The first time I had a panic attack, I had no idea what anxiety was – I assumed there was something seriously wrong with me. I spent years learning as much as I could about anxiety, so I could really understand and prevent it. So, what is the root cause of anxiety?
The root cause of anxiety is a combination of biological and environmental factors (nature vs nurture). Anxiety varies greatly from person to person, ranging from occasional stress to full-blown anxiety attacks, with many different possible triggers. It is possible to decrease anxiety naturally through lifestyle changes and therapy.
When it comes to mental health issues, there is rarely a once-size-fits-all solution that works for everyone. This is why it is so important to really take the time to understand what the root cause of your anxiety in particular may be. In this article, we’ll be covering the nature of anxiety in detail, to help you truly understand how it works and what can be done to prevent it.
If you only ever read one article on this site in its entirety, this is the one I’d recommend.
Let’s dive in!
What Does “Anxiety” Mean?
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, 18-30% of adults experience anxiety or panic disorders. This makes it the number one health issue in America today! (source)
Anxiety is defined by the dictionary as “a feeling of worry, nervousness, or unease, typically about an imminent event or something with an uncertain outcome.”
While this common definition is indeed true, it doesn’t exactly capture the full breadth of what “anxiety” really means. Anxiety can occur due to the anticipation of an event or outcome, but it can also occur for seemingly no obvious reason at all! The word “anxiety” could be used to refer to a temporary emotion, or it could be used to refer to a recurrent psychological disorder.
Regardless of the form, frequency, or severity of your anxiety, one thing is almost always certain – anxiety is extremely uncomfortable. Let’s quickly discuss what anxiety feels like, as identifying it is often the best first step towards conquering it.
What Does Anxiety Feel Like?
First things first – what does anxiety feel like? For the young people reading this, maybe you’re experiencing anxiety for the first time; for others, maybe you’re just feeling something new and aren’t sure whether it’s anxiety or not. No problem.
But before we really get into this, it’s important to note: If you’re ever feeling something new (mentally or physically) that concerns you, you should talk to your doctor about it. My goal with this website is to help pass on the knowledge and experience I’ve gained while fighting anxiety over the years, but it should not substitute for professional medical advice. A quick check-up with the doctor can help tremendously, even if it’s just for some peace of mind.
With that said, anxiety can manifest itself in many different ways. In my own personal life, for example, I’ve felt a huge array of symptoms. I have felt jitters, nausea, discomfort, shaking hands, racing thoughts, and the inability to focus on days where I just felt generally anxious. I’ve also felt symptoms like heart palpitations, numb fingers, racing heart, hyperventilation, and a sense of impending doom during occasions where I entered full-blown panic attack mode. Even within just one person like myself, symptoms can range considerably; from person-to-person the differences can be massive.
Here’s a quick list of some of the most common symptoms of anxiety:
What are the Symptoms of Anxiety?
These are some of the most common symptoms of anxiety. It’s possible that you experience all of these symptoms when anxious; it’s also possible that you feel none of them or feel something else entirely. Generally speaking, however, these symptoms can be pretty strong indicators of anxiety.
As for when and where people experience anxiety, that too is a variable as unique as a fingerprint. Factors such as these can help to give you some idea as to which anxiety disorder, if any, you might be dealing with.
What are the 6 Types of Anxiety Disorders?
If you’re experiencing any of the previously mentioned symptoms of anxiety, it’s possible that you might be suffering from an anxiety disorder. Now, it’s important to keep in mind: Occasional anxiety is normal for anyone, and does not necessarily denote an anxiety disorder.
Feeling a bit nervous the day before your wedding is a common, and normal, time to experience anxiety.
Having a panic attack every time you need to go grocery shopping is atypical, and likely indicates an underlying anxiety disorder.
I am not qualified or able to diagnose or treat your anxiety disorder, but I can help you to understand a bit about anxiety disorders in general. If one seems to resonate with you, it may be worth your while to explore it further.
