Causes of Anxiety Disorders

Anxiety involves biological, psychological, and environmental causes. Any of these factors can predispose people to respond to stressful events or situations with an anxiety disorder.

Biological Factors

Genetic factors can make people vulnerable to developing anxiety disorders. For example, the autonomic nervous system may overact to a perceived threat, creating high levels of physical arousal.

Hereditary factors may also cause the neurotransmitter systems involved in emotional responses to overreact. For example, GABA (gama-amnobutyric acid) is an inhibitory neurotransmitter that reduces neural activity in the amygdala and other brain structures that stimulate physiological arousal. Abnormally low levels of inhibitory GABA activity in arousal areas may cause some people to have highly reactive nervous systems that quickly produce anxiety responses in response to stressors. This could make such people more susceptible to classically conditioned phobias because they already have a strong unconditioned arousal response that is ready to be conditioned to new stimuli.

Evolutionary factors such as biological preparedness may also predispose people to fear certain types of stimuli that might have had survival significance in the past.

Psychodynamic Factors

Psychodynamic Theories

Freud espoused that neurotic anxiety occurs when unacceptable impulses threaten to overwhelm the ego’s defenses. The way in which the ego’s defense mechanisms deal with this neurotic anxiety determines the form of anxiety disorder that occurs. Neurotic anxiety is viewed as being displaced onto some external stimulus that has symbolic significance in relation to the underlying conflict.

Obsessions and compulsions are seen as ways of handling anxiety. An obsession is viewed as symbolically related to, but less terrifying than, the underlying impulse, while a compulsion is a way of “taking back,” or undoing, one’s unacceptable urges.

Cognitive Factors

Cognitive theorists focus on the role of maladaptive thought patterns and beliefs in anxiety disorders. People with anxiety disorders “catastrophize” and magnify things into threats. They anticipate the worst and feel powerless in their ability to cope effectively.

Current cognitive explanations for panic attacks see them as being triggered by exaggerated misinterpretations of normal anxiety symptoms, such as heart palpitations, dizziness, and breathlessness. The person appraises these as signs that a heart attack or psychological loss of control is about to occur, which creates even more anxiety until the process spirals out of control and produces a full-blown state of panic. When these appraisals are replaced with more benign interpretations of their bodily symptoms, panic attacks are reduced significantly in patients.

Anxiety as a Learned Response

The behavioral perspective sees anxiety disorders as resulting from emotional conditioning. Some fears are acquired after a traumatic experience produces a classically conditioned fear response.

Some phobias can also be acquired through observational learning. Biological dispositions and cognitive factors may help determine whether or not a person develops a phobia after witnessing a traumatic event. Once the anxiety is learned, it may be triggered by environmental or internal cues, such as thoughts and images. In the case of phobic reactions, the cues tend to be external and related to the feared object or situation. In panic disorders, the anxiety-arousing cues tend to be internal – for example, bodily sensations or mental images. The problem is prolonged by successful avoidance because it prevents the extinction of the learned anxiety response.

Sociocultural Factors

Culture-bound disorders occur only in certain places, demonstrating the role of social and cultural factors in the development of anxiety disorders. For example, anorexia nervosa, the fear of getting fat, is found almost exclusively in developed countries, where being thin is a cultural obsession.

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