What Causes Anxiety?

by | Dec 29, 2020 | Individual, Mental Health

Anxiety is the general term for a number of psychiatric disorders that lead to nervousness, apprehension, fear, and worrying. Anxiety disorders such as generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, and social anxiety disorder are associated with fear and worry that is so great it can interfere with function. Mild anxiety can be upsetting, but most people experience it from time to time in a situational manner. Severe anxiety can have a number of effects on day-to-day life, and it may be so debilitating that it can interfere with life at work and at home. Although current neuroscience research is learning more and more about how anxiety works in the brain, and there are a number of treatments for mild to severe anxiety, there still appears to be a number of factors to consider for causality.

Anxiety disorders may be due to environmental factors (such as trauma, abuse, or a stressful work environment), genetics (such as a close family member who also suffers from an anxiety disorder or other psychiatric illness), substance abuse (such as during withdrawal from illicit drugs), or brain chemistry (people with abnormal levels of neurotransmitters are more likely to suffer from an anxiety disorder).

The fact is, every case of anxiety is different. For example, although anxiety disorders are associated with substance abuse (including alcoholism and the abuse of illicit drugs such as opiates), there is no proper consensus on whether anxiety is the cause or the effect of this substance abuse. Someone may start to drink more, for instance, because they are depressed or anxious, so it would be inaccurate to blame their anxiety on alcohol. Also, most cases of anxiety are due to a number of factors, such as a genetic predisposition combined with adverse life events.

Owing to the fact that most cases of anxiety are due to a complex set of psychiatric and life circumstances, including personal history, upbringing, work environment, and neurochemistry, it may not be especially helpful to dwell on the “why”. Instead, the focus of therapists and patients alike should be on recovery and management. Focus on the best way to manage anxiety symptoms, on lifestyle factors which may have an adverse impact on anxiety (good or bad), and most of all on ways in which a person with anxiety may accept their condition, learn to live with it, and control it.

People with a mental illness need understanding, not blame. There is no reliable way of explaining why one person may exist in a stressful work environment for years and emerge without experiencing debilitating anxiety, and another may develop an anxiety disorder that interferes with their ability to function. This is why statements such as “everybody gets a little stressed every now and then” and “you’re not the only person with stress in their life” are so problematic to people with anxiety: they not only place blame on the person with anxiety for their neuropsychiatric condition, but they ignore the fact that developing anxiety is based on a number of complex life factors, many of which make anxiety very difficult to predict or avoid.

If you have recently been diagnosed with anxiety, or you know somebody who has, you can be forgiven for dwelling on the reason for the diagnosis. However, you may never know the precise reason for your anxiety. The best thing you can do for your health and peace of mind is move toward accepting your anxiety, by accepting treatment, looking after yourself, and by eliminating the best you can those lifestyle factors which are known to exacerbate anxiety: try lowering your caffeine intake, or even eliminating it completely. You should try eating better, and at regular times. Get enough sleep, aim for 7-8 hours a night, and make sure you exercise regularly, as well.

Anxiety may appear to be a puzzle, but it is not an insurmountable one when putting the pieces of recovery and management in one at a time.

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