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What Causes an Anxiety Disorder?

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Deanne Repich is the Founder of the National Institute of Anxiety and Stress, Inc., an anxiety educator, teacher, and former anxiety sufferer. Deanne created the Conquer Your Anxiety Success Program, a simple, action-oriented "how-to" course that has helped thousands across the globe conquer their anxiety. She also conducts seminars, writes articles, and publishes the free "Anxiety Tips" newsletter.  Like this article? 
Then you'll love our Conquer Anxiety Success Program.
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Several of our members have asked: "What causes an anxiety
disorder? And which of these causes do I have control over?"
Here are answers to these important questions. 

What Causes an Anxiety Disorder?

There are several factors that can contribute to an anxiety
disorder. An anxiety disorder is caused by a combination of
of these factors working together over a period of
. Usually one factor alone does not result in an anxiety

Several of the contributing factors are:
-- Biological Factors
-- Stress Overload/Lifestyle Factors
-- Childhood Environment
-- Thought Patterns
-- Genetic Factors

Biological Factors

We all have an inborn "fight or flight" response designed
to protect us from harm. When our survival is threatened,
the fight or flight response creates physical and psychological
changes that encourage us to act and protect our survival. 
These changes include rapid heartbeat, muscle tension, 
shallow breathing, and more.
People suffering from anxiety disorders often have a 
physical overreaction to stress. This overreaction occurs
because your body perceives everyday events and
situations as threats to survival. In an effort to protect
you, your body triggers the fight or flight response even
though no real danger exists.  

There is some indication that an overreaction to stress is
caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain. However, 
we don't know what initially causes this chemical imbalance.
It has not been proven which occurs first - the overreaction
to stress that causes the chemical imbalance, or the chemical
imbalance that causes the overreaction to stress. 

Can I change it?: Yes. What's important to realize is that
if you overreact to stress, you can learn to change it, no
matter how it began. You can learn deep breathing tech-
niques, relaxation techniques, and techniques such as the
Anxiety Pyramid (all included in our course) to train your
body to react more calmly. 

Stress Overload/Lifestyle Factors

When you experience excessive stress over time, your
body can trigger the fight or flight response and start to
react to daily events as if they were dangers. Poor
lifestyle habits such as overwork, lack of sleep, poor
diet, and lack of regular exercise can cause unnecessary
stress and promote anxiety.

Let's look at an example of how stress overload and
lifestyle factors can contribute to anxiety. Donna works
70 hours a week for several years. This puts excessive
stress on Donna's body. To make matters worse, Donna
is so busy working that she only manages to get five or
six hours of sleep a night, she doesn't exercise regularly,
and she eats mainly fast food. She can't remember the last
time she took time out for herself. 

Do you see how Donna's lifestyle creates stress in her
life and produces a negative snowball effect? Over time
Donna's body starts perceiving these constant stressors
as a threat to her survival. Her body eventually gets
"burned out" from repeated unnecessary stress reactions.
It is on a constant state of alert - contributing to the
physical and mental symptoms of anxiety. 

Can I change it?: Yes. You have the power to reduce
or eliminate many of the stressors in your life. You do this
by integrating healthy lifestyle habits - by making choices
that promote calmness, self-care, and a balanced lifestyle.
For example, sleep eight hours a night instead of six. Eat
well-balanced, healthy meals. Work 40-50 hours a week
instead of 70, and so on. 

You can also learn to view stressors in a less anxious
so your body does not overreact to stressors when
they occur. 

Childhood Environment

Your childhood environment affects how you think and act
as an adult. Even though the adults around you meant well,
as a child you may have learned habits and beliefs that
contribute to anxiety. 

For example, you may not have been taught to have a
sense of control over your world. You may have been
expected to achieve as a way of gaining love and acceptance.
You may have been taught all or nothing thinking or were
not allowed to freely express your feelings or opinions.
You may have grown up in an environment that was not
physically or emotionally safe. You may have been frequently
judged or criticized. Or you may have grown up watching
and modeling adults around you that reacted to life in an
anxious way. 

Can I change it?: Yes. No matter what your childhood
environment was, you can change the anxiety-producing
thought patterns and habits you learned then through
knowledge and practice.

Thought Patterns

How you think affects how you view the world and how
you react to stress. Negative thought patterns like "what-if"
thinking, perfectionism, all or nothing thinking, and victim talk
can contribute to an anxiety disorder. In fact, negative
thoughts can actually create physical symptoms in your

Can I change it?
: Yes. Research shows that you have
the power to change your thoughts, which can in turn affect
how you physically and mentally feel. Through healthier
thoughts, you can learn to view the world in a less anxious
way and feel better.

How do you change your thoughts? By using the three
"R"s we discussed in the last newsletter: Recognize, Replace,
and Reinforce. 

Genetic Factors

Research shows that panic disorder and obsessive-compulsive
disorder tend to run in families. Although there is some debate,
it appears that part of this family tendency is due to how you're
brought up (environment) and part is due to genetics. There is
some indication that genetic factors are also involved in social

Can I change it?: No. We cannot change our genes. That's
the bad news. Now here's the good news. You can
positively change all of the other factors we discussed that
contribute to anxiety.

And like we mentioned earlier, usually one factor alone does
not result in an anxiety disorder. This is exciting news!
It means that if you learn to successfully address
the other factors that contribute to anxiety, you can
conquer your anxiety in spite of genetic factors. 

Note: If you would like to learn skills to change how
you react to stress, reduce the stress in your life, learn
anxiety-fighting lifestyle habits, and change your anxious
thought patterns and behaviors, try our Conquer Your
Anxiety Success Program, available at:

© Copyright March 27, 2002 by Deanne Repich and the National Institute of Anxiety and Stress, Inc. 

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Copyright © 2001-2012 National Institute of Anxiety and Stress, Inc.

All material provided on the web site is provided for informational or educational purposes only.
No content is intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Consult your physician
regarding the applicability of any opinions or recommendations with respect to your symptoms or medical condition.

Treatment for anxiety, anxiety disorder, panic attacks, anxiety attacks and social anxiety now!

Additional anxiety related information you may find helpful:

Learn more about anxiety disorders.
Panic disorder and panic attack explained.
Panic attack and panic disorders explained.
Learn more about generalized anxiety disorder (GAD)
Social anxiety disorder and how they affect you.
Simple Phobias and how their related to anxiety
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and anxiety.
Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder and anxiety.