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What causes anxiety?

Causes of anxiety - The ‘fight or flight’ response

Anxiety is often caused by modern day stresses such as social pressure or work stress, but its root also lies in a more primitive reaction known as the 'fight or flight' response. On this page, Marianna Kilburn, our anxiety advisor, explores some of the causes of anxiety.

An introduction to the causes of anxiety

Symptoms of anxiety are caused by the body’s normal response to excessive stress around us. Whilst stress can be positive, anxiety is generally regarded as a negative and unpleasant experience.

The word ‘anxiety’ is derived from Latin (anxietatem – to ‘vex’ or ‘trouble’), first seen around the 1500s. However, its use in the context of medicine and psychology has only been in the past 100 years or so.

Anxiety can cause physical and non-physical (psychological) symptoms in our body. For more information, follow the link to our page on anxiety symptoms.

Feelings of anxiety can be normal – for instance, one may feel anxious or worried just before a job interview. These feelings may be described as ‘being nervous’ or ‘excited’.

Most of us will have experienced these symptoms in the past. But, what exactly is anxiety? How does it come about? What causes anxiety symptoms?

Positive and negative stress

Anxiety is caused by stress on our minds or mental state. However, what we know is that stress is not always bad. There is good stress - for example:

  • A strong desire to win a game of tennis is positive stress
  • Watching a game of football, whichever side you support and whatever the outcome, can be stressful, but enjoyable
  • Even a good, combative argument can be stressful in a positive way

And, there is negative stress, which causes feelings of anxiety. These are a part of the pressures of modern day living and are most often caused by:

When we face negative stress, ordinary everyday situations can become a minor crisis. What would usually be a ‘normal’ problem can be blown out of all proportion – we feel stressed and this causes symptoms of anxiety.

What factors lead to stress and anxiety?

In general, there are two groups of factors (or causes) which work together to make us feel anxious:

  • External factors are those which are all around us. How happy are you in your job? What about job security? Have you any financial worries? What is life like at home?
  • Internal factors are those within us which define us as a person – sometimes described as ‘what we are born with’. How do you react to bad news? What sort of personality do you have? How well do you cope under pressure?

How anxious you feel depends on a combination of these factors. It is clear that people cope differently to the same stressful event depending on their personalities. Some are naturally calmer than others, no matter what stresses they encounter.

It is also clear that the same person can respond better one day, compared to another, given the same set of circumstances. There are a number of causes and reasons for this, but in general, the healthier you are physically and more confident you feel, the less likely that you will be prone to stress and anxiety.

For instance, if you are coming down with the cold, you are more likely to become anxious at work because of a minor problem. If you have just been yelled at by your boss, you will be less likely to cope with a simple problem at home.

Anxiety can also be caused or worsened by the menopause. If you are menopausal and experiencing an increase in anxiety, this may be because your body is undergoing hormonal changes which alter the chemical activity of your brain.

The ‘fight or flight’ response

Anxiety is the result of the body’s normal response to danger. This reaction is one of our primitive or basic responses, and is termed the ‘fight or flight’ reaction.

In our caveman days, we were continually faced with either extreme danger or the opportunity to survive. For example, if we met a mammoth on a day out, we could either end up being eaten or enjoying a good meal, depending of whether we stayed to fight or ran away from the dangerous beast.

In either of these two situations, our bodies needed to respond quickly by becoming more alert. Blood flow increases – this causes more glucose and oxygen to be delivered to our muscles and other tissues. This natural response is achieved by the sudden release of a number of stress hormones into our bloodstream.

A scientist known as Walter Cannon first described the role of these stress hormones (cortisol, adrenaline and noradrenaline) in 1932. What we now know is that the release of stress hormones preparing us for ‘fight or flight’ also causes symptoms of anxiety:

  • Our heart rate and blood pressure increases to deliver more blood to muscles. This causes our heart to pound
  • Sweat production is increased to cool muscles when fighting or running away. This is why we perspire when feeling anxious or nervous
  • Blood is diverted from the skin to the muscles. This makes us feel shivery
  • Our minds become focused on the danger. This is what causes us to become jumpy.

So, although stress appears to be a modern-day curse, the root cause of anxiety symptoms suffered by people today lies way back in mankind’s history. It is how we are made, how our bodies were able to adapt a long time ago to enable us to survive in a different sort of jungle.

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