Anxiety is often caused by the stressful situations of life, whether it’s associated with work, financial hardship, marital troubles or divorce or other daily challenges. Traumatic events, such as a loss of a loved one or witnessing an accident, can trigger intense anxiety. Anxiety can also be caused by a mental health condition, physical conditions, side effects from a medication, brain chemistry, genetics or substance abuse.

Problem anxiety may be caused by any one of these sources, or a combination of them. A physician must first conduct a medical evaluation to assess if the symptoms of anxiety are related to a physical condition. If no physical illness is present, then a referral to a mental health practitioner will be recommended in order to diagnose and  proceed with treatment for anxiety.

Mental health causes of anxiety

Anxiety disorders are serious mental health conditions that can cause such crippling symptoms that life becomes unbearable. Examples of anxiety disorders are:

  • Generalized anxiety disorder

    Characterized by excessive and unrelenting worry and tension that is usually unfounded. Those worries interfere with the person’s ability to sleep, frequently affect appetite, energy level, concentration and other aspects of daily functioning.

  • Social anxiety disorder

    This involves overwhelming worry, perceived inadequacy and self-consciousness regarding social situations.  Anxiety (intense nervousness) and self-consciousness arise from a fear of being closely watched, judged and criticized. A person with social anxiety is afraid of making mistakes and being embarrassed or humiliated in front of others.

  • Panic disorder

    This condition involves feelings of terror that come with no warning, often mimicking the symptoms of a heart attack. In order to qualify for the diagnosis of panic disorder, the individual would experience repeated panic attacks rather than just one episode.

  • Specific phobias

    Characterized by overwhelming fear of a specific object, person, place or event that is inappropriate to the situation. People with phobias experience irrational fear that may rise to the level of panic attacks in response to a specific thing or situation.

  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder

    Individuals with this condition either suffer from intrusive and distressing thoughts (obsessions) or engage in irresistible, often repetitive behaviors (compulsions). Examples of obsessions include worries about germs and contamination, or having items in a particular order. Examples of compulsions include counting items or certain repetitive activities, avoiding walking on cracks or avoiding touching certain objects.

Physical causes of anxiety

  • Medical conditions

    Certain illnesses can trigger symptoms of anxiety, including anemia, asthma, heart conditions, hypertension, irritable bowel syndrome, thyroid conditions and infections.

  • Side effects of medication

    Some drugs taken to treat a physical condition can cause anxiety symptoms such as blood pressure medications like methyldopa, psychotropic medications such as Ritalin or SSRIs, steroids such as prednisone and cortisone, thyroid medications and oral contraceptives.

  • Lack of oxygen

    Illnesses such as asthma, pulmonary embolism and emphysema can cause symptoms of anxiety.

Substance abuse

  • Cocaine-induced anxiety disorder

    To be diagnosed with cocaine-induced anxiety disorder, a patient must have prominent anxiety, panic attacks, obsessions or compulsions. A patient with a cocaine-induced anxiety disorder demonstrates a diffuse, highly unpleasant, often vague feeling of apprehension accompanied by one or more bodily sensations, such as tightness in the chest or pounding heart, restlessness and difficulty concentrating.

  • Amphetamines

    This also includes MDMA and methamphetamine, which can cause mood disorders similar to hypomania and mania, sleep disturbance and agitation, in addition to the onset of psychotic symptoms, such as hallucination and delusion.

  • Alcohol

    Alcohol abuse can induce the symptoms of anxiety, even triggering panic attacks. This is due to the toxic effects of alcohol on the body, affecting both physical and mental functioning, leading to symptoms of anxiety.

  • Benzodiazepine

    Becoming dependent on these anti-anxiety medications may provoke the opposite effect with increased anxiety as an outcome.

The symptoms of anxiety frequently appear when people are withdrawing from the drug to which they have become addicted. Anxiety symptoms can accompany withdrawal from heroin, Vicodin, barbiturates or benzodiazepines.

Presently, the exact cause of anxiety disorders is unknown, but research has shown these disorders may be caused by a combination of factors, including changes in the brain, genetics and environmental stressors, in addition to the ones discussed on this page.

Anxiety disorders may also be caused by the lack of function in the portion of the brain that regulates fear and other emotions as they are related to the stress hormone, cortisol. Studies have shown that severe or long-lasting stress can change the way nerve cells within these circuits transmit information from one region of the brain to another.

Other studies reveal a relationship between anxiety disorders and changes in certain brain structures that control memories associated with strong emotions. In addition, research has discovered that anxiety disorders can be partly inherited from one or both parents. Moreover, certain environmental factors — such as a trauma or significant event — may trigger an anxiety disorder in people who have an inherited susceptibility to developing the symptoms.

Anxiety Treatment Centers of California is a network of treatment facilities that provide mental health treatment for anxiety. In addition, ATCC is a resource center for the latest news and treatment information for anxiety disorders. For more information on anxiety treatment centers in California, call (855) 972-9459