Up to 25% of American adults experience intense anxiety sometime in their lives. The prevalence of true anxiety disorders is much lower, although they are still the most common psychiatric conditions in the United States and affect more than 20 million Americans.
General Risk Factors for Anxiety Disorders
Gender. With the exception of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), women have twice the risk for most anxiety disorders as men. A number of factors may increase the reported risk in women, including cultural pressures to meet everyone else's needs except their own, and fewer self-restrictions on reporting anxiety to doctors.
Age. In general, phobias, OCD and separation anxiety show up early in childhood, while social phobia and panic disorder are often diagnosed during the teen years. Studies suggest that 3 - 5% of children and adolescents have some anxiety disorder. Children and adolescents who have an anxiety disorder are at risk of later developing other anxiety disorders, depression, and substance abuse.
Personality Factors. Children's personalities may indicate higher or lower risk for future anxiety disorders. For example, research suggests that extremely shy children and those likely to be the target of bullies are at higher risk for developing anxiety disorders later in life. Children who cannot tolerate uncertainty tend to be worriers, a major predictor of generalized anxiety. In fact, such traits may be biologically based and due to a hypersensitive amygdala -- the "fear center" in the brain.
Family History and Dynamics. Anxiety disorders tend to run in families. Genetic factors may play a role in some cases, but family dynamics and psychological influences are also often at work. Several studies show a strong correlation between a parent's fears and those of the offspring. Although an inherited trait may be present, some researchers believe that many children can "learn" fears and phobias, just by observing a parent or loved one's phobic or fearful reaction to an event.
Social Factors. Several studies have reported a significant increase in anxiety levels in children and college students in the past two decades compared to children in the 1950s. In several studies, anxiety was associated with a lack of social connections and a sense of a more threatening environment. It also appears that more socially alienated populations have higher levels of anxiety. For example, a study of Mexican adults living in California reported that native-born Mexican Americans were three times more likely to have anxiety disorders (and even more likely to be depressed) as those who had recently immigrated to the U.S. The longer the immigrants lived in the U.S., the greater their risk for psychiatric problems. Traditional Mexican cultural and social ties seemed to protect recently arrived immigrants from mental illness.
Traumatic Events. Traumatic events may trigger anxiety disorders, especially in individuals who are susceptible to them because of psychological, genetic, or biochemical factors. The clearest example is post-traumatic stress disorder. Specific traumatic events in childhood, particularly those that threaten family integrity, such as spousal or child abuse, can also lead to other anxiety and emotional disorders. Some types of specific phobias, for instance of spiders or snakes, may be triggered and perpetuated after a single traumatic exposure.
Review Date: 01/27/2011
Reviewed By: Harvey Simon, MD, Editor-in-Chief, Associate Professor of Medicine, Harvard Medical School; Physician, Massachusetts General Hospital. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M., Inc.