What causes anxiety? Environmental factors, genetics, etc.


Anxiety involves a person feeling disproportionate and sustained distress, worry, or fear in response to an emotional trigger. Anxiety is a normal and necessary emotion, and it can have a wide range of causes.

Various factors can increase the likelihood of feeling anxious. These factors can be internal, involving genetics, for example, or external, involving racial inequalities or ecological concerns.

Feelings of anxiety and anxiety disorders are not the same. Anxiety is an emotion characterized by tension, worried thoughts, and physical characteristics, such as increased blood pressure. An anxiety disorder involves recurring, intrusive thoughts or concerns and other specific criteria that lead to a diagnosis.

This article explores several causes of anxiety.

A 2020 review defines anxiety as “a future-oriented state of mood that consists of a complex system of cognitive, affective, physiological, and behavioral responses associated with preparation for anticipated events or circumstances perceived as threatening”.

A variety of environmental factors can increase the likelihood of anxiety. For example, the makeup of a person’s family, their cultural and religious upbringing, and many other childhood experiences can influence anxiety levels, according to a 2018 study.

Other studies confirmed links between childhood trauma and an increased likelihood of having symptoms of anxiety later in life.

People can experience anxiety due to various life stressors. These are not universal and can affect different people in different ways.

Social situations

Social situations can cause anxiety if a person believes they might act in a way that could be viewed negatively.

A person may experience anxiety when performing in public or in any situation where there is a real or perceived threat of examination.

The effects of this anxiety can vary. For example, a 2014 review suggested that feelings of social anxiety can exacerbate stuttering and lead to a disabling experience for adults who stutter. However, fully understanding the relationship between social anxiety and stuttering, especially in children and adolescents, will require further research, the study authors concluded.

Learn more about how COVID-19 affects people with social anxiety.

Anxiety, gender and sexuality

Concerns about gender and sexual identities and stigma can cause anxiety for many people.

A survey based on study 2016 found that non-heterosexual respondents were more likely to report feelings of anxiety than heterosexual respondents.

Additionally, bisexual people may experience anxiety at a higher rate than gay and lesbian people, according to a 2015 survey of students in the northeastern United States. Researchers have suggested that the exclusion of heterosexual and homosexual social groups may be the underlying cause.

For transgender people, gender dysphoria can be a cause of anxiety, as can systemic stigma and marginalization.

one online sample survey in the United States, for example, found disproportionately high rates of anxiety, depression, and overall psychological distress among transgender respondents, compared to heterosexual respondents.

Anxiety and race

Systemic racism leads to psychological distress. The American Psychological Association (APA) cites socio-economic deprivation and racial discrimination as two major components of this situation.

A 2014 study investigated the effects of aggressive policing on the mental health of young men in New York City and found an association between increased contact with police and higher levels of anxiety. Respondents were between the ages of 18 and 26 and 80% were non-Caucasian. On average, they had been stopped by the police more than eight times in their lifetime. Respondents who had been arrested more than five times reported a large increase in their anxiety.

A 2015 review studies regarding mental health and race have found consistent associations between exposure to discrimination and anxiety, as well as a wide range of other mental health conditions.

Learn more about racism in mental health care here.


Worry about the state of the environment can also cause anxiety, and this is sometimes called “eco-anxiety.” The APA describes eco-anxiety as “a chronic fear of environmental catastrophe.”

Eco-anxiety is not yet a diagnosable condition. Although its prevalence is still unknown, a 2018 survey-based study found that 70% of respondents in the United States are worried about climate change and about 51% feel “helpless” about the current situation.

Learn more about eco-anxiety.

A range of genetic factors can influence a person’s tendency to feel anxious. These can vary across age groups, demographics, and genders.

However, a Analysis 2020 found that general feelings of anxiety are more likely to be caused by environmental factors than genetics.

Many health-related things can cause anxiety. For example, anxiety can stem from an underlying medical condition or a side effect of medication.

These factors may not directly cause the changes that characterize specific anxiety disorders, but they may cause situations or require lifestyle adjustments that trigger feelings of anxiety.

Recreational drug use can cause feelings of anxiety. However, the relationship between drug use and anxiety is complex.

For example, a study 2018 found links between cocaine self-administration and anxious behavior in rats. Continuing with the example of cocaine use, other studies discovered that anxiety can be both a cause and a consequence.

A person who suffers from persistent and severe anxiety may be diagnosed with an anxiety disorder. First, a medical professional performs a physical assessment.

The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that 3.6% of the world’s population suffered from an anxiety disorder in 2015. This percentage is generally higher among women. In the Americas, up to 7.7% of women suffer from an anxiety disorder, compared to 3.6% of men, according to the WHO.

There are several anxiety disorders, including general anxiety disorder and social anxiety disorder. These differ from general feelings of anxiety in their frequency, severity, and impact on quality of life.

An anxiety disorder can be difficult to distinguish from other mental health problems. Before making a diagnosis, a mental health professional reviews a person’s history and performs a detailed assessment. They may also recommend or provide treatment.

Also, a doctor can perform a physical exam and order lab tests. This is to rule out other conditions that could be causing the symptoms.

Anxiety is a natural and necessary emotion, and it has many causes, such as stress, fear of negative responses in social situations, environmental concerns, and systemic marginalization.

Anxiety and anxiety disorders are not the same. A mental health professional will consider the frequency and severity of anxiety and the results of various detailed assessments before diagnosing an anxiety disorder.


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