Causes of Anxiety

Ph.D., CPsychol., AFBPsS, Health Professional

We are born to be anxious. Without it we would have no internal mechanism to monitor and respond to real or perceived threats. In this regard anxiety is both normal and necessary. When people ask about the causes of anxiety however they usually mean the uncomfortable sensations associated with it. Beyond this are the circumstances that evoke high levels of anxiety, but in the face of quite low levels of threat. It is these more extreme levels of anxiety that provoke a wide variety of explanations.

Excessive and ongoing worry may be diagnosed as generalized anxiety disorder (GAD). For the purposes of this Sharepost GAD provides an example of how different theoretical perspectives attempt to explain the symptoms. Essentially, these explanations can be thought of as biological, psychological and social in nature.

There is some evidence that family history can contribute to the risk of developing GAD although the consistency of such research is varied. Areas of brain associated with anxiety include the hippocampus and amygdala. These areas of the brain perform a regulatory role in anxiety and when stimulated the sympathetic nervous system becomes activated with the resulting sensation of anxiety. There is some evidence that points to abnormalities in these structures that result in over-stimulation of the sympathetic nervous system. Resulting low levels of the neurotransmitter GABA results in high levels of activation. The action of many anxiolytic (anti-anxiety) drugs is to enhance the effect of GABA.

Psychoanalytic explanations are something of a contrast. Freud, for example, pointed to over-protection or punishment during childhood as the basis for anxiety during adulthood. Too much protection means the child is not able to develop the necessary defence mechanisms as an adult. The implication for the adult is that the most minor of threats become a cause for anxiety. The child who is constantly punished develops the belief that his or her actions may lead to, or in some way deserve punishment, and hence the adult develops anxiety.

The humanist psychologist Carl Rogers speculated that anxiety develops when adults find they are unable to accept the person they have become. Rogers also focused on childhood as a critical period of development and theorized that when subjected to harsh criticism and the standards of those around them a child will try to accommodate these to the detriment of their personal beliefs and desires.

Levels of GAD are known to be higher in urban societies and increase during periods of major upheaval such as wars or political oppression. Ethnic groups in the lower socio-economic groups experience fairly high levels of GAD. Social influence and the effects of stress resulting in GAD have also been tracked. Men who are able to recall four or more major stressful events in the preceding year are roughly eight times more likely to develop GAD than those who recall just three.

Cognitive behavioral explanations tend to focus on the development of the unrealistic assumptions people with GAD display. Worrying, of course, is a central feature of GAD but so is about worrying about worrying and the assumptions that accompany this. Beck (1997) described these in terms of the person concluding that a situation should always be considered unsafe until proven safe and 'it's always best to assume the worst'. The attempt of many people with GAD to exert some level of personal control over the amount they worry only seems to increase their worries.