What Causes Anxiety?
If you struggle with maladaptive anxiety, a big question you likely have is why is this happening to me?
The short answer - it’s a mixed bag.
Anxiety develops out of a range of factors, and the influence of different factors varies widely from person to person.
The long answer - there are some common factors that we can look to. As you read through these common factors, you may feel that some don’t apply to you, while others may feel very familiar.
Genetics: If a person has family members with a history of maladaptive anxiety, then that person has a higher-than-average chance of developing anxiety issues themselves.
Is there a history of anxiety or depression in your family? Has there been relational or political trauma in your family history? Did your anxiety symptoms show up at a very young age without any clear cause?
Some of us were just dealt anxiety-related genes at birth. However, our genes are not the whole story. A person can be born with a genetic predisposition to anxiety and not have any issues. Life experiences have a very strong influence on how our genes express themselves.
Temperamental Sensitivity: As part of our genetic inheritance, some of us are born with a more sensitive personality.
You know how one baby will get excited when they encounter something new, while another baby will burst into tears? The crying baby could be highly sensitive. Some folks have sensory receptors are more open to the world around them. Their feelings are more intense, more difficult to manage, just MORE!
Were you that kid who freaked out when a movie got scary? Who cried at just the thought of a loved one in pain? Do you have an active imagination? Do you get overwhelmed in noisy, crowded spaces? Do you sometimes feel that the suffering of the world is on your shoulders?
You may be naturally sensitive. As such, you likely have to work harder than average to manage your intense inner world. If you don’t have the support you need to deal with this intensity, maladaptive anxiety can develop.
Fear-Based Messages from Caregivers: Some of us grew up simmering in the soup of an anxious world view.
Did your parents believe that the world was unsafe, or that people couldn’t be trusted? Did they hold very high expectations for you, or were they perfectionists themselves? Perhaps they were rigid or controlling of you in their attempt to keep you safe and successful in life.
As impressionable young children, we can absorb these messages and internalize them. Over time, fear and judgement become foundational to how we see things, creating an internal world view in which anxiety thrives.
Trauma: This is a big one. When we experience a life-threatening situation, we enter into states of high fight, fright, or freeze, which can wreak havoc on our nervous system. Car accidents, illness, assaults, natural disasters – these types of events can create a baseline of fear in our bodies that has far-reaching outcomes in our lives.
But trauma doesn’t only come from life-threatening events. There are less obvious forms of trauma that have profound impacts on our overall sense of safety.
For example, a child who is emotionally neglected by their parents may not be in physical danger; however, human beings need loving connection with other humans in order to feel safe. For a child, the isolation and rejection of emotional neglect can be highly traumatic. This can follow the child into adulthood as maladaptive anxiety.
Traumas don’t have to involve abuse or neglect. For example, a child may have a loving, attentive father who explodes in anger when he is stressed from work. The child is never unsafe; however the intensity of their father’s outbursts creates confusion and fear in the child (especially if they have a sensitive temperament!). The child may begin to believe that if they never make a fuss or a mess at home, then their dad won’t get upset anymore. Though the father wants only the best for their child, the seeds for future anxiety have been sown.
Have you ever been in a situation where your physical safety was under threat? Were you raised in an environment where you witnessed or experienced violence? Did you not have your basic needs for connection and support met by your parents? Did you ever feel that you had to be certain way to earn your parents’ love? Were you ever bullied or severely excluded by your peers?
These are just a few examples – do any of them sound familiar to you? It may that trauma is playing a role in how anxiety appears in your life.
Perfectionism: Do you expect only the best from yourself? Do you berate yourself when you don’t get everything just right? High expectations of self often go hand in hand with anxiety. Somewhere along the way, you may have internalized the belief that the only way to attain acceptance, love, and safety, is to be perfect.
This belief may have roots in how we were or weren’t valued by our family, but we also live in a society with very high expectations for achievement and success. Our culture doesn’t value mistakes as natural stages of growth, or view imperfections as a basic reality of being human.
