Causes, Signs, & Effects of Anxiety

Are you concerned that you or a loved one may be struggling with anxiety? Learn about the causes, signs, and effects to identify whether professional treatment may be necessary.

Understanding Anxiety

Learn about anxiety

Anxiety disorders are a category of mental illnesses that can include fear, chronic apprehension, and panic. At some point or another, everyone will experience a level of anxiety. However, the symptoms of an anxiety disorder are powerful enough to impact an individual’s everyday life and decrease his or her happiness and ability to function well. An anxiety disorder can cause individuals to avoid situations or places that would have otherwise been enjoyable. In many instances, those who have an anxiety disorder will be unable to engage in important life experiences because of their condition.

Some forms of anxiety disorders can include:

Generalized anxiety disorder causes one to suffer from intense apprehension and concern on a regular basis. Individuals with this condition often feel as though something catastrophic will occur at any given moment, even if those individuals know that there is truly nothing to be fearful of. With this disorder, it can be impossible to feel relaxed or calm, as generalized anxiety disorder causes the individual’s brain to see threats everywhere.

Social anxiety disorder, which is also known as social phobia, causes an individual to suffer from anxiety regarding social situations. In most cases, the individual might fear being judged even if no one is judging him or her. Social anxiety might also start prior to any social interaction, as the individual might anticipate a variety of different upsetting scenarios that might occur. Social anxiety disorder can cause social isolation, but like all anxiety disorders, it can be treated.

Separation anxiety disorder occurs when an individual experiences extreme fear and worry over separation from places (like a home or hometown) or people. This disorder can cause the individual to frequently worry about his or her loved ones and might even cause him or her to go above and beyond to ensure that he or she is always near his or her loved ones. The simple idea of being away from these people or places can cause sudden, unhealthy anxiety.

Specific phobia is a powerful and unreasonable fear about a specific situation or object. An individual will believe that the situation or object they fear will cause extreme harm to them. This fear continues even if the individual knows that there really is no danger. In many cases, phobias can lead to sudden health threats. For instance, an individual who is fearful of needles or blood might be too afraid to obtain life-saving medical treatment, or someone who is afraid of spiders might entirely avoid areas of his or her home, such as a basement or attic.

Panic disorder occurs when someone suffers from continual panic attacks. Panic attacks can feel like immediate moments of terror or illness and can feel to the individual as though he or she is dying. Intense fear, shortness of breath, shaking, sweating, lightheadedness, heart palpitations, and even sharp body pains are considered characteristics of panic disorder. These attacks can also cause out-of-body feelings, known as depersonalization, or sensations of being outside of reality, which is referred to as derealization. The intensity of these attacks can vary from individual to individual and situation to situation.

Anxiety disorders can take over an individual’s life very quickly, as well as his or her loved one’s lives. The individual who suffers from anxiety might act in a “flight, fight, or freeze” response to situations that typically would not impact less anxious individuals. Sadly, many individuals who struggle with these disorders attempt to ease their anxiety in any way possible, including in unhealthy ways. The good news is that anxiety can be treated.

With the appropriate support that is offered by licensed, experienced counselors or treatment professionals, many individuals start to feel relief after a few weeks. Treatment for anxiety disorders has made tremendous progress in recent years, and wellness and healing are possible.


Anxiety statistics

According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), 18% of the adult population within the United States (or roughly 40 million American adults) suffers from one or more anxiety disorders.

Causes and Risk Factors

Learn what is known about the causes of anxiety

Numerous factors can affect an individual’s risk for developing an anxiety disorder. Some of these risk factors can include:

Genetic: If an individual has direct relatives, such as grandparents, parents, or aunts/uncles, who have received a diagnosis for an anxiety disorder, he or she is at a greater risk for developing an anxiety disorder as well. The children of parents who have anxiety disorders have the highest risk of developing anxiety disorders.

Environmental: If an individual is already predisposed to developing an anxiety disorder, a variety of environmental factors might increase one’s risk of his or her anxiety becoming unmanageable. Extreme stressors, including community or family violence, vehicle accidents, death of a loved one, and job loss, might add to the development of an anxiety disorder. Even minor levels of stress, including an unpleasant job or continued financial strain, might add to the chances that these disorders might develop. Social anxiety disorder and agoraphobia might be more common in those who have experienced negative childhood problems or abuse. Phobias can be connected to stressful events that include the feared object or situation.

Risk Factors:

  • Parents who were overprotective
  • Traumatic experiences at any point in life
  • Inhibited behavior
  • Physical or emotional sensitivity to anxiety
  • History of sexual or physical abuse
  • Highly neurotic personality
  • Female gender, as women are at a higher risk

Signs and Symptoms

Signs and symptoms of anxiety

Every type of anxiety disorder will cause unique symptoms. In addition, since each person is unique, the signs of an anxiety disorder will vary from individual to individual. Some signs and symptoms of anxiety disorders include:

Behavioral symptoms:

  • Refusal to leave home or other “safe” places
  • Avoiding tasks such as driving, or activities that involve feared areas
  • Restlessness or inability to sit still
  • Fear or refusal to separate from loved ones or attachment figures
  • Ignoring responsibilities or avoiding difficult goals
  • Avoiding other people or social situations
  • Inability to complete tasks

Physical symptoms:

  • Shaking
  • Lightheadedness
  • Muscle tension
  • Fatigue or exhaustion
  • Stomachaches or headaches
  • Nausea
  • Dizziness
  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Difficulty sleeping or staying asleep
  • Sweating

Cognitive symptoms:

  • Suicidal thoughts
  • Thoughts of running away
  • Nightmares or night terrors
  • Inability to control apprehension and worry
  • Depersonalization
  • Derealization
  • Paranoia
  • Mental blankness

Psychosocial symptoms:

  • Low self-esteem
  • Mood swings
  • Irritability
  • Hopeless or helpless feelings
  • Fear, despite rational awareness that the individual is safe
  • Inability to control apprehension and worry


Effects of anxiety

When treatment is not obtained, anxiety disorders might cause a series of unfortunate effects, such as:

  • Family conflicts
  • Additional mental health diagnoses
  • Social isolation
  • Decrease in job or school performance
  • Decreased quality of life
  • Self-harm
  • Decline in physical health
  • Alcohol or substance abuse or addiction (when the individual uses substances to cope)
  • Relationship conflicts or relationship loss

Co-Occurring Disorders

Anxiety and co-occurring disorders

Those who suffer from anxiety might also battle other mental health conditions. Depression is highly common in those who have anxiety, as untreated anxiety can cause major distress. Some of the most common co-occurring disorders that come along with anxiety can include:

  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
  • Personality disorders
  • Depression
  • Impulse-control disorders
  • Substance use disorders
  • Personality disorders
  • Bipolar disorder
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