Anxiety Disorder: Definition and Causes

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According to the American Psychological Association (APA), anxiety is an emotion characterized by feelings of tension, worried thoughts, and physical changes like increased blood pressure.

Interestingly, not all anxiety is bad for us. Psychologists have found out that our performance increases when we are a little anxious. (Yerkes & Dodson, 1908). For example, you might have performed well in the exams because you were anxious. Anxiety also helps us notice and plan for future threats and avoid potentially dangerous situations.

A moderate amount of anxiety keeps us from ignoring danger and prepares us for “fight or flight.” Sometimes fear or anxiety can occur even when no threat is present, causing anxiety disorder. Researches have shown that anxiety disorders are the most common mental disorders in the United States.

Causes of Anxiety Disorders

Several factors play a role in the acquisition of anxiety disorders. This write-up will explain the biological, psychological, and social factors and how they interact to produce anxiety disorders.

Biological Factors

Biological factors that affect anxiety disorders include brain structure and genetic influences. A part of the brain Amygdala signals whenever a threat is present and plays a crucial role in anxiety disorders. Studies have also shown that people diagnosed with anxiety disorders have shown elevated amygdala activity. Similarly, anxiety is also found to have associated with specific brain circuits and neurotransmitter systems.

Genes also have an influence on anxiety disorders. It is important to understand that no single genes cause anxiety or panic. Instead, contributions from collections of genes make us vulnerable to anxiety disorders. Stress and other environmental factors trigger these genes and cause anxiety disorders.

Psychological Factors

Many pieces of evidence support an integrated model of anxiety involving a variety of psychological factors. Psychoanalysts focus on the importance of the parent-child relationship in the development of anxiety disorders. And many psychological disorders, including anxiety disorders, are the manifestations of troublesome childhood experiences. However, this approach is criticized as being far too speculative, and alternative approaches are proposed. Similarly, many cognitive-behavioral theories emphasize the importance of the cognitive process in the development and maintenance of anxiety disorders.

Parents who are overprotective and clear out the troubles for the children and never let them experience any adversity create a situation in which the children never learn how to cope with adversity when it comes along. Children who are raised in such a way that they develop a sense of self-control and mastery also appear to be less vulnerable to developing anxiety disorders (Chorpita & Barlow, 1998).

Social and Sociocultural Factors

Stressful life events also trigger anxiety disorders. We also experience anxiety as a result