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What Causes an Anxiety Disorder?

By Deanne Repich

An anxiety disorder is caused by a combination of several factors working together over a period of time. Usually one factor alone does not result in an anxiety disorder. The most common contributing factors are:

  • Biological Factors
  • Stress Overload/Lifestyle Factors
  • Childhood Environment
  • Thought Patterns
  • Genetic Factors

Biological Factors
We all have an inborn "fight or flight" response designed to protect us from harm. When our survival is threatened, the fight or flight response creates physical and psychological changes that encourage us to act and protect our survival. These changes include rapid heartbeat, muscle tension, shallow breathing, and more.

People suffering from anxiety disorders often have a physical overreaction to stress. This overreaction occurs because your body perceives everyday events and situations as threats to survival. In an effort to protect you, your body triggers the fight or flight response even though no real danger exists.

Can I change it? Yes. What's important to realize is that if you overreact to stress, you can learn to change your response, no matter how it began. You can learn deep breathing techniques, relaxation techniques, and techniques such as the Anxiety Pyramid (all included in our course) to train your body to react more calmly.

Stress Overload/Lifestyle Factors
When you experience excessive stress over time, your body can trigger the fight or flight response and start to react to daily events as if they were dangers. Poor lifestyle habits such as overwork, lack of sleep, poor diet, and lack of regular exercise can cause unnecessary stress and promote anxiety.

Let's look at an example of how stress overload and lifestyle factors can contribute to anxiety. Donna works 70 hours a week for several years. This puts excessive stress on Donna's body. To make matters worse, Donna is so busy working that she only manages to get five or six hours of sleep a night, she doesn't exercise regularly, and she eats mainly fast food. She can't remember the last time she took time out for herself.

Do you see how Donna's lifestyle creates stress in her life and produces a negative snowball effect? Over time Donna's body starts perceiving these constant stressors as a threat to her survival. Her body eventually gets "burned out" from repeated unnecessary stress reactions. It is on a constant state of alert - contributing to the physical and mental symptoms of anxiety.

Can I change it? Yes. You have the power to reduce or eliminate many of the stressors in your life. You do this by integrating healthy lifestyle habits - by making choices that promote calmness, self-care, and a balanced lifestyle. For example, sleep eight hours a night instead of six. Eat well-balanced, healthy meals. Work 40-50 hours a week instead of 70, and so on.

You can also learn to view stressors in a less anxious way so your body does not overreact to stressors when they occur.

Childhood Environment
Your childhood environment affects how you think and act as an adult. Even though the adults around you meant well, as a child you may have learned habits and beliefs that contribute to anxiety.

For example, you may not have been taught to have a sense of control over your world. You may have been expected to achieve as a way of gaining love and acceptance. You may have been taught "all or nothing" thinking or were not allowed to freely express your feelings or opinions. You may have grown up in an environment that was not physically or emotionally safe. You may have been frequently judged or criticized. Or you may have grown up watching and modeling adults around you that reacted to life in an anxious way.

Can I change it? Yes. No matter what your childhood environment was, you can change the anxiety-producing thought patterns and habits you learned then, through knowledge and practice.

Thought Patterns
How you think affects how you view the world and how you react to stress. Negative thought patterns like "what-if" thinking, perfectionism, "all or nothing" thinking, and victim talk can contribute to an anxiety disorder. In fact, negative thoughts can actually create physical symptoms in your body.

Can I change it? Yes. Research shows that you have the power to change your thoughts, which can in turn affect how you physically and mentally feel. Through healthier thoughts, you can learn to view the world in a less anxious way and feel better.

How do you change your thoughts? By using the three "R"s: Recognize, Replace and Reinforce.

Genetic Factors
Research shows that panic disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder tend to run in families. Although there is some debate, it appears that part of this family tendency is due to how you're brought up (environment) and part is due to genetics. There is some indication that genetic factors are also involved in social anxiety.

Can I change it? No. We cannot change our genes. That's the bad news. Now here's the good news. You can positively change all of the other factors we discussed that contribute to anxiety.

And like we mentioned earlier, usually one factor alone does not result in an anxiety disorder. This is exciting news! It means that if you learn to successfully address the other factors that contribute to anxiety, you can conquer your anxiety in spite of genetic factors.

Deanne Repich is the Director of the National Institute of Anxiety and Stress, Inc., a former anxiety sufferer, and creator of the "Conquer Your Anxiety Success Program." The course is a 'take-action' self-study program that guides you step by step through over seventy practical strategies for overcoming anxiety.
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