Anxiety is a mental illness that impacts millions of Americans. While there are treatment options available to help cope with anxiety, understanding the causes of anxiety is important to help manage it.
Anxiety is a natural part of life that can sometimes occur due to stressful situations. However, when anxiety becomes excessive or starts to affect daily life, constant anxiety may be a sign of an anxiety disorder. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, anxiety disorders are one of the most common psychiatric disorders in the general population, affecting around 19% of adults in the United States.
The causes of anxiety can vary, with risk factors ranging from genetics and brain chemistry to environmental factors and life experiences. With these potential causes in mind, individuals can work with healthcare providers to find an appropriate treatment. Read on to learn more about the causes of anxiety.
What are the Causes of Anxiety?
Genetics can play a role in the development of anxiety disorders. Studies have shown that if one twin has an anxiety disorder, the other twin is more likely to have one too. Some evidence suggests an overreaction of the sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight) may be linked to genetics and contribute to anxiety. In addition, having a family history of anxiety increases the risk for an individual to develop an anxiety disorder. This tells us that our genes may be a key factor in developing these conditions.
A variety of neurobiological factors can contribute to the causes of anxiety. One of these factors is the imbalance of neurotransmitters in the brain. Neurotransmitters are chemical messengers that are key in stabilizing mood and emotions. Serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine are neurotransmitters that, when imbalanced, may contribute to anxiety disorders. For example, low levels of serotonin have been linked to increased feelings of worry, fear or anxiety.
In addition to neurotransmitter imbalances, hormonal fluctuations can also contribute to anxiety. The stress hormone cortisol, for instance, is involved in our body’s stress response. Chronic or prolonged stress may lead to an overactive stress response, which may increase your risk of an anxiety disorder.
Environmental factors can also contribute to the risk of developing anxiety. One such factor is a person's family and cultural background. Often, negative life experiences or stressful events in early childhood or adulthood can act as risk factors for anxiety disorders. For instance, mental health researchers have found that childhood trauma has the potential to increase the risk of developing anxiety disorders later in life.
Several medical conditions may also contribute to the development of anxiety disorders. Certain conditions can directly cause symptoms of intense anxiety or panic, making it difficult for people to cope with their daily lives. For instance, hyperthyroidism is a medical condition in which the thyroid gland produces excessive amounts of thyroid hormones. An overactive thyroid can cause symptoms such as nervousness, irritability, increased sweating and panic attacks.
Another medical condition that may cause anxiety is Wilson's disease, a genetic disorder affecting copper metabolism in the body. Porphyria is a disorder of blood metabolism that can also contribute to anxiety. Both Wilson's disease and porphyria are relatively rare but can have significant impacts on mental health if left untreated. Other medical conditions that may be linked to anxiety include:
- Heart disease
- Lung conditions
- Substance use disorder
- Chronic pain syndrome
Some medications can cause anxiety as a side effect. Common medication types that may contribute to anxiety include stimulants, antidepressants and thyroid medications.
- Stimulants: These medications, such as caffeine and ADHD drugs, increase alertness and energy levels, which may lead to feelings of anxiety.
- Antidepressants: Although prescribed to treat depression, some antidepressants, like selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), can initially cause anxiety in certain individuals. It may take two to six weeks for the effects to stabilize.
- Thyroid medications: Certain medications used to treat thyroid disorders can lead to increased heart rate and anxiety symptoms.
- Corticosteroids: Medications like prednisone, often used to reduce inflammation, may provoke anxiety and other mood changes in some individuals.
- Rescue Inhalers: While important for managing conditions like asthma, some rescue inhalers, which often contain short-acting beta-agonists, can lead to jitteriness and anxiety in some people.
The risk of anxiety may be increased with higher doses and extended periods of treatment. Always consult with a healthcare provider if you suspect that your medication might be causing anxiety. They can help determine if a connection exists and recommend potential changes to your treatment plan.