Anxiety Causes & Effects

The signs, symptoms, and effects of anxiety can look different for each person impacted. Learning about anxiety is one of the first steps toward healing.

Understanding Anxiety

Learn about anxiety

The category of anxiety disorders includes several mental health disorders that are characterized by feelings of excessive fear and worry, along with related behavioral disturbances. The disorders within the general category of anxiety disorders differ among each other mainly by the objects or situations that prompt the excessive fear and/or apprehension, and the cognitive ideation that is associated with these emotions. Anxiety disorders can affect children, adolescents, and adults. At Southcoast Behavioral Health, we offer comprehensive treatment that helps individuals overcome a variety of anxiety disorders.

The following are among the most common types of anxiety disorders:

Separation anxiety disorder: People who have this disorder experience severe worry regarding the potential absence of a loved one or other important person. This disorder can include, but is not limited to, fear that one’s loved one will be lost, kidnapped, or killed, as well as somatic symptoms of pain, repeated nightmares, and refusal to separate oneself from the loved one.

Selective mutism: This form of anxiety disorder involves a consistent failure to speak in specific social situations, such as when meeting new people or when asked to speak in front of a group of people, that negatively impacts a person’s social communication, educational progress, or occupational achievement. However, those who suffer from selective mutism are able to speak when in the company of familiar individuals, such as family members or close friends.

Specific phobia: This form of anxiety disorder is characterized by intense fear that is directly related to the presence or potential presence of a specific object or situation. Examples of specific phobia include persistent and significantly distressing fear that is brought about by being near spiders or other animals, the sight of blood, flying, or heights.

Social anxiety disorder: Also commonly referred to as social phobia, social anxiety disorder involves disproportionate fear or worry regarding social situations that may expose the afflicted individual to possible scrutiny by other people. Experiences that may trigger these powerful emotions may include meeting new people, engaging in conversations, being observed eating or drinking, giving a speech, or otherwise performing in front of others.

Panic disorder: Individuals who have panic disorder may experience recurrent unexpected episodes that involve an abrupt surge of fear and/or intense discomfort. During a panic attack, the afflicted individual may experience excessive perspiration, accelerated heart rate, breathing problems, numbness and/or tingling sensations, derealization, depersonalization, and fear of losing control or dying. Panic attacks usually last for a few minutes. Among the criteria to justify a diagnosis of panic disorder is that the afflicted individual must experience multiple recurring panic attacks and alter his or her behavior in between panic attacks as a means of trying to avoid future attacks.

Agoraphobia: For this disorder to be diagnosed, a person must experience marked fear or anxiety regarding two or more of the following experiences: using public transportation, being in open spaces such as a parking lot or bridge, being in enclosed places such as a shop or cinema, standing in line or being among a crowd, or being alone outside of one’s home.

Generalized anxiety disorder: This type of anxiety disorder involves excessive uncontrollable worry or fear about a wide range of events or occurrences, in a manner that is disproportional to the likelihood that the events the sufferer is worrying about will occur, or that they will be as severe as expected.


Anxiety statistics

According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), anxiety disorders affect about 18 percent, or 40 million, of adults aged 18 and above in the United States. This makes anxiety disorders the most common mental health disorders diagnosed among U.S. adults. The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) reports that, in any given year, between 4 and 5 percent of the adult population in the United States will suffer from an anxiety disorder that can be classified as extreme.

Among adolescents, data provided by the NIMH indicates that about 25 percent of young people ages 13 to 18 have experienced at least one anxiety disorder in their lives, and that about 5 percent of U.S. adolescents have had symptoms that can be categorized as severe. In any given year, NIMH reports, about 8 percent of Americans ages 13 to 18 will experience an anxiety disorder.

Causes and Risk Factors

Causes and risk factors for anxiety

Experts have identified a number of genetic and environmental factors that they believe may influence whether or not a person will develop an anxiety disorder. The following are among these factors:

Genetic: Studies involving brain imaging have identified specific areas of the brain that perform atypically in individuals who have anxiety disorders, which supports a genetic influence on the development of anxiety disorders. DNA research indicates that interactions among several genes may increase or decrease the likelihood that a person will develop a specific type of anxiety disorder. The genetic component is also supported by studies involving identical twins.

Environmental: Having a parent who has an anxiety disorder can also be an environmental influence on the development a similar disorder, as children may mimic their parents’ responses to stimuli that can prompt symptoms of an anxiety disorder. Other environmental influences that may increase the risk that a person may develop an anxiety disorder include being abused, neglected, or otherwise traumatized, losing a parent or other loved one through death, divorce, or other event, experiencing poor social reactions during childhood, and experiencing significant amounts of stress or pressure at home and/or at work.

Risk Factors:

  • Being female
  • Having a substance use disorder
  • Having a family history of mental illness
  • Being naturally shy or timid
  • Surviving a serious illness
  • Experiencing abuse, assault, or other trauma
  • Losing a parent or other loved one
  • Living in poverty

Signs and Symptoms

Signs and symptoms of anxiety

No one symptom or group of symptoms will be consistently present in each person who struggles with an anxiety disorder. However, the following are among the more common signs that may indicate that a person is experiencing an anxiety disorder:

Behavioral symptoms:

  • Diminished participation in activities that one once enjoyed
  • Refusing to leave the house
  • Avoiding certain people, places, or situations
  • Expressing fear or distress for no apparent reason
  • Inability to remain still
  • Withdrawal from family and/or friends

Physical symptoms:

  • Heart palpitations
  • Excessive sweating
  • Numbness or tingling in extremities
  • Lightheadedness
  • Breathing difficulties
  • Disrupted sleep patterns
  • Loss of appetite
  • Nausea
  • Muscle tension

Cognitive symptoms:

  • Inability to focus or concentrate
  • Problems with judgment and/or decision-making skills
  • Irrational fears, impulses, and compulsions
  • Particularly disturbing nightmares
  • Problems storing or retrieving memories

Psychosocial symptoms:

  • Persistent expressions of negativity
  • Inability to relax
  • Strong mood swings
  • Expressions of guilt and shame with no apparent justification
  • Sense of detachment


Effects of anxiety

Untreated anxiety disorders can have a wide range of devastating outcomes, including, but not limited to, the following:

  • Social isolation
  • Frequent absences from work or school
  • Diminished academic performance
  • Declined occupational performance
  • Job loss and unemployment
  • Abuse of alcohol and/or other drugs
  • Strained or destroyed friendships and/or professional relationships
  • Family discord
  • Onset of symptoms of other mental health conditions
  • Self-harm
  • Suicidal ideation

Co-Occurring Disorders

Anxiety and co-occurring disorders

The following are among the co-occurring disorders that are frequently experienced by people who are also dealing with an anxiety disorder:

  • Other anxiety disorders
  • Bipolar disorders
  • Depressive disorders
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
  • Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Eating disorders
  • Personality disorders
  • Communication disorders
  • Substance use disorders
  • Body dysmorphic disorder
  • Autism spectrum disorder

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