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What Causes Anxiety?

First, let's define anxiety:

Anxiety is typically characterized by a feeling of fear, panic, stress, and overall discomfort. Anxiety is a natural occurring emotion that is experienced by everyone and has been essential to the survival of all species. It alerts us to danger and prepares our bodies and minds for survival. However, very often the anxiety we are feeling can become inhibitive and even dangerous. In the field of social work and psychotherapy we like to ask the question, “Does the anxiety you are feeling affect your ability to function?" In other words, does it get in the way of everyday life? When our anxiety prevents us from eating, working, taking care of a dependent, or leaving the house, then it is affecting our ability to function and needs to be managed. 


I've collected a list of online articles that discuss anxiety and stress in-depth. You can browse them here: Articles on Stress and Anxiety


The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V) identifies the following specific anxiety disorders. I’ve included links to the definitions of each.


Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD)

Specific Phobia

Social Anxiety Disorder

Panic Disorder

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)


What Causes Anxiety?

Anxiety is a natural phenomenon that occurs in all animals. It's the body's natural feeling of being on high alert in response to a perceived threat. The experience of anxiety is essentially the balance between two parts of the nervous system; the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system. These two systems are often compared to the relationship between the accelerator and the brakes of a car. The sympathetic nervous system is better known as the “fight or flight” response and speeds us up, while the parasympathetic nervous system slows us down by helping us to relax and go to sleep. All day long we maintain a balance of the seesaw effect of these two systems. Those who suffer from stress and anxiety are caught on the sympathetic side of the seesaw. 



It’s important to remember the function of anxiety. It has been designed and redesigned over eons of time to keep us alive. Dr. Robert Sapolsky is a professor of Biology and Neurology at Stanford University. Here he is in a clip from a program by National Geographic called Stress: Portrait of a Killer, that does a good job of explaining our anxiety and stress. 

The following quote from Dr. Sapolsky sums up the problem with stress:


“Ironically, after a while, the stress response is more damaging than the stressor itself because the stressor is some psychological nonsense that we’re falling for. No zebra on earth running for its life would understand why the fear of speaking in public would cause you to secrete the same hormones that it’s doing at that point to save its life.” 

Sapolsky has perfectly described an anxiety disorder, “...the stressor is some psychological nonsense that we’re falling for.”


Whatever is causing the anxiety is not as serious as the level of anxiety produced. So when an individual has an anxiety disorder her body is behaving as if her life is in danger when in reality she is in no such trouble. 

Anxiety and Stress originate in a part of the brain called the amygdala, which works similar to a thermostat. The amygdala is consistently reading the environment and adjusting the response. An anxiety disorder is like a thermostat that needs readjustment. 


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