What Causes Anxiety? Understanding The Most Common Triggers

Meta-description: Anxiety affects over 40 million adults in the United States alone. Learn what triggers anxiety and find out how you can get better with the right treatment plan.

Affecting over 40 million adults in the United States, anxiety disorders are among the most common mental illnesses in the world. But what causes anxiety in the first place?

In this overview, we talk about some of the most common factors that can trigger anxiety, as well as what you can do if you suspect that you might suffer from an anxiety disorder.

Understanding Anxiety

Anxiety and panic are natural responses to stress. Scientists believe that humans adapted anxiety to protect themselves from potentially dangerous situations.

However, when anxiety becomes so persistent that it interferes with your day-to-day life, that’s when it becomes a disorder. For people with anxiety disorders, there is often a constant feeling of dread, fear, and worry about everyday situations.

Some people may experience a very sudden and intense feeling of terror or a sensation of losing control of their own bodies. This is a panic attack, and it manifests physical symptoms not unlike a heart attack. Sufferers can experience shortness of breath, heart palpitations, chest pain, chills, nausea, and even fainting.

Although panic attacks are usually not life-threatening, they can be severely distressing. People who frequently experience panic attacks may constantly live in fear of the next one, resulting in what is called a panic disorder.

Aside from panic disorder, there are several other types of anxiety disorders, including:

  • Generalized Anxiety Disorder: This is characterized by excessive and persistent worrying, often about typically mundane issues like work, finances, health, and family. Individuals with Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) will often fear the worst in any given situation, even if there is no real cause for concern. Having GAD can feel like being stuck in a cycle of worry – at its worst, it can get in the way of day-to-day tasks and maintaining relationships.
  • Agoraphobia: While often mistaken for the fear of being outside, agoraphobia is actually a fear of situations that may cause one to panic. Those suffering from agoraphobia have an immense fear that, should they find themselves in a stressful situation, they won’t be able to escape somewhere safe. Because of this, many agoraphobes avoid crowded places, enclosed spaces, or even leaving their homes altogether.
  • Social anxiety disorder: This disorder is characterized by an intense fear of social situations. For most socially anxious people, the anxiety stems from the fear of being judged and humiliated by others. Sufferers of SAD tend to avoid meeting new people and big social gatherings.
  • Separation anxiety disorder: Separation anxiety disorder stems from the fear of being away from or losing loved ones. Symptoms include refusing to be away from one’s parents, children, or partners; recurring nightmares about separation; and excessive distress about being away from a loved one, even if only for a short period of time.
  • Specific phobias: Having a specific phobia means that there’s an irrational fear that something – for example, flying, spiders, vomiting – will cause the person harm. These phobias can be so extreme to the point of disrupting a person’s daily life.

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) and Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) are two other mental illnesses that are closely related to anxiety disorders, often getting lumped together with them.

What Causes Anxiety?

The exact causes of anxiety disorders are hard to pin down. While it is partially due to genetics – meaning some people are more predisposed to it than others – it can also be triggered by stressful life events, traumatic experiences, and physical ailments.


While stress is your body’s reaction to a difficult situation, anxiety is a response to stress. Going through an immensely stressful personal situation – be it the death of a loved one, a major health scare, or financial difficulties – can all trigger an anxiety attack.

It’s fairly common to be triggered by tragedies, calamities, and world events as well. According to the Mayo Clinic, more US adults have reported symptoms of stress, anxiety, and depression during the COVID-19 pandemic compared to before the pandemic began.


Witnessing or enduring traumatic life experiences, such as abuse, sexual harassment and violence, the death of a loved one, a serious illness, or a severe accident can all trigger anxiety in an individual.

Family History Of Mental Health Conditions

Genetics is one of the biggest risk factors for anxiety disorders. If someone in your family has a mental health condition, you are more likely to develop one yourself. In fact, research shows that anxiety disorders have a 26 percent heritability rate, meaning that ¼ of your risk for developing an anxiety disorder is down to your genetics.

Underlying Health Problem

In certain cases, anxiety is not a standalone disorder but rather a symptom of an underlying medical condition. Certain illnesses, like brain tumors, thyroid problems, infectious diseases, and neurological conditions can all trigger anxiety. Other health problems like poor nutrition and vitamin deficiencies can also cause anxiety.

People who are chronically ill may also develop anxiety, due to the stresses brought on by either the illness itself or the treatment. Chronic illnesses that are usually associated with anxiety include fibromyalgia, lupus, Alzheimer’s, and Guillain-Barre syndrome.

Some people who have experienced serious illnesses in their childhood, or those who have seen family members grapple with health problems such as heart disease and cancer, can also develop health anxiety or hypochondria. This is marked by an obsessive worry about being or getting sick.

Personality Traits

While anxiety is believed to be a result of a combination of brain chemistry and external factors, some researchers believe that certain personality types are more prone to developing anxiety disorders. This includes those who are more introverted, emotionally unstable, or have low self-esteem.

Side Effect Of Medication

Certain over-the-counter medications, such as pills with caffeine, corticosteroids, asthma medications, seizure drugs, and meds for ADHD can also trigger anxiety symptoms.

Antidepressants have also been found to cause anxiety in some people. There is a big overlap between people with depression and people with anxiety disorders. In fact, the ADAA states that nearly half of those diagnosed with depression are also diagnosed with some type of anxiety disorder.

Some patients who are just starting their medication can experience activation syndrome, which can induce feelings of jitteriness, irritability, and restlessness. These usually go away once the person adjusts to their medication.

Substance Abuse

Substance abuse could be a symptom of underlying mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression – people who don’t know how to manage their condition may turn to drugs and alcohol to feel better. However, drugs and alcohol may also exacerbate symptoms of anxiety (especially as their effects wear off), putting sufferers in a vicious cycle.

Unfortunately, there is no definitive answer as to why anxiety is seemingly more prevalent today. While there are theories about factors like social media and loneliness contributing to the rise in anxiety, most experts believe that anxiety is not so much on the rise as it is becoming less stigmatized over the years. As more people become comfortable talking about mental health, more anxiety sufferers become open to seeking treatment.

What Can I Do About My Anxiety?

Anxiety disorders are some of the most treatable mental illnesses in the world. Treatment usually starts with getting in touch with a doctor who can properly diagnose your condition, help you identify your triggers, and teach you how to cope with your illness.

Your doctor may encourage you to try Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, which is a treatment plan that helps patients identify and change harmful thought patterns. Other treatment options include medication, one-on-one and group therapy sessions, and meditation, as well as setting healthy routines and making changes to one’s diet and exercise.

Anxiety is manageable with proper treatment. If you or someone you know is suffering from anxiety, Transformations at Mending Fences offers a variety of treatment options for anxiety disorders, as well as other mental health conditions such as substance abuse, depression, and OCD. Contact us today to find out more!

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