Unpredictable reactions or emotions from loved ones
    • Constant criticism
    • Instability, like moving schools or houses, or family instability
    • Bullying, or feeling left out or excluded
    • Trauma, including abuse, sexual assault, natural disasters, crime, and violence or domestic and family violence
    • A negative experience, for example being bitten by a dog may cause a phobia of dogs.
  • Your current circumstances

    Our level of satisfaction with our home lives, our jobs and our relationships can be common causes for feelings of anxiety.

    This is particularly true if we feel uncertain or unhappy with big questions like whether we can see a hopeful future for ourselves, are happy with our relationships, and feel financially secure.

    These are all understandable and natural reasons for feeling anxious, but when that anxiety causes significant distress, or impacts your daily life, it is a good idea to look for ways to manage your anxious feelings.

    Anxiety can be caused or exacerbated by life stressors like:

    • Financial concerns
    • Relationship issues
    • School or employment stress, including unemployment
    • Health worries
    • Significant life changes, for example; relationship breakdowns, moving, or children leaving home.
I began to experience anxiety as a result of being diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer.
  • Specific triggers

    Specific events, situations, objects or experiences can cause feelings of intense anxiety.

    These can include (but are not limited to):

    • Closed-in, crowded or open spaces
    • Social situations
    • Heights
    • Planes
    • Reminders of traumatic events
    • The fear of having a panic attack.
  • Our own thoughts and behaviours

    Our thoughts and behaviour patterns can both contribute to, and be a symptom of our anxiety.

    Our thoughts can:

    • Directly contribute to feelings of anxiety (by obsessively thinking about perceived risks or dangers, even when they’re not present)
    • Cause us to withdraw or avoid certain behaviours which can negatively affect us in the long-term (such as going outside, or seeing friends)
    • Cause us to disproportionately focus on risk and danger
    • Unhelpfully add to existing feelings of anxiety, by worrying about being anxious in the first place.
  • Genetics and biology

    We don’t completely understand the link between anxiety and genetics just yet, but we do know that our genes can affect our likelihood of experiencing anxiety.

    Research involving identical twins raised in different homes has strengthened the evidence that there is a genetic link. Studies show that twins have a higher than average rate of developing similar phobias – even when they are raised completely separately.

    Even if genetics play a role in our experience of anxiety, there are still things we can do to feel better in the moment, and long term strategies that work to reduce our anxiety.

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