Excessive Anxiety: Causes and Contributing Factors

Two chewed up pencils sit on a table.What causes someone to develop severe anxiety? This question is asked by many people struggling with anxiety issues such as panic, phobias, social anxiety, or any of the various manifestations of severe anxiety conditions. Someone with social anxiety might start to sweat and shake and be unable to concentrate when meeting someone new. Another person with agoraphobia might want to avoid driving a certain distance from home since doing that triggered the first panic attack. However the anxiety manifests, it is a helpful part of the healing process, and it can help to understand the variables that contribute to excessive anxiety.

“Bio-Psycho-Social” Lens

The development of severe anxiety can be looked at from a “bio-psycho-social” perspective:

  • The “bio” is one’s genetic inheritance or inborn temperament. What one inherits is a predisposition toward anxiety, not a specific gene that predicts one will become anxious. Temperament can be seen very early in childhood. Some babies are very sensitive to change, easily upset, extremely uncomfortable with people they don’t know well, or quiet and introverted.
  • The “psycho” refers to one’s background experiences, especially in early childhood and within the family. Difficult, chronically stressful or traumatic experiences in one’s growing up years creates a greater vulnerability toward severe anxiety (as well as depression, chronic pain syndromes, autoimmune disorders, and chemical dependence). These difficult and painful circumstances may include alcoholism in the family, loss of a parent due to death or divorce, rigidly strict parenting styles, as well as criticism and the expectation of perfection. In the last decade, research on the brain has shown that such conditions actually change the functioning of the brain, creating more stress-related chemicals and less neurotransmitter activity, leading to difficulties with mood and tension.
  • The “social” component describes the current-day stressors that one is dealing with. There is much of that in our society now: job losses, financial difficulties, health problems, marital stress, and divorce. However, stress can be an event that was planned for and is desired, such as getting married, going away to college, or having a baby. Stress is the effect of change, any change, on our minds and bodies. Change necessitates new coping skills, different ways of being in the world, which is what makes life changes stressful.

Ineffective Coping Skills

When we do not have effective coping strategies to handle the challenges of our lives, be they desired or unwanted, we set the stage for symptoms that let us know we are not coping as well as we need to. These symptoms are typically not sleeping well, bodily aches and pains, digestive problems, and tense and tight muscles. If these warning signs are ignored, symptoms can become more frequent or severe. Some of the more common forms of maladaptive coping strategies are avoidance, obsessive worrying, and controlling behaviors.

Adding Up the Factors

Examining the various factors that may be contributing to a person’s severe anxiety is an important part of the healing process. Here’s a simple formula to consider when trying to understand where one’s anxiety is coming from:

Genetic Predisposition/Temperament
Psychological Background
Current Stressors
Ineffective Coping Strategies
Severe Anxiety

One does not need to have all of these conditions in order to develop severe anxiety. Most of the people I have worked with in therapy over the last 30 years have had at least several of these variables. Understanding what these variables are, and how they contribute to the development of a severe anxiety condition, helps a person understand themselves better. It also helps point to what needs to be done in order to work through your anxiety condition.

© Copyright 2009 by By Evelyn Goodman, Psy.D, LMFT. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • Fletcher

    October 21st, 2009 at 1:56 PM

    Interesting article. Thank you Evelyn. Do you feel that any one of the four components you listed there is more of a precursor to severe anxiety than another? In other words, does one carry more weight?

  • Elizabeth R.

    October 21st, 2009 at 2:48 PM

    Evelyn, thank you for posting this. I don’t understand the difference between a stress disorder and an anxiety disorder. When I am very very stressed I have moments when I feel like I shut down from the world around me. It’s as if I’d flipped an on/off switch in my brain for a couple of minutes to give it a break from all the noise. I’m not unconscious or anything, just still. I’m aware of things going on around me.

    The best I can describe it is I’m looking at it all from behind a storefront pane of glass, where the sounds and goings on nearby are muffled and the volume turned low. I’m observing but not feeling. Is that anxiety then and not stress? I have a depression dx.

