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Anxiety: Considering Its Causes 

Dr. James Ballard 

Anxiety is one of those words that looks and sounds like it should be wearing a white professional coat, a stethoscope, glasses, and have terrible bedside manner. If ever there was a word that rings as old school “medical,” anxiety is that word. Given such, the term and its meaning seem far away from your every-day understanding. In truth though, not only can it be understood, it a natural part of your life. Micah Abraham, BSc, in an article called A Brief History of Anxiety dated October 10, 2020, noted that anxiety has been around since humans were first worried about getting trampled by woolly mammoths. Anxiety, as described by Hansa D. Bhargava, MD, in an article dated June 25, 2020, called Anxiety Disorder, is a normal emotion. 

According to WebMD in an article by Jennifer Casarella, MD, called Anxiety Causes and Prevention dated September 14, 2021, anxiety disorders are the most common form of mental illness in the United States, affecting nearly 1 in 5 adults. Also, anxiety disorders are the most common mental disorders worldwide. Micah Abraham noted that at its core level, anxiety is a part of evolution, in that it reflects the activation of the fight or flight system – the system our bodies use to keep safe from harm. Abraham described anxiety as being when we experience nervousness (and all other related fight/flight symptoms) when there is no fear. According to Dr. Bhargava, this is how our brains react to stress and alert us to potential danger. Dr. Bhargava described how anxiety is okay, but how anxiety disorders are different. She described how anxiety disorders are a group of mental illnesses that cause constant and overwhelming anxiety and fear, which can make you avoid work, school, family get-togethers, and other social situations that might trigger or worsen your symptoms. 

According to the Mayo Clinic’s website, the causes of anxiety disorders aren’t fully understood. Micah Abraham, BSc, in an article dated January 5, 2022, called Is Anxiety Genetic? described how there is truth in the argument that genetics can play a part in anxiety disorders, while acknowledging that they are far from the sole determinant. Abraham described the causes of anxiety as falling into two categories: Environmental and Biological. Environmental causes referred to where you grew up, any stresses you’re currently under, and traumatic events you lived through. He reported that these can lead to anxiety. Life experiences such as traumatic events appear to trigger anxiety disorders in people who are already prone to anxiety. Abraham referred to biological factors as anything that can be traced to your DNA and/or your current physical health, and added that any physical changes to your brain, any health issues you’re experiencing, and any medications you’re taking can cause anxiety. If your parents however have anxiety, you may be more prone, but still may not necessarily develop it. 

According to Stan Ferguson in an article also called Is Anxiety Genetic? dated June 27, 2019 (reviewed by Timothy J. Legg, Ph.D., PsyD.), despite the environmental and biological argument, researchers are not 100 percent certain what causes anxiety disorders. Ferguson added that according to the National Institute of Mental Health Trusted Source (National Institute of Mental Health, 2015), you’re more likely to develop an anxiety disorder if you’ve had traumatic life experiences; you have a physical condition that is linked to anxiety, such as a thyroid disorder; and/or your biological relatives have anxiety disorders or other mental illnesses. According to the Office on Women’s Health (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, n.d.), you’re twice as likely to suffer from an anxiety disorder if you’re a woman. Ferguson’s conclusion, as is the conclusion of most researchers and practitioners, is that anxiety disorders can be both genetic and caused by environmental factors. 

The Mayo Clinic (Mayo Clinic, n.d.) describes medical causes of anxiety. It describes how for some; anxiety may be linked to an underlying health issue. In some cases, anxiety signs and symptoms are the first indicators of a medical illness. If your doctor suspects your anxiety may have a medical cause, they may order tests to look for signs of a problem. The Mayo clinical identifies examples of medical problems that can be linked to anxiety as including: 

  • Heart Disease 
  • Diabetes 
  • Thyroid problems, such as hyperthyroidism 
  • Respiratory disorders, such as Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) and Asthma 
  • Drug misuse and withdrawal 
  • Chronic pain or irritable bowel syndrome 
  • Withdrawal from alcohol, anti-anxiety medications (e.g., benzodiazepines), or other medications. 

The Mayo Clinic added that sometimes anxiety can be a side effect of certain medications and proposed that medical conditions may be the driver of anxiety, particularly if you don’t have any blood relatives with an anxiety disorder, didn’t have an anxiety disorder as a child, don’t avoid certain things or situations because of anxiety, and don’t have a sudden occurrence of anxiety that seems unrelated to life events and didn’t have previous history of anxiety. 

The cause of anxiety ultimately includes both genetic and environmental factors. Also, of equal importance to know, anxiety is treatable. Take the time to understand how anxiety manifests itself in you, your family, your life experiences, and your lifestyle. Your calm will thank you. 

References 

Abraham, Micah. (2020). A brief history of anxiety. Calm Clinic. 

https://www.calmclinic.com/brief-history-of-anxiety.

Abraham, Micah. (2022). Is anxiety genetic? Calm Clinic. https://anxietyhub.org/anxiety- 

disorder-statistics/ 

Bhargava, Hansa D. (2020). Anxiety disorder. WebMd. https://www.webmd.com/anxiety- 

panic/guide/anxiety-disorders 

Casarella, Jennifer. (2021). Anxiety causes and prevention. WebMd. 

https://www.webmd.com/anxiety-panic/guide/causes-anxiety

Ferguson, Stan. (2019). Is anxiety genetic? Healthline. 

https://www.healthline.com/health/mental-health/is-anxiety-genetic

Mayo Clinic. Anxiety disorders. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases- 

conditions/anxiety/symptoms-causes/syc-20350961 

National Institute of Mental Health. (2015). What are anxiety disorders? 

https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/anxiety-disorders

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. OASH Office of Women’s Health. Anxiety 

Disorders. https://www.womenshealth.gov/mental-health/mental-health- 

conditions/anxiety-disorders#references 

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