The 6 Most Common Types of Anxiety Disorders:
For a general overview on each of these different anxiety disorders, check out my full article on the 6 Types of Anxiety Disorders, here. If you’re interested in learning more about one in particular, simply click on its name in the list to be redirected to a page about that specific anxiety disorder.
Exploring these anxiety disorders a bit can show you just how wildly anxiety can vary from person to person. Generalized anxiety disorder and panic disorder can occur on a regular basis without necessarily having any triggers; Whereas social anxiety disorder and phobias typically only occur under certain conditions.
If you do have an anxiety disorder, learning more about the root cause and anxiety triggers for that disorder is an essential step towards beating it.
And remember, don’t let the word “disorder” freak you out too much. All of these conditions are highly manageable, even without relying on prescription medications for anxiety. We’ll be able to help steer you in the right direction later on, so don’t sweat it!
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What is the Root Cause of Anxiety?
Anxiety is cultivated in our minds through two main pathways:
- Nature - Fears that we are born with, naturally. This varies by your individual genetics, but is largely rooted in evolutionary psychology.
- Nurture - Fears we learn over time. This may be the result of a traumatic event, or something that we learn to fear by association, for being similar to something else we already fear (e.g. learning to fear bicycles because you fell off of a motorcycle).
In other words, both biological factors like genetics, and environmental factors like traumatic experiences can contribute to our feelings of anxiety. Regardless of how your brain learns to fear something, the reason it happens is the same; to keep you alive and reproducing.
But why would our brains sabotage us like this?
The Evolutionary Explanation of Anxiety (Nature)
To understand anxiety, you need to understand some basic evolutionary psychology; why our brains evolved the way they did over the course of millions of years.
When we feel fear or anxiety, what we are really feeling is our brain’s “fight-or-flight” mechanism, triggered by the amygdala. That “knot in your stomach” feeling is your body pulling blood from your organs to your extremities; to help you fight or escape from whatever situation you may be in.
For this reason, if you were to be thrown in a cage with a bear or lion, you would likely feel a fear unlike anything you’ve felt before; because you are genetically programmed to feel this fear.
Because all of our ancestors who carried the genetic code not feel this fear were consequently eaten by predators and did not pass on the "don’t-fear-lions gene."
The same goes for any kind of fear we feel today; predators, venomous snakes and spiders, heights, you name it. We fear them because that fear is what kept our ancestors alive.
Every time we feel anxiety in today’s day and age, it is either because of something we have naturally evolved to fear, or something we have learned to fear; something that we have grown to fear by association or the result of a highly negative experience.
What About my Fear of Public Speaking, Approaching Women, etc...?
Again, nearly everything that causes us anxiety today stems from our early roots as an evolving species. When you are standing in front of a classroom to give a presentation and suddenly feel a panic attack coming on, it’s no coincidence.
Now, granted, your 8th grade peers are probably not going to butcher you if you mess up at the science fair. However, our modern environment is not the same as the one that our ancestors evolved (and consequently developed their fears) in.
For our early human ancestors, as social creatures, being ostracized and outcast from the group almost certainly meant their death. 20-30 sets of eyes all focused on one individual back then was likely not a good thing. Hence why many individuals still carry the fear with them today.
Picking Up Where Evolution Left Off
While many human fears were completely rational and relevant for the survival of our early ancestors, we are left to carry the burdens of them in the radically different environments of the 21st century.
Most seemingly irrational fears today are just that; irrational today.
For this reason, it is our duty to pick up where evolution left off. To go above and beyond the call of early man, and mend the scars left on our inner psyches by millennia of evolution. We’ll direct you toward some methods for this later!
Environmental Causes of Anxiety (Nurture)
While many of our modern fears and anxieties do correlate to situations that would have been life-or-death for our ancestors, this is not always the case.
Let’s take a look at panic disorder, for example.
Panic disorder usually develops after a person experiences a severe panic attack, after which they begin to fear and avoid anything that might trigger additional panic attacks. Does this mean that our ancestors were out in the forest constantly at risk of encountering a wild and hungry panic attack? Of course not.
