Anxiety is not just a fear response; it’s a fear response that is excessive and irrational. Anxiety is not just worrying about a stressful situation or event; it’s pervasive worrying that extends for a long period of time.1Anxiety is excruciatingly painful, and it interferes with a person’s ability to perform those activities that constitute what it means to lead a full and meaningful life.
The good news is that anxiety disorders can be diagnosed, and they are treatable. The not-so-good news is that what causes anxiety disorders is unclear. That makes pinpointing an accurate diagnosis and proper treatment more difficult to achieve.
“As with many mental health conditions, the exact cause of anxiety disorders isn’t fully understood.”
— Mayo Clinic
Biological? Physiological? Environmental? Philosophical? Spiritual? Emotional? Cultural? Environmental? No root cause has yet been ruled out. But here’s the latest on three potential causes:
When you research the role genetics plays in the cause of anxiety, you will no doubt come away with a mixed message. Some researchers contend that you can inherit anxiety the same way you can inherit the risk of a physical condition like heart disease.2 Others, however, find that while it is possible to inherit an anxious nature which might predispose a person to developing an anxiety condition, anxiety is about learned behavior, not genetics.3 The bottom line is that the risk of anxiety seems to run in families, but the correlation to genetics is unclear.
The brain is the most complex and perhaps the least understood organ in the body, and while advances in technology are improving accuracy, the science is still in its infancy. Current studies indicate a relationship between anxiety disorders and an imbalance of neurotransmitters (brain chemicals), such as serotonin, norepinephrine and gamma-aminobutyric acid. However, it is not entirely clear which came first, the poor coping strategies or the chemical imbalances.4 Other research focuses on brain circuitry, which may provide more information about how the brain associates certain environmental cues with positive or negative emotions, and could thereby lead to new ways of improving impaired emotional processing.5
Experts generally agree that trauma can trigger an anxiety disorder, particularly in people who have an inherited susceptibility to developing the disorder. In fact, some researchers are finding that severe or long-lasting stress can actually change the way nerve cells transmit information from one region of the brain to another.6 A traumatic experience is one that threatens your life, safety, or values and sense of self and leave you feeling frightened, overwhelmed, alone, and powerless to escape. Examples of such external causes include physical and emotional abuse (which includes bullying), extreme poverty, and the death of a loved one.
While we have more questions about anxiety disorders than we have answers at this point, what we know for certain is that:
• Neither bad parenting nor overparenting causes anxiety disorders
• Having an anxiety disorders does not in any way indicate personal weakness or lack of character
We can also be relatively sure that the cause of anxiety is a combination of the above and more. I love this quote from Andrew Archer’s article “Turning Toward Our Fundamental Need for Connection” on GoodTherapy.org:
I have . . . abandoned the 20th century framework of “mental illness” that categorizes subjective experience as disease with a stable cure by instead seeing through the lens of culture and relationships. Essentially, we all have a fundamental need for connection and a unique story or background that brought us here.
You see, anxiety is not just about science and the brain. It is also about culture and relationships. In my bookEscape from Dark Places: Guideposts to Hope in an Age of Anxiety & Depression, I key in on the societal and spiritual disconnects we experience in the twenty-first century that are also causing the rate of anxiety, depression, and even suicide to trend upward. From this perspective, lay people like you and I can find effective ways to help those who are suffering, change attitudes, and spread hope.
1. See the National Institute of Mental Health for a recommendation as to how long anxiety should last before it is generally considered to be a problem that could benefit from professional evaluation and treatment.
2. “Anxiety Disorders: Types, Causes, Symptoms, Diagnosis, Treatment, and Prevention,” WebMD, reviewed by Joseph Goldberg, MD (February 08, 2014), accessed December 9, 2015, http://www.webmd.com/anxiety-panic/guide/mental-health-anxiety-disorders.
3. “Anxiety Disorders: Types, Causes, Symptoms, Diagnosis, Treatment, and Prevention.” National Panic & Anxiety Disorder News.com, accessed December 9, 2015, http://www.npadnews.com/faqs.asp#sthash.gcR6Xi2z.dpuf.
4. “Anxiety Disorder Causes – Myths & Reality,” CalmClinic.com, accessed December 9, 2015, http://www.calmclinic.com/anxiety/causes.
5. Madeline R Vann, MPH, “Is Anxiety Hereditary?” EveryDayHealth.com, last updated August 24, 2015, accessed December 9, 2015, http://www.everydayhealth.com/news/is-anxiety-hereditary/.
6. “Emotional and Psychological Trauma: Symptoms, Treatment, and Recovery,” HelpGuide.org, last updated August 2015, accessed December 9, 2015, http://www.helpguide.org/articles/ptsd-trauma/emotional-and-psychological-trauma.htm.