What causes anxiety disorder and how to get help

Health Agenda
Mental Health

What causes anxiety disorder and how to get help

Updated June 2024 | 5 min read
Words by Katherine Chatfield

Anxiety is the most common mental health condition in Australia: understanding what causes it can be the first step in changing the impact it has on your life.

Anxiety disorder is the most common mental health condition in the country, with 28% of Aussies experiencing symptoms at some point in their life. It’s also a very treatable mental health condition, and many people see great results from a variety of 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 two 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:

What does anxiety look and feel like?

Anxiety symptoms can show up in three 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+96?

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:


Recent research has identified a genetic link between childhood anxiety and depression that lasts into adulthood, with hereditary factors accounting for around 40% of a person’s risk of suffering from anxiety and depression. There’s also evidence that parents who report their children as having anxiety symptoms will also report experiencing anxiety themselves. Anxious parents can inadvertently model behaviours like avoidance and unhealthy responses to stress factors. 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.


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. Research has found that anxiety affects learning in children: eight and nine year olds with high levels of trait anxiety (anxiety that is part of someone’s personality), who tend to perceive things as threatening where others might not, were found to learn more slowly than peers. Other research has found that greater anxiety, when balanced with greater conscientiousness and ER skills, led to more positive predictors in work performance and career satisfaction.

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 one in five new mums and one in 10 new dads, and some couples can experience it at the same time. According to Relationships Australia, over 22% of Aussies said that mental health placed pressure on their most important relationship in the last six months.


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, and it’s estimated that 75% of Aussie adults have experienced a traumatic event in their life. 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 two to three times more likely to be diagnosed with anxiety and depression.


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 feelings of 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 psychologists 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:

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How to help an anxious child

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How to cope with anxieties 

When anxiety hits it can be paralysing both mentally and physically. Here are some ways to cope with anxious feelings and feel more in control.


* Must have HCF gold level hospital cover for 12 months. Other eligibility criteria apply. 

+ This service is not affiliated or associated with HCF in any way. You should make your own enquiries to determine whether this service is suitable for you. If you decide to use this service, it'll be on the basis that HCF won't be responsible, and you won't hold HCF responsible, for any liability that may arise from that use. 

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