  • Evelyn Goodman

    October 21st, 2009 at 5:08 PM

    Thanks for the feedback.
    I don’t think one area of contribution is more significant than another. They work together in a unique way in each
    Do you have any thoughts on this?

  • Evelyn Goodman

    October 21st, 2009 at 6:18 PM

    An anxiety disorder is a stress-related condition. Chronic stress can affect us in many different ways, anxiety being one manifestation, depression is another. From what you’ve written, it seems that you have a way of coping where you distance yourself from what’s going on. I can’t tell from what you’ve written whether this is helpful to you or not.

  • beaty

    October 22nd, 2009 at 3:06 AM

    While the article is from an expert, I would say timely counseling can solve the problems of anxiety and stress. I got laid-off from my job about an year ago, and had difficulties even paying my bills… I developed a lot of stress in that period and thanks to a friend, went in for counseling and although I am in a much less-paying job today, I feel content and happy and I’m not stressed at all.

  • jason

    October 22nd, 2009 at 3:20 AM

    A series of events may trigger the onset of anxiety and stress in a person and these events are mostly negative and any person, when in a negative situation, does experience feelings that are very new and are bound to push him into such a feeling of anxiety or stress.

  • Tawny

    October 22nd, 2009 at 4:50 AM

    Loved the article- makes a great deal of sense. Goes to show that something like this can’t be broken down into simple nature versus nurture problems. This is a combination of a lot of different factors and a lot of it boils down to the coping mechanisms that people have and how they are able to deal with and manage stressful situations.

  • Amy

    October 22nd, 2009 at 10:56 AM

    If the physical aspects of a human are complex, the psychological and mental aspects are much more complex. There is no single reason for making a person have a fear about something or to make a person react in a particular manner in a particular situation. There are plenty of reasons for each action and reaction of a person, and although learning everything is a very daunting task, understanding atleast a little of it can help us.

  • Evelyn Goodman

    October 22nd, 2009 at 5:53 PM

    Counseling of psychotherapy can be very helpful when you are going through a very stressful time or when caught in the grip of an anxiety disorder. Understanding why and how you got to where you are is the first step. It also gives you some idea of what you may need to work on.

  • Laurel

    October 23rd, 2009 at 10:32 AM

    Hello – Do you have any advice about how to deal with a relationship with a person who has symptoms of anxiety but who has not accepted or acknowledged that there are any problems? I am dating such a person and his anxiety is getting in the way of sustained intimacy or relationship growth, but I don’t know how to help him become more aware of this. Thank you.

  • Evelyn Goodman

    October 23rd, 2009 at 1:53 PM

    Letting him know how his untreated anxiety problem affects you and how it affects how you feel about the relationship is the best approach for you to take. He can then decide how to deal with that. Ultimately it’s his decision to acknowledge or change some aspect of himself.

  • Elizabeth

    February 11th, 2012 at 9:07 AM

    I recently had a lot of stress in my life, my husband is in the military and we have recently moved to a place I absolutely hate. He had a choice between two places and he chose to move us to Wisconsin. It is a tiny little town and we know no one. Before we moved here I was a very outgoing happy go lucky lady. Now I have really bad anxiety, I hate being alone, I have been looking for a job can’t find one, all I do is sit in the house and have anxiety attacks and get so angry at my husband for moving us here. I started taking prozac ten days ago, i am hoping that will help. Why am I so angry and resentful towards my husband when my anxiety is clearly my fault? I feel so guilty feeling this way. I need some advice.

  • Richmond Heath

    November 19th, 2013 at 11:04 PM

    Thanks for your article Evelyn.
    Just wanted to cross check if you know about the deliberate use of the shakes you describe in your article to help deal with the neurophysiological aspects of anxiety. These shakes are often viewed as a symptom or part of the problem when they are part of the solution as they are the body’s natural mechanism to discharge unresolved trauma. Linking with Porges’s polyvagal theory suggests many people suppressing these shakes are probably likely to be containing and dissociating from their anxiety through dorsal vagal states – allbeit then not conscious of any anxiety as it becomes locked in the neuromusculature – rather than actually truly releasing it. More info at Dr David Berceli’s website traumaprevention.com

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