Our unique and personal biology (nature) accounts for a huge amount of our fears and anxieties; this is what we’ve inherited from our ancestors. Any other fears and anxieties we might have are due to our environmental experiences (nurture). This other half is why two genetically identical twins can have different fears – our individual life experiences shape our neural landscapes.
How Anxiety is Learned – Paired Association
At this point, you might still be wondering how your anxiety fits into all this. It can seem pretty clear why people are afraid of bears, snakes, and heights… but where does your fear of, say for example, grocery shopping come from? Surely, it’s a stretch to compare buying strawberries to some obscure genetic memory of gathering them in a field, right?
This is where paired association comes into play. Paired association is the process by which the brain pairs an emotional response (anxiety) with a neutral stimulus/object (something that didn’t previously give you anxiety). To explain exactly how this can happen, I’ll use an example from my own life:
When I first started having panic attacks in early high school, I really had no idea what was going on. The triggers weren’t obvious to me, so I’d just be going about my day and a panic attack would come on. While this was still relatively new for me, I had to give a class presentation. I wasn’t nervous for the presentation; not even a little bit. I had done plenty of them in the past, and never had a previous issue with public speaking. However, I had a random mini panic attack while giving my speech (it looked a bit like Dan Harris’ panic attack on live TV, I think I hid it somewhat well). After this experience, I developed a severe phobia of public speaking, due to paired association. A neutral stimulus was paired with my panic attack, and my brain learned a new thing to fear, since my brain now associated public speaking with panic attacks. For a while, the paired associations got even worse to the point where even reading a sentence or two out loud caused my heart rate to spike!
But enough about me, let’s take a look at a totally different example of paired association.
Imagine a woman with social anxiety disorder goes grocery shopping. Everything is fine, until she runs into a group of 3 other women she used to go to high school with. She gets roped into a conversation she wasn’t anticipating and isn’t enjoying, and now her anxiety is spiking as she looks for a way to escape the situation. The following week, when it’s time for her to go grocery again, she experiences anxiety as soon as she starts to think about going to the store. Paired association has forced her to learn a new fear – the grocery store in this case.
For some people, paired associations can develop rapidly, swiftly increasing their anxiety while decreasing their comfort zone. This is how fears such as agoraphobia develop and worsen over time, and why some agoraphobes are unable to even leave their house without feeling anxious.
This is why – regardless of what the root cause of anxiety is for us – it’s SO important that we are always trying to reclaim the territory of our comfort zone. This is what exposure therapy is all about – but let’s save that for later!
Other Root Causes of Anxiety
These nature and nurture pathways can account for pretty much all aspects of our psyche. The root cause of anxiety, or of any anxiety disorder you may develop, can always be traced back to these factors.
But, so far, we’ve only really discussed factors that are more or less outside of your control. I mean, after all, we don’t choose our genetics, and we can only influence our environment so much… right?
Well, this is where you’ll need to take a closer look at any of the “sneakier” causes of anxiety.
This step might seem tedious, but if a certain habit is causing you to be even 1% more anxious, isn’t it worth correcting that behavior? Remember, every change adds up, and any 1% could be the straw that break the camels back and causes a panic attack that set you further back. I’ll go into a bunch of these insidious potential causes of anxiety a bit here, but I’ll also provide links for you to go to full articles where you can learn much more about each.
Healthy Lifestyle Habits
Listen, I know you don’t want to be going to the gym, doing yoga, or meditating every day. I get it. But, like we talked about earlier, we’ve got an ancient piece of machinery in our heads. Our brains were built for activity. 3 minutes on the Shake Weight isn’t going to cut it.
When we sit at a computer desk from 9-5, then stare at a TV screen from 5-9, it’s going to take a toll on our mental and emotional health. Even if you don’t care about having a fit and attractive physique, you owe it to your mental health to be participating in at least one of these healthy lifestyle habits – this is absolutely one of the easiest and most effective changes you can implement to reduce anxiety. I don’t want to sound harsh, but it only gets harder from here; if you’re unwilling to make these small lifestyle changes, you’re going to have a very long road ahead of you. Even 10 minutes a day is enough, just make the effort.
