What Causes Anxiety?

signs of anxiety

A big life event (such as changing a job) or relationship problems can trigger feelings of stress and anxiety. However, these are normal responses, and they usually pass with time.

Clinical anxiety means that one’s fear is out of proportion to the events. Symptoms can be debilitating. Types can include panic, phobia, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

What causes it? Why do two people who go through the same stressful event react in ways that differ? Research is ongoing, but there are factors that play a role in its occurrence. Let’s look at these risk factors below. 


Based on a review of genetics in mental illness by Dr. Emily Deans M.D., most of these problems have a strong hereditary component. Genes are thought to play a role in 25-40% of cases of anxiety, PTSD, and OCD. For schizophrenia and ADHA, it’s up to 75%. 

There is no single gene that increases the risk. Rather, it is a complex play between genes and environmental factors. Genes that increase risk have to do with the HPA axis, neurons, and gene expression. Some genes have to do with estrogen receptors. Animal studies show that estrogen increases anxious behavior. This may explain why women are more than twice as likely to get anxiety.

While genes make it more likely, other factors can also contribute. 

anxiety and environment

Environmental Factors

These consist of everything around you with which you may or may not interact. Some aspects you can avoid, others you can’t. You can avoid caffeine, alcohol, and drugs. Caffeine stimulates the nervous system. This can cause racing thoughts, trouble with focus, rapid heartbeat, and shallow breathing. 

Social factors such as a sudden loss (i.e. a divorce, a job loss, or the death of a loved one) can also contribute. If the loss is sudden, the future becomes uncertain. Having anxious feelings is a normal reaction, at least at the beginning. If this is the reason for it, it’s best to seek counseling.

PTSD due to emotional trauma can create symptoms including GAD, hyper-vigilance, and intrusive thoughts.

Personality Traits

People’s personalities can be broken down into five major traits. Each trait shows how a person thinks, feels, and behaves. The so-called “big five” traits are openness to experience (which includes intellectual curiosity and creativity), extroversion (which means a person derives energy from interacting with other people), conscientiousness (which relates to being organized, productive, and responsible), agreeableness (which indicates higher levels of understanding and respect toward others), and neuroticism (which relates to emotional volatility).

  • Neuroticism strongly correlates with anxiety as well as irritability, sadness, and self-consciousness. People with this trait are more likely to get social anxiety. Also known as low emotional stability, it includes high levels of worry, sadness, and mood swings.
  • Introversion also goes hand in hand with social anxiety. People who are introverts and open to new experiences seem to have the highest levels. An introvert prefers the inner life of the mind over the outer world.
  • Openness shows how open a person is to new ideas and experiences. People with this trait seek out new things or situations. They are more curious and like surprises. 

Anxiety Caused By An Ailment Or Drug

Some medical problems can cause anxiety. Doctors use medical history, exams, and lab tests to determine if it is due to a physical condition or a drug. In this case, you must address the underlying cause. Doctors also have to find out whether it is anxiety or another mental illness so they can give the best treatment.

  • The medical problems that can come with anxiety include heart issues such as heart failure and arrhythmia, hormone issues such as hyperthyroidism, overactive adrenals or pheochromocytoma, and lung diseases like asthma or COPD. People who are terminally ill also experience anxiety due to pain, breathing problems, and fear of death.
  • Meds that can cause anxiety include amphetamines and corticosteroids. Withdrawal from anti-anxiety drugs (benzodiazepines) can also cause anxiety, restlessness, and sleeping problems.

Anxiety can be unpredictable at times. It can occur quickly as a panic attack or build slowly over minutes, hours, or days. It can last for seconds, days, and even years.

Symptoms can be subtle or severe and include shortness of breath, dizziness, trembling, sweating, and increased heart rate. People with anxiety are two times more likely to get depression. Alcohol abuse occurs with anxiety as well.

The most crucial thing to keep in mind is the problem gets better with treatment. Seek medical advice to get it under control so you can live a happy life.