Health Agenda

Mental Health

What causes anxiety?

Understanding what causes anxiety can be the first step in controlling the impact it has on your life.

Anxiety is the most common mental health condition in the country, with 1 in 4 Australians experiencing symptoms at some point in their life. It’s also one of the most treatable mental health conditions, and many people see great results from a variety treatments in as little as a few weeks or months.

Understanding some of the common causes of anxiety can help you better cope with, and start to overcome, your anxiety.

Here are the main causes of anxiety and how and when to seek help.

What is anxiety?

When anxious feelings – like stress or worry – don’t go away for more than 2 weeks and become very intense, this can be a sign of an anxiety condition.

While there are several types of anxiety, generalised anxiety disorder (GAD) – where you worry about many different things, on most days – is particularly common.

Other types include social anxiety, where you worry about being embarrassed in social or public situations; and panic disorders, where people have recurring panic attacks at least once a month.

Who gets anxiety?

Anyone can experience an anxiety disorder. As Australia’s most common mental health condition, research shows:

  • women are more than twice as likely to be affected by anxiety than men
  • the median age for the onset of anxiety disorders is just 11 years old, and one in five Aussies aged between 12 and 17 are affected
  • more than 26% of Aussies between 16 and 85 have experienced an anxiety disorder at some point in their life.

What does anxiety look and feel like?

Anxiety symptoms can show up in 3 ways: physically, psychologically and behaviourally.

  • Physical anxiety can take the form of a panic attack or symptoms like sweating, trembling, nausea, dizziness, a pounding heart and difficulty sleeping.

  • Psychological symptoms could include uncontrollable worrying or obsessing about a situation.

  • Behavioural symptoms could include avoiding social events or people, and finding it hard to leave your home.

What are the main causes of anxiety?

Anxiety can be caused by a variety of factors and people can have very different triggers. Some of the most common causes of anxiety are:

Genetics
Studies show that about 30% of anxiety issues in children are because of family history. There’s also strong evidence of a high level of environmental transmission of anxiety – in other words, it’s learned behaviour. If a child witnesses anxiety in their parents, they’re more likely to mirror that behaviour. But this also means if a parent can recognise their own anxiety and model good coping strategies, the child will see this, and as a result either be less anxious or learn how to deal with their feelings.

Personality
Certain personality traits have been shown to have a higher prevalence of anxiety. Type A personalities – who tend to be perfectionists, highly ambitious, organised and high achievers – can be more prone to anxiety-related issues. Others who may be susceptible to anxiety are those who are very shy, have low self-esteem, or who want to control everything. The jury is still out when it comes to how personality-related anxiety affects people at school and work. Some studies show that people with anxiety leave school earlier, and students with high anxiety levels score lower exam grades. Other research has found that type A personalities can become extremely anxious about exams, grades, or work performance and push themselves to achieve more.

Ongoing stress
Accumulative, long-term (chronic) stress can be a major trigger of anxiety. Chronic stress can cause chemical changes in the brain, which contribute to anxiety and depression. This sort of stress can be prompted by anything from work worries or moving home to relationship problems, grief or abuse. The stress of having a baby can also commonly trigger anxiety. Postnatal anxiety affects 1 in 7 new mums and 1 in 10 new dads. People who live with anxiety, particularly that brought on by long-term stress, have been shown to be at greater risk of relationship problems and divorce.

Trauma
Trauma is usually characterised by an extreme but short-lived shock, like being in an accident, witnessing a death or having a difficult childbirth. Trauma can contribute to anxiety disorders, with research showing that 90% of people who use public mental health services for anxiety and depression-related disorders have experienced at least 1 traumatic episode. Anxiety is often a part of post-traumatic stress disorder, and can cause night terrors, irritability, mood swings and poor concentration.

Health problems
Chronic illnesses like asthma, diabetes and heart disease can cause anxiety. People with type 2 diabetes are 2-3 times more likely to be diagnosed with anxiety and depression.

Addiction
Some people try to manage their anxiety with alcohol or other drugs. While alcohol initially feels as though it’s calming you down because it depresses the central nervous system, these effects are short-lived. As the alcohol wears off, it can have the opposite effect and make you feel more anxious. This is because alcohol upsets the balance of the brain’s chemicals, including the mood-regulator serotonin, which can lead to high anxiety levels.

How to deal with anxiety

If you think you’re suffering from anxiety, it’s important to ask for help from a GP or professional. Treating anxiety early can help to control it and give you the chance to learn self-help strategies that can stop it from getting worse.

There are a range of treatments, including cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), medication and anxiety-management strategies, all of which a doctor can advise you on. Some proven self-help strategies for anxiety include meditation, yoga, exercise and controlled breathing techniques.

Getting help with anxiety

We're trying to make it as easy and fast as possible for you to access the mental wellbeing support you need. PSYCH2U mental wellbeing and navigation services are unique to HCF, giving eligible HCF members* access to video consultations with psychologist, psychiatrist and other allied health professionals.

You can also access a range of online courses through THIS WAY UP⁺, a not-for-profit initiative developed by experienced psychiatrists and clinical psychologists, to help you take control of your mental wellbeing. Clinically proven, the courses understand and improve mental challenges like stress, insomnia, worry, anxiety and depression.

If you're struggling with depression or anxiety, and need to speak to someone now, call Lifeline on 13 11 14.

Where to find more mental health help:

Words by Katherine Chatfield
First published May 2021

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