The pressure of perfectionism can be extremely hard on our nervous system. If we have an inner judge that watches over our every move, and which treats us horribly when we don’t get it right, this can create unmanageable levels of caution within us. Anxiety symptoms can be a signal that our inner judge has too much power, and that we need to go easier on ourselves.
Stress: Are there events going on in your life that are just too much to handle? Many of us experience a level of anxiety that is annoying at times, but isn’t that big of a deal when things are going well. But then something stressful happens in our lives, and anxiety explodes. Death and loss, financial strain, health issues, family responsibilities, or even positive changes like a great new job can lead to us feeling overwhelmed.
Sometimes anxiety can grow out of stress even when there’s not a specific event that set it off. Some of us may be too burned out from work, or struggling in our marriage, or we may be overwhelmed by all the responsibilities of running a busy family. Anxiety symptoms can be an invitation for us to slow life down and find new ways to deal with stress.
Unexpressed Needs and Feelings: Anxiety loves nothing more than a repressed need or emotion. If we continually repress what is important to us, our nervous system can suffer.
For example, a mother of a baby and a toddler may have no idea why she’s suddenly experiencing panic attacks in grocery stores. If we scratch beneath the surface, we may learn that she is feeling a strong need for connection with her partner and friends, and that she is struggling with isolation when she is home alone with her children. She may feel guilty about this (especially if she wants to be the perfect mom!), and this internal conflict creates inner stress and, ultimately, anxiety symptoms.
Extreme Thinking Patterns: According to the anxious mind, if things are going to go wrong, they will go wrong catastrophically. If you make a mistake, then you are a failure who will never get ahead. If a friend doesn’t return your text quicky, then you become convinced that they hate you. People who struggle with anxiety tend to also struggle with thought patterns that tend toward extreme conclusions.
Have you ever spent days caught up in fear over an imagined threat, only to find out that whatever it was you were so scared about wasn’t that big of a deal? Have you ever been sure that someone was upset with you and had a thousand arguments with them in your head, only to find that they weren’t upset with you after all? How we think has a large impact on our emotions, our bodies, and how stressed we feel in our lives.
Systemic Injustice: It’s too easy to overlook the role that systemic injustice plays in how we experience anxiety. For people who have experienced racism, sexism, gender discrimination, or any other forms of social oppression, fear can be a constant part of life. It is very challenging to create internal safety when the society around you is telling you again and again that you are less than, that you are wrong just for being who you are, and that you are more vulnerable to rejection or violence.
Do you feel that you are constantly on guard as soon as you leave your home, afraid of how your race or gender may make you a target? Have you had to deal with so much sexual harassment that you feel that your own body is not a safe place? Discrimination can play a profound role in how safe you feel in your world and in your own body and mind.
Lifestyle: Lifestyle plays a huge role in the development of anxiety symptoms. What we eat matters – foods that are high in sugar and caffeine can make anxiety worse. Lack of sleep can also make anxiety worse (a vicious cycle if anxiety disrupts your sleep!). How much rest we get, how much alcohol or drugs we use, how much we exercise we do, how busy our schedule is, how tense our body is – all of these can impact anxiety.
Have you noticed that your anxiety gets worse when you’re not eating that great, or when you’re too busy to exercise? Have you ever had “hangxiety,” the anxiety that often comes with a hangover? Managing anxiety in our lives often involves setting up lifestyle routines that better support our nervous systems.
A Dysregulated Nervous System: Last but not least! A dysregulated nervous system is the physiological reality that underlies all of the causes of anxiety that I’ve mentioned above. Genes and temperamental sensitivities express themselves through our nervous system. Trauma and intergenerational trauma creates instability in our nervous system, which in turn creates instability in how we think, feel, and behave in our lives. Stress, perfectionism, extreme thinking – these are all connected to an imbalance between our sympathetic nervous system (fight, flight, freeze) and our parasympathetic nervous system (which is responsible for our sense of peace and safety).
In treating anxiety, we look at thoughts and feelings, but as a counsellor, I also make space to heal our poor, battered nervous system. There are many ways to help our nervous system to calm down and ground itself in a sense of safety. And the good news is that many of these treatments, which are designed to soothe our nervous system, feel fantastic.