The Main Causes of Anxiety

The causes of anxiety are different for each person. Understanding its origins can help us better handle this disorder which is by far the most common psychopathology among us.
The Main Causes of Anxiety
Valeria Sabater

Written and verified by the psychologist Valeria Sabater.

Last update: 02 December, 2021

The main causes of anxiety are different in each person. Indeed, each individual’s reality is unique and there are always specific triggers exclusive to them. For example, some might show a certain biological predisposition to anxiety. Others are subject to specific stressors that they find difficult to accept and manage.

The Greek philosopher Epictetus said that there’s only one way to happiness, and that’s to stop worrying about those things that are beyond our control and will. It’s difficult to see how this may be possible. Because, as humans, we come into the world equipped with a mind that never ceases to imagine its own future and to look at risks as a survival mechanism.

Anxiety is a psychophysiological mechanism that allows us to identify dangers and pay attention to variables such as uncertainty and fear. Thanks to this alert system, we’ve advanced as a species in complex environments. We could even say that feeling anxious from time to time is a basic and necessary cost for the simple fact of being alive.

However, a problem arises when you stop having control over your anxiety and it completely alters your life and your health. Therefore, knowing what triggers it allows you to better understand this common psychopathology among the population.

One of the causes of anxiety is often genetic predisposition and the structure of the brain. This makes some people more vulnerable when it comes to suffering from it.

man thinking about the main causes of anxiety

The main causes of anxiety

To this day, it’s not known exactly what the main causes of anxiety are. However, we can identify a series of risk factors that mediate the appearance of this disorder in any of its forms. Something that must always be kept in mind is that this psychological condition can manifest itself in different ways.

Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), phobias, panic disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, etc. Not only are there different types of anxiety, but sometimes they appear alongside other mental health conditions, such as depression, addictions, etc. Indeed, there’s great complexity to this psychological reality.

Let’s see what the main triggers of anxiety usually are.

Persistent stress leading to anxiety

The most common source of anxiety is daily and sustained stress. In fact, it’s common that when someone faces extremely stressful experiences, they end up developing anxiety. As a matter of fact, even when the stressful situation no longer exists, the brain plunges the mind into a constant state of alert.

The University of Calgary (Canada) conducted research that studied the genetic link between stress and depression. This study found that the amygdala, a key structure in the processing of threatening stimuli, shows unusual hyperactivity in instances of anxiety.

Complex life experiences

Some point out that we’re living in an age of anxiety. Indeed, there’s little doubt that we’re going through a time of great complexity at all levels, social, economic, personal, etc. This results in more causes of anxiety. Causes that, without a doubt, you’ll have experienced at some point in your life. Perhaps you’re even experiencing them now.

Here are several examples:

  • Loss of employment.
  • Uncertainty about the future.
  • Economic problems.
  • Family or relationship problems.
  • Loss of family members or emotional breakdowns.
  • Suffering problems at work such as harassment, poor working conditions, or low wages, etc.
  • Fear of climate change (eco-anxiety), natural disasters or new pandemics, etc.

Experiencing anxiety is a normal response to an abnormal circumstance. We all feel worried and threatened by negative and adverse situations. It’s in these moments that we’re forced to develop adequate coping skills.

Genetics, a risk factor

Among the main causes of anxiety is genetic predisposition. However, we must clarify that the simple fact of one of your relatives exhibiting an anxiety disorder doesn’t mean that you’ll develop it. There’s only a risk, never a direct predisposition.

The Institute of Human Genetics and Anthropology of the Albert Ludwigs University in Freiburg (Germany) conducted research regarding the human genome. Furthermore, they discovered a significant genetic basis regarding phobias and panic disorders.

Today we know that genetic vulnerability, combined with certain environmental factors, can lead to the development of certain anxiety disorders.

Childhood trauma and a more vulnerable brain

Childhood traumas are among the main causes of anxiety. Indeed, growing up in an environment with great socio-affective deficiencies, lack of attachment, or where abuse was frequent always has consequences. In fact, abuse, neglect, and the absence of affection alter the proper development of the brain.

It’s common for structures such as the hippocampus or the limbic system to be smaller in these circumstances. Likewise, the prefrontal areas experience problems and deficits when regulating behavior and solving problems, etc. In essence, traumatic experiences in childhood shape a more vulnerable and ever-alert brain, processing threats where none exist.

Health and lifestyle, another of the main causes of anxiety

We know that medical conditions such as thyroid disorders or cardiovascular problems are related to the appearance of anxiety. What’s more, many chronic diseases can give way to states of anxiety. This is a factor that must always be taken into account.

On the other hand, we can’t rule out addictions and also the side effects of some drugs.

Woman thinking about the main causes of anxiety

Personality and anxiety disorders

Does personality have anything to do with someone being more or less anxious? The answer is yes. Some have a more skilled mental and behavioral approach to managing these psychophysiological states. Others, on the other hand, show a series of personality characteristics that make them more prone to suffer from anxiety.

Some people are perfectionists. Others look to the future with anguish and see a problem in every solution. Within the personality theory of the Big Five, neuroticism is described as the one most associated with depression and anxiety. Neuroticism is defined by an almost persistent emotional instability that results in mood swings and irrational thoughts (Costa and McCrae 1985).

It’s interesting to know the main causes of anxiety, not simply to generally understand this disorder better. In fact, understanding it also helps you realize that everyone can suffer from this disorder at some point in their lives. Hence, it’s perfectly normal. The important thing is that it can be treated and that there are some extremely effective therapies for dealing with it.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

  • Davies MN, Verdi S, Burri A, Trzaskowski M, Lee M, Hettema JM, et al. (2015) Generalised Anxiety Disorder – A Twin Study of Genetic Architecture, Genome-Wide Association and Differential Gene Expression. PLoS ONE 10(8): e0134865.
  • Daviu, N., Bruchas, M. R., Moghaddam, B., Sandi, C., & Beyeler, A. (2019). Neurobiological links between stress and anxiety. Neurobiology of stress11, 100191.
  • Meier SM, Trontti K, Purves KL, et al. Genetic Variants Associated With Anxiety and Stress-Related DisordersA Genome-Wide Association Study and Mouse-Model StudyJAMA Psychiatry. 2019;76(9):924–932. doi:10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2019.1119

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.