What Causes Anxiety?

Breaking Down Where That Stress and Overwhelm Came From

From your RAFT Counseling Team

Anxiety is a normal part of the human experience and one of our earliest tools for survival. In small doses, anxiety helps you fight or flee from danger by raising your heart rate, shortening your breath, and clenching your muscles.

States of constant anxiety however get in the way of daily life. While anxiety itself is a fleeting emotion, anxiety disorder symptoms stick around for at least six months. You may experience spiraling thoughts of worry, heart palpitations, sleep problems, digestive issues, panic attacks, unexplained shaking or sweating, and an overall sense of impending doom. 

So who gets anxiety, and why?


Studies link emotional neglect, abuse, and/or physical abuse in childhood with anxiety disorders and chronic pain in adulthood. While most people understand things like violence affecting a child’s anxiety, less people understand emotional neglect.

If every time you cried as a child your parents said to “suck it up” or made you feel like an embarrassment for having feelings, your emotional needs went unmet. We all have emotions to process, and children are least equipped to do it. Their brains haven’t fully developed and they haven’t learned any coping mechanisms yet.

Being isolated to a separate corner or room of the house whenever you got upset meant working through feelings alone. If it were hunger we were talking about, it’s like a parent isolating you to the kitchen every time you got hungry. You didn’t have the height to reach the stove, the fine motor skills to operate everything, or the sense to tell which foods were fresh or spoiled.

The risk of neglect here suddenly seems more obvious, but emotional neglect comes with its own consequences.

Those with Heavily Stigmatized Social Identities

Social ostracizing due to the color of your skin, gender expression, or sexuality can create anxiety. Feeling like you have no “in group” to be a part of where you’re safe and cared for is isolating and vulnerable. 

Experiencing violence because of an identity you have can also cause post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a kind of anxiety disorder. Even knowing that people who share your identity regularly get attacked contributes to social anxiety, as going out in public comes with inherent risk.

One 2014 study revealed the correlation between police contact and higher levels of anxiety. Anyone with more than five police interactions in their life reported higher levels of anxiety. In the U.S., Black people are 20% more likely to be stopped by police, making them more vulnerable to anxiety.

Unresolved Medical Issues

Anxiety can be a connection point on a much larger web of unresolved medical problems. Certain drugs (whether used recreationally or prescribed) trigger anxiety. (Although sometimes having anxiety led to the drug use in the first place.)

Conditions that affect the heart and thyroid can also cause anxiety, as well as respiratory diseases like chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Anxiety causes heart palpitations and shortness of breath. Therefore determining which came first, the anxiety or the symptoms, can be difficult.

Anxiety can also be co-morbid, meaning it’s related to another mental health condition. For example, executive dysfunction is a classic indicator that someone has ADHD. Left unaddressed, it can lead to feelings of anxiety due to unpaid bills, missed deadlines, and forgetfully missing meals. However, treating the anxiety and not the executive dysfunction (something ADHD medications can treat but anti-anxiety medications do not) can prolong symptoms instead of getting to the underlying cause.

If you’re experiencing anxiety, we recommend talking through your experience with a one of our licensed counselors to find the best treatment plan for you. Schedule your first appointment today.

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