A lot of you are going to want to flip me off and skip to the next option here. To this, I’ll counter with the wisdom that, when people become defensive of their drugs, it typically suggests a dependency issue. I drank caffeine for many years; in fact, I only officially kicked my coffee habit last year.
I quit caffeine as a temporary experiment. I decided to stick with it when I realized my baseline anxiety levels had decreased by at least 10%. Without my body constantly craving its next hit of caffeine, I felt infinitely more relaxed. I didn’t even realize how much I had grown to depend on it until I kicked the stuff and had a brutal 2-week withdrawal period (including heart palpitations for about two nights). Even if you think I’m crazy, just give it a try for a month. Once you get past the withdrawals, the benefits can be significant.
Everyone knows (hopefully) that a Honda Accord can’t run on diesel fuel; if you want your engine to work properly, it needs the right fuel. And yet we stuff our faces with garbage foods every day, only to act surprised when our organs crap out on us.
Like an engine, your brain needs the right fuel if it’s going to work properly. You can’t eat greasy fast food burgers every single day and expect it not to affect your brain in some way. Adopting a healthier diet, one that is better for brain health and anxiety reduction, is essential.
You should also talk to your doctor about any possible food allergies, nutrient deficiencies, or blood sugar issues that could be influencing how your brain and body are reacting to your diet. Seriously, I’ve managed to decrease my baseline anxiety levels by avoiding certain foods that cause anxiety for me, and adding a multivitamin to my daily routine. This is really something that a proper doctor or nutritionist can be more helpful with than me, so I’ll leave it at this for now: Eat a healthier diet.
In addition to allergies, nutrient deficiencies, and blood sugar issues, you should also rule out any possible medical conditions that could be responsible for your anxiety. Don’t panic yourself about this; having anxiety or an anxiety disorder certainly does not necessitate an underlying medical condition. Nonetheless, certain medical issues such as thyroid conditions, hormone abnormalities, and asthma could be the root cause of anxiety for some. For people new to anxiety, a quick chat with your doctor about such possibilities is probably worthwhile.
Anxiety can really sneak up on you. A lot of times we feel anxious for seemingly no reason at all. Our conscious mind might not always be aware of what the root cause of anxiety is – sometimes it’s just a ton of minor, imperceptible stressors added together that are making us feel this way. Try and step back and look at the big picture of your life. Consider your work-life balance, your relationships, your hobbies; anything that might be causing you stress. Working towards decreasing these stressors can have a significant positive impact on anxiety.
Whether or not you develop anxiety issues in your lifetime is largely going to come down to a combination of your biology and your environment. With that said, some people will be more genetically predisposed to anxiety. Taking a look at your family history can often be a good indicator of whether or not you have hereditary traits for anxiety.
The word “anxiety attack” and “panic attack” are often used interchangeably. This can be viewed by some as a matter of semantics, but the two are actually different from one another. An anxiety attack is basically an intense but predictable bout of anxiety; some perceived threat is causing you severe anxiety temporarily. A panic attack can be a bit more random, and involves your fight-or-flight response taking control of your body; during a panic attack, you will often feel as though you are going to die, or need to escape immediately. Frequent panic attacks can lead to avoidant behavior and panic disorder over time.
This is a complicated question, since anxiety can be both an emotion and a condition. In my personal opinion, people with anxiety will probably be more predisposed to anxiety for the duration of their lives. Fortunately, it tends to get much easier to manage as we age, and many anxiety disorders tend to fizzle out as we get older (e.g. elderly people are far less likely to be experiencing social anxiety the way a teenager would be). Additionally, there are many ways for you to manage your anxiety to the point where it is virtually nonexistent, and no longer something you fear. Trust me, it gets way easier.
How can I get my Anxiety Under Control?
Alright, you got through it all! Now, hopefully, you have a good understanding of anxiety.
This puts you in a massively advantageous position to start crushing your anxiety for good.
So, what's next?
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