What causes anxiety?

Like other mental health conditions, anxiety disorders don't have one single cause. Instead they have a variety of causes, called risk factors. The more risk factors you have, the more likely you are to develop anxiety. Sometimes, anxiety develops gradually. Other times, it doesn’t appear until a stressful event triggers it.

There are many risk factors and triggers, but here are a few examples:

  • Genetics. Mental health conditions often run in the family. If you have family members who live with anxiety, or even a different mental health condition, you may be more at risk.
  • Environment. Living in a stressful environment makes anxiety more likely. Things like living in poverty or having an abusive family put a lot of stress on your brain. They can make you feel like the world is an unsafe place.
  • Social life. Feeling embarrassed or unsure of yourself in social situations can lead to social anxiety. Being isolated can also lead to anxiety, because as humans we depend on other people to get our needs met.
  • Childhood trauma. Even if you’re no longer in a stressful environment, things that happened to you as a child can have an impact later in life. 
  • Stressful events: Experiencing something traumatic (like falling off a ledge) can lead to fear and anxiety around that experience (like a fear of heights).
  • Unhealthy habits: like not getting enough sleep, or not eating. Your brain needs sleep, nutrients, and healthy habits to function properly.
  • Drugs and alcohol: Abusing drugs and alcohol can trigger anxiety—especially stimulants like tobacco and cocaine, which make your brain more sensitive to stressful events. People often use drugs and alcohol to cope with anxiety, but in the long run they make it harder to recover from anxiety.
  • Brain chemistry. Anxiety disorders involve an imbalance of natural chemicals in your brain and your body.

These risk factors don’t just affect who will develop a mental illness in the first place. They also affect how severe their symptoms will be, and when they will experience those symptoms. There are several different types of anxiety disorders, and each one has slightly different risk factors.

One way to manage your anxiety is by taking action to reduce your risk factors. That might include seeking treatment, like medication or therapy.

Treatment & Resources