What causes anxiety?

There are a variety of possible answers…

Perhaps one’s anxiety can be traced back to their childhood; it is common for children who grew up in a “chaotic” environment (i.e. an overly strict parent, parents who fought constantly, a parent with a mental health issue, etc.) to deal with unusually high amounts of anxiety in their adult life. It’s as if their nervous system learned to be on “high alert” during these early formative years (and for good reason), and now they seem to be “tuned” to this setting.

Or perhaps one’s anxiety is tied to a specific experience from their past that they have not yet “processed” (emotionally speaking). For example, following a breakup, many people experience a tremendous amount of anxiety as they attempt to re-enter the dating world; their mind says “yes” but their nervous system says “no”. It’s as if their anxiety is trying to prevent them from becoming close to someone again (which would create the possibility of another painful breakup down the road).

But it’s not always the case that one’s anxiety is tied to the past. In fact, quite often it has to do with the present. For example, it’s common for young adults (especially as they get into their late 20’s) to feel “stuck” in the life they’ve created for themselves. If they’re unsure of how or what to change about their predicament, anxiety tends to come flooding in as they feel their life slipping away from them.

Whether one’s anxiety is tied to the past or the present it is important to recognize that anxiety is not a core issue in and of itself; it is a symptom of a “deeper” problem. When this is the case, the application of basic anxiety-management skills (i.e. mindfulness, breathing techniques, etc.) will only do so much. Therefore, the initial task in therapy is to gain a nuanced understanding of the root cause of one’s anxiety. Why? Because you cannot fix a problem until you fully understand what’s causing it.

As one gains this self-awareness, the direction of their therapy, and what is needed from the therapist, becomes clear. This will be different for each person because each person is unique. However, it will always consist of changing the patterns of behaviour that are reinforcing their anxiety, and breaking down the psychological and emotional barriers that stand in their way (i.e. their “resistance”).