What causes anxiety disorders?

The exact causes of anxiety disorders are unknown. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, researchers believe that a combination of genetic and environmental factors may play a role. Brain chemistry is also being studied as a possible cause. The areas of your brain that control your fear response may be involved.

Anxiety disorders often occur alongside other mental health conditions, such as substance abuse and depression. Many people try to ease the symptoms of anxiety by using alcohol or other drugs. The relief these substances provide is temporary. Alcohol, nicotine, caffeine, and other drugs can make an anxiety disorder worse.

Much research is being done into what causes anxiety disorders. Experts believe it involves a combination of factors, including genes, diet, and stress.

Studies of twins suggest that genetics may play a role. For example, a study reported in PloS ONE suggests the RBFOX1 gene may be involved in the development of anxiety-related conditions, such as generalized anxiety disorder. The authors believe that both genetic and nongenetic factors play a part.

Certain parts of the brain, such as the amygdala and hippocampus, are also being studied. Your amygdala is a small structure deep inside your brain that processes threat. It alerts the rest of your brain when there are signs of danger. It can trigger a fear and anxiety response. It seems to play a part in anxiety disorders that involve fear of specific things, such as cats, bees, or drowning.

Your hippocampus may also affect your risk of developing an anxiety disorder. It’s a region of your brain that’s involved in storing memories of threatening events. It appears to be smaller in people who’ve experienced child abuse or served in combat.

Though the exact causes of anxiety disorders aren’t clear, experts have identified risk factors. For example, you’re more likely to develop an anxiety disorder if you have:

Other factors that can increase your risk of developing an anxiety disorder include:

  • Stress: Everyone encounters stress. But excessive or unresolved stress can increase your chances of developing chronic anxiety.
  • Genetics: If someone in your family has an anxiety disorder, you have a greater risk of developing one too. Your risk is especially high if you have a parent with anxiety.
  • Personality type: Some people are more prone to anxiety. Busy, high-strung people with type A personalities have a greater risk of developing an anxiety disorder.
  • Trauma: Severe trauma, such as child abuse or military combat, increases your risk of developing anxiety. This can include being the victim of trauma, being close to someone who’s the victim of trauma, or witnessing something traumatic.
  • Sex or gender: Women are twice as likely as men to have generalized anxiety disorder and other related conditions.

Experts don’t know the exact causes of anxiety disorders. Your genetics, environment, and personal history likely play a part. If you suspect you have an anxiety disorder, make an appointment with your doctor. They can help diagnose it and treat your symptoms. They may recommend lifestyle changes, counseling, medications, or other interventions.

Some medical conditions and medications can produce symptoms similar to anxiety disorders. In these cases, your doctor will likely treat your underlying condition or adjust your medication regimen.