What Causes an Anxiety Disorder?
There could be a number a causes for an anxiety disorder. It is often hard to answer it with confidence for someone who has an anxiety disorder. (Let me just note that when it comes to treatment, most of the time answering this is not crucial). Nevertheless, we like to understand how things work. In order to make sense of things we have a desire to boil something down into a clear cause and effect relationship. Yet, the fact is that several different things being present in a person’s life probably cause anxiety disorders. Here is a working list of some of the theories:
- A perfect storm. Sometimes you just can’t put your finger on anything that seems to explain it. Imagine you have only so much capacity for stress. Like you have a container and you fill it with various liquids. None of them alone are enough but as more liquid is added eventually it will spill out. That is when you get the symptoms. One patient came to see me after having a panic attack at a stop light. He felt it came out of the blue. Well, a partial list of things going on in his life were family conflict, school stress, loneliness, traffic, lack of sleep, hunger, anger…okay you get the idea.
- Biology. Fear is basic to human survival. It is really good that we have a capacity for fear and it causes our body to react lightening fast. However, some people are very sensitive and they have a tendency to get false alarms. They get the whole danger response when it isn’t warranted by the situation. Sometimes this is called a genetic predisposition. It just means you have a built in vulnerability to certain reactions. It is a certainty, just a tendency.
- Experiences. Sometimes there is something really scary that happens. This is the case with traumatic disorders. It could be the case with phobias. However, more often than not there is not a clear experience. Some people can point to the first time it happened. For example, one patient with social anxiety remembered an event at school when the blushing started. Blushing became a huge fear for her.
- Vicarious learning. TV, movies and news sources tend to draw attention to things out of the ordinary and extreme. If you watch the news you would think your child could be abducted on every corner. On any given night there is a show featuring doctors and patients with terrible illnesses. We can be persuaded about how dangerous it is “out there.” This can happen to people who become news channel regulars.
- Faulty thinking. These are mistaken thoughts and assumptions about how dangerous something might be rather than more accurate views. For example, one reason number 4 is a problem is because of a thinking bias called the availability heuristic (heuristic is learning by experience). That means we make predictions not on facts but on how easy (available to memory) something is to imagine. Scary stuff is easy to imagine and so we think it is very likely to happen.
- Avoiding. Rather than testing out something and finding out it is not dangerous it is easy to avoid it. Over time this tends to build strength. Each time you consider reasons to avoid you build a strong case for why it is dangerous. You create physical feelings of fear with thought that are never tested.
- Modeling. Sometimes we are convinced by other peoples fears. Depending on our receptivity and their influence we can use another persons example as proof of the danger.
This is certainly not an exhaustive list but maybe it will give you some ideas for what happens. If you know some other causes post a response, it would be helpful for readers.