Top 10 Causes of Anxiety

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It's natural to seek the causes of anxiety. Anxiety is miserable--life-limiting and ruthless. When we feel like a prisoner in our own mind, of course, we want to know why. How did we become trapped like this? What caused this plight? Sometimes, knowing the causes of anxiety can help lead to a solution to beat anxiety. Think of food: if we know something causes us to become violently ill, we won't eat it. Likewise, if we knew what caused our anxiety, we could take action to do other things instead. In the spirit of addressing the causes of anxiety to overcome our worries, fears, and avoidance, here are 10 primary causes of anxiety.

Before diving into the list of anxiety causes, it's important to understand the nature of anxiety and things that cause it. While there can indeed be forces behind anxiety, sometimes we can't pinpoint a cause of our own anxiety. There's probably an underlying cause, but it can't always be easily identified. That can be perfectly okay. You can reduce and even overcome anxiety without knowing a cause. Further, everyone's anxiety is personal, so each person's anxiety causes are unique. Anxiety causes aren't one-size-fits-all. 

That said, anxiety can have a variety of causes. Let's take a look at 10 major causes of anxiety. 

Top 10 Causes of Anxiety

In no particular order, these are 10 of the main causes of anxiety.

1. Neurochemistry--Much of anxiety is brain-based and rooted in our biochemistry. Neurotransmitters like serotonin, GABA, and dopamine become off balanced; too much or too little of any neurotransmitter can cause the feelings of anxiety. Also, when structures of the brain overreact to stress or the fight-or-flight response, the brain goes into overdrive and we experience anxiety (Anxiety Is in Your Head [Your Brain!]). 

2. Lifestyle: Diet--The foods we eat affect the brain and can cause anxiety. Eating too many processed and refined foods and not enough nutritious foods deprives the brain of what it needs to make neurotransmitters and remain calm (List of Foods That Help and Hurt Anxiety). 

3. Lifestyle: Movement--A sedentary lifestyle has been linked to various types of anxiety and anxiety symptoms. Movement and exercise are crucial for overall mental health and wellbeing, and they're imperative in anxiety management. A lack of exercise contributes to anxiety and stress. 

4. Genetics--Anxiety can run in families. Anxiety is a trait that is considered to be heritable. This means that it's not always directly passed down from parent to child the way physical traits like eye color are. Instead, people can be genetically predisposed to developing anxiety (or to being anxiety-free). 

5. Modeling--Sometimes, anxiety is learned. Parents who are excessive worriers, whether or not they are diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, sometimes unintentionally teach their children that the world is unsafe and that anxiety is the response to have. People can learn the behavior from others, too: other relatives, teachers, a best friend, etc. This does not mean that people are at fault for each other's anxiety. Parents aren't to blame when their children (or adult children) develop anxiety. This cause simply means that people learn many things through observation. Anxiety can be one of them. 

6. A learned response--Anxiety can be learned in other ways, too, such as from our own instinctive fear responses. When faced with an extreme stressor or fearful situation, we automatically enter the fight-or-flight mode. Fleeing a situation quite often works. We get to safety. Our anxiety wanes. We learn that when things are scary, avoiding them makes us feel better. Unfortunately, the more we do this, the more fearful and anxious we become until we suddenly realize that we are trapped in a cycle of anxiety and avoidance. 

7. Environment--A big cause of anxiety is the environment, or situations we find ourselves in. Anything involving change can be anxiety-provoking. Stressful situations at work, school, or home can cause anxiety, too. These environmental situations can cause anxiety temporarily or long-term. 

8. Medical/physiological--Sometimes, anxiety can be caused by a medical condition or something going on in the body. Especially if you have new anxiety, it's important to see your doctor for a check-up just to rule out anything medical. 

9. Future- or past-orientation--Living anywhere but the present (living in the present is also known as mindfulness or mindful living) can cause anxiety. If you find yourself ruminating over the past or constantly imagining and worrying over the future, you're not living in the present. A past- or future-orientation can cause a great deal of anxiety, and this type of anxiety can easily feed on itself and spiral out of control. 

10. Being human--Anxiety is an inherent part of the human condition. That can be a good thing. A healthy amount of anxiety keeps us alert and motivated. It helps us do what we need to do. It's when anxiety becomes all-encompassing and traps us in life-limiting ways that it becomes a problem. 

These 10 causes of anxiety aren't the only causes, but they are among the major factors that contribute to anxiety. When you can identify a cause for your anxiety, you can use it as a starting point to work your way back out of anxiety. 

APA Reference
Peterson, T. (2018, May 24). Top 10 Causes of Anxiety , HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, July 21 from

Author: Tanya J. Peterson, MS, NCC, DAIS

Tanya J. Peterson is the author of numerous anxiety self-help books, including The Morning Magic 5-Minute Journal, The Mindful Path Through Anxiety, 101 Ways to Help Stop Anxiety, The 5-Minute Anxiety Relief Journal, The Mindfulness Journal for Anxiety, The Mindfulness Workbook for Anxiety, and Break Free: Acceptance and Commitment Therapy in 3 steps. She has also written five critically acclaimed, award-winning novels about life with mental health challenges. She delivers workshops for all ages and provides online and in-person mental health education for youth. She has shared information about creating a quality life on podcasts, summits, print and online interviews and articles, and at speaking events. Tanya is a Diplomate of the American Institution of Stress helping to educate others about stress and provide useful tools for handling it well in order to live a healthy and vibrant life. Find her on her website, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

Dr Musli Ferati
January, 30 2019 at 11:40 pm

Among these 10 guilty causes of anxiety three ones (2,3,9) are most preventable and rectifiable, as well. Indeed, they depend from our personal mindset an behave that moderate substantially our emotional condition. So, we can obviously improve the claws of anxiety, as common emotional disorder. In fact, I didn't underestimate the role of other 7 causes of anxiety, but we could't ameliorate as much as possible the psycho-pathological impact of their implication in our emotional state. For example hereditary, environment, neurochemistry are outside our power, and we couldn't make something better. As to become for modeling, learning response and medical/physiological predictors we ought to seek any support and help from others. In a word, anxiety presents complex and alarming mental condition, which ones deserve more care and concern from community, in order to humanism our common life environment.

February, 2 2019 at 1:38 pm

Hello Dr. Ferati,
You raise excellent and useful points. Truly, while anxiety has multiple causes, the ones we should focus on in treatment are those over which we have some control. Awareness of other causes can help people put their anxiety in perspective, but dwelling on things we can't change keeps us stuck. Accepting and moving forward by focusing on where we can take action will be effective in reducing anxiety. Also, I appreciate your remarks about community as well as receiving and giving support. That is key. Thank you for your insights.

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