• Many of us know what anxiety feels like—but understanding the causes of anxiety can be tougher. 
  • Though mental health professionals are best at helping to uncover what prompts feelings of anxiety, there are some common causes and factors we can examine on our own.  
  • Instead of a sole cause of anxiety, there are many contributing factors, some stretching back to childhood experiences, family history, and even the genes we inherit from our parents. 
  • Some common causes of anxiety include financial stress, difficult life transitions, and in some cases, substance use, among others. 
  • In addition, the portion of the brain that primarily reacts to anxiety is the amgydala, meaning that the tension, jitters, and discomfort we feel when we’re anxious starts in our minds. 
  • The hormones adrenaline and cortisol also help to ensure we respond healthily to stress, but when these hormones are low or otherwise out of balance, anxiety can arise. 

Anxiety is a common mental health condition, with up to 19% of Americans suffering from a type of anxiety disorder. Even for those who aren’t diagnosed with a form of anxiety, it’s a common emotional state that indicates something is bothering us. So for the curious and the concerned alike, we’ve outlined helpful information below to assist you in understanding and recognizing some of the common causes of anxiety.

What Is the Root of Anxiety?

Currently, there’s no modern professional consensus on the singular cause, or root, of anxiety. This means that there is no true root of anxiety—it’s an emotional state that may be set in motion by a host of issues. So for individuals seeking mental health services via an anxiety therapist or psychiatric provider, discovering the unique and subjective causes of anxiety is an essential part of successful treatment. 

Though each anxiety disorder has a specific set of criteria to assist in a provider’s diagnosis, people who want more information or who are concerned that they may have clinical anxiety can benefit by discovering more about easily recognizable, everyday causes of anxiety. 

Does diet affect anxiety?

As with many other specific causes of anxiety, diet and anxiety are interconnected. Those with Celiac disease, those with gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), those who are lactose intolerant, or those who have food allergies may experience anxiety after deviating from their physician-approved diet. Conversely, diet can also be affected by feelings of anxiety, as reduced appetite is quite common. 

And in some cases, individuals may overeat as a way to cope with anxiety, causing weight gain and subsequent appearance issues that can compound their existing feelings of anxiety. 

Does a family history of mental health conditions play a factor?

Absolutely. Anxious personality traits have a heritability that hovers around 35%, meaning that if your mother or father had/have anxiety, it’s more likely you’ll develop anxiety, as well. In addition to genetic variability, a dysfunctional home life, adverse childhood experiences, and bullying can also cause anxiety in children, who may carry their trauma with them into adulthood. 

Does anxiety form from childhood experiences?

Anxiety disorders can be triggered by adverse childhood experiences or ACEs, which are emotionally impactful, negative events. ACEs have been statistically associated with poorer quality of life, increased risk of anxiety disorders, depressive disorders, chronic physical health conditions, and more. 

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What Are 5 Common Causes of Anxiety?

Everyone is unique and will face specific, subjective situations and circumstances that might trigger anxiety for them. However, there are still broadly recognized, common causes of anxiety. Some of these include: 

  • Financial stress: Americans rate financial stress as the single most burdensome aspect of daily life, according to a recent survey. Whether financial stress is related to personal fiscal goals, owed bills, or irresponsible splurging, worrying about money is one of the most common causes of anxiety. 
  • Strained relationships: Interpersonal conflict can also become a form of anxiety, especially in home living situations or romantic relationships. Tension or strain with coworkers or supervisors at work can also be common causes of anxiety. Up to 40% of Americans report that work is a significant source of stress in their life. 
  • Difficult or unprecedented life transitions: Marriage, divorce, the death of a loved one, a recent move, or career change can all be common causes of anxiety. The brain grows accustomed to routines, and when we disrupt a previously stable aspect of our lives, evidence shows that it takes time for anyone’s mind to readjust and process the changes. However, if an individual lacks the proper coping skills to acclimate, or is susceptible to anxiety, then a major life transition can be one of the causes of anxiety. 
  • Chronic physical or psychological health conditions: Chronic conditions affecting the mind and body such as cancer, multiple sclerosis, autoimmune disorders, diabetes 1 and 2, depressive disorders, OCD, and ADHD can all churn up anxiety. That’s because long-term physical and mental discomfort slowly erodes one’s sense of well-being, and because chronic conditions often have serious side effects and long-term health implications that can be life-altering, or emotionally jarring to come to terms with. 
  • Substance or alcohol use: The consequences, as well as the emotional effects of psychoactive substances, can be common causes of anxiety. Psychologists have long tied correlations between anxiety disorders and substance use. But presently, it’s not known whether anxious individuals are more likely to become psychologically dependent on alcohol and substances because they use them to self-medicate, or because the withdrawals and comedown effects associated with substance use create feelings of anxiety. In addition, the side effect of some prescription and over-the-counter medications may cause anxiety. 

These are only 5 common causes of anxiety but they reflect situations or circumstances that many people may find themselves in. If you’re struggling with one of the 5 causes above, reaching out for a professional’s help could offer substantial relief. 

What in the Brain Causes Anxiety?

The amygdala is the portion of the brain that senses and processes anxious thoughts. Anxiety and stress are linked to the powerful hormone cortisol and norepinephrine, also known as adrenaline. Both of these hormones work together to trigger a strong physiological and psychological response to anxiety, which includes: 

  • Reduced appetite
  • Accelerated heart rate
  • Pupil dilation
  • Rapid breathing
  • Muscle tension
  • Racing thoughts
  • And many other symptoms
  • Insomnia

Cortisol in small amounts actually has an anti-inflammatory effect to a certain extent, and adrenaline can help regulate our emotions. But when the amygdala is repeatedly triggered, and a state of anxiety becomes a chronic occurrence, the immune system can become fatigued. Over time, this can create autoimmune disorders, joint pain, intramuscular pain, stiffness, weight loss, and a host of other painful symptoms. 

This is why anxiety disorders are typically linked to physical symptoms in the DSM-5, which may be noticed by the client far before they’re ever diagnosed with a form of anxiety by a provider.

Is Anxiety a Chemical Imbalance?

As listed above, long-term chemical imbalances caused by hormone levels can contribute to feelings of anxiety, but it’s unclear whether a chemical imbalance on its own can cause anxiety. Neurotransmitters are another aspect of brain chemistry; when neurotransmitters don’t work and communicate properly, anxiety can be an unintended consequence. There’s evidence that neurotransmitter function can be affected by childhood trauma, genetic factors, substance use, diet, and exercise. 

Anxiety may not be entirely a chemical imbalance, or solely a state of emotional distress, but regardless of how complicated an individual’s feelings of anxiety are, mental health services can offer a helping hand. And with the potential for chronic anxiety to develop into a disorder, it’s highly beneficial for both children and adults to access the care they need to cope with their anxious thoughts.