What causes Anxiety?

I have had several clients over the years ask me "why do I have this anxiety?" There are several things that can "cause" anxiety in a person, and the truth is we still don't know exactly what causes it and why some people develop it and others don't. Today, I'd like to give my opinion on the question What Causes Anxiety.

First, the kind of obvious causes: 

Trauma. Experiencing or witnessing a traumatic event (child abuse, a car accident, a shooting, a robbery, etc.) can all potentially leave a victim or witness feeling some level of anxiety. This can lead to Acute Stress Disorder or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). These disorders are characterized by a loss of functioning due to the debilitating effects of the anxiety. They are usually long-term and may not resolve themselves naturally. 

Tests or Performances. When we are going to be tested or perform in some way for someone else, this frequently leads to anxiety. Its not just for kids, either! Anyone giving a presentation at work or in front of a large group of people may experience anxiety. This is usually short-lived and goes away as soon as the event is over.

Similarly, having to make important decisions can lead to anxiety--what college am I going to go to? What am I going to be when I grow up? These kinds of things, much like tests and performances tend to solve themselves because once the decision is made, there's not much to be anxious about... unless you're anxious after the fact that you've made the wrong decision!

Finally, if we feel pressured to make a decision--for example you need to decide right now and once you've done that, you're not allowed to change your mind if a better offer comes along. I've heard of universities doing this to potential professors!

Okay, so those cases are pretty easy to see a direct relationship between event and anxiety response. What about so many of my clients that cannot identify a traumatic event, aren't taking a test or performing, aren't making important, life-altering decisions but feel anxious FOR NO APPARENT REASON? Where does THAT come from?

Science suggests that there is a genetic factor to anxiety disorders or just to a greater sensitivity to stress and anxiety. So, if your parent or grandparent was or is anxious, you might have a predisposition for it as well.

An anxiety response may also be something that is "learned" given how you were raised--if your parent was a "helicopter mom" (or dad) that always made sure to catch you before you fell, you might be more likely to feel anxious when she's not there to protect you--even into adulthood. This is perhaps more common that you might think!

We NEED to have falls and failures in order to see that they're NOT the end of the world and learn that we can overcome them, keep trying, and improve our ability to deal with misfortune because whether we like it or not, there's going to be some measure of misfortune during our lifetimes--that's just life.

There is one more factor that I believe is a contribution to the anxiety epidemic. Over the past 15 years or so that I've been involved in the field of psychology, anxiety disorders have become something extremely common. 15 years ago, I didn't see anxiety disorders. I saw kids with ADHD, adults with depression... there weren't so many anxious folks back then! Now, I still see kids with ADHD and adults (and kids) with depression but FAR more adults AND kids are coming in due to problems with anxiety. So, what has caused this epidemic of anxiety?  I strongly believe that our lifestyle is contributing to our anxiety. Think about it. 15 years ago, not everyone had a cell phone. (That was still in the days when pagers were the "cool thing"!) Not everyone had high speed internet access. Not everyone was on facebook. Now, I don't want to make the error of thinking correlations MEAN causation because obviously they don't. However, I see the amount of information and the speed with which we are exposed to it as contributing to the increase in anxiety. If we look above, pressure can lead to anxiety. If someone is bugging you to hurry up and make a decision, you feel anxious (and possibly upset!) Similarly, when we get used to information being available RIGHT NOW, this is what we come to expect. I can tell you that when my internet connection is slow, I'm tempted to smack my computer to get it to HURRY UP!

We have instant (or near instant) access to information 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. This is different than 50 years ago, but especially true in the past 10 years. It used to be that to get information you had to wait for the news to come on, wait for the newspaper to arrive, wait for the library to open... now, we can find just about anything in seconds. So, we are causing ourselves to not deal well with waiting. If we don't know something (like why I'm suddenly having back pain) we immediately search for information on google. We no longer have to sit with the uncertainty for a day or two (by which time the pain in my back has gone) so we're kind of becoming our own helicopter mom! We're not allowing ourselves to think and reason and be patient and let life unfold with happy anticipation for the future--we need to know right now and if we can't find out? Well, we're just not able to tolerate that and ... you guessed it, we feel anxious. 

Of course, research is ongoing to determine why we are experiencing an anxiety epidemic. These are just a few interesting pieces of the puzzle. 

[I just found, by doing a quick google search, a relatively recent study (published 1/2013) that was done on the link between cell phone useage and anxiety that pretty much confirms my hypothesis and observations. View it here.]