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What causes anxiety?

The root causes for anxiety differ from person to person. But, there are some common factors that may be helpful to identify the reasons you suffer from so much stress. In the last post that details What is Anxiety, it was discussed that it is a form of fear that is prolonged. Fear is designed to come and go. Fear serves a purpose to alert us when there is danger and prepares our body to respond appropriately. Our amygdala senses this danger, and sends signals to the rest of our body which readies us into fight, flight, or freeze modes. Corresponding neurotransmitters release to help us navigate this perceived threat. Our bodies become temporarily stronger and faster as a result of the release of these neurotransmitters. These chemical responses keep us alive. Thus, fear’s primary purpose is to alert us to danger so that we can survive.

Evolutionary Psychology

We are alive today because our ancestors got really good at noticing danger and quickly finding safety. Imagine what life was like for our ancient ancestors. Living outdoors, they were in constant interaction with the natural environment. They probably spent a substantial amount of time quickly orienting to unfamiliar sounds to ensure that a predator wasn’t lurking about. Let’s say they heard an unusual sound in the bushes and whipped their heads around and scanned the bushes only to find that it was a branch that fell creating the unfamiliar noise. Their bodies then relaxed and returned to a state of peace and safety. If it was a lion, neurotransmitters would be released and they would quickly respond. Let’s imagine that they backed away slowly until they were a substantial distance away from the lion. At that time, their body could relax as they experienced safety.

Mismatched Instincts

Now, return to your present day. Most of us are not in an environment where predators are a constant threat to our survival. But, our highly developed danger detection system has not simply gone away. Evolutionary psychologists propose that we now have “mismatched instincts,” where we are responding events that are not life threatening as if our life depended on it. For example, imagine that you are late for work. If you are like most people, you may have a certain degree of anxiety about that. You may think, “Oh no! What will my boss think? This is the second time I’ve been late this month. Will she remember? Will my co-worker report me? I can’t believe I’m late again!” In your nervous system, your amygdala senses danger, releases neurotransmitters, and prepares to fight, flee, or freeze. In other words, your body responds as if this is a life or death situation. But, the reality is that you are not in immediate danger. Certainly, your job provides financial security, which may be necessary for survival. However, our bodies respond as if there is an immediate life or death situation. One possible consequence of regularly responding to these situations as if they are life threatening is anxiety. Anxiety is a state of perceived immediate danger when actually there is none. If you dwell on being late for work, about the possible scenarios of what could happen, or the myriad of other things that you could worry about, you teach yourself to be anxious. You actually form neural pathways in your brain that makes stressing out the more likely response to challenges.

Anxiety is Learned

And, if it is learned, it can be unlearned. There are a variety of strategies that counseling can provide to help you unlearn anxiety and learn safety/relaxation instead. Anxiety can be learned gradually or more quickly. You may slowly develop a tendency to respond to things in an anxious manner, which may strengthen that response over time. On the other hand, you may experience trauma or a significant event that has a major impact on you, where it seems like you haven’t healed. Trauma and Anxiety are connected.

Anxiety and Genetics

You may also have a genetic predisposition to anxiety. If your parents have anxiety, you are more likely to have it. But, your parents’ anxiety, does not guarantee that you will have it. The reason is because of epigenetics. Epigenetics is the study of gene expression.   Just because you have certain genes, doesn’t mean that they will be activated, or expressed in your life. Your parents may both have severe anxiety, and you may have genetic markers of anxiety. But, you may not suffer a single episode of depression throughout your life. The reason for this is because of the role of the environment and your own resilience. If you are exposed to higher amounts of stressful situations and you are less resilient, then you are more likely to experience anxiety. If you are exposed to lower amounts of stressful situations and you are more resilient, then you are less likely to experience anxiety. In summary, there are a variety of factors when exploring the cause of anxiety: mismatched instincts, learned behavior, genetics, epigenetics, trauma, environmental factors, and resilience. Counseling can help with most of these things. Contact me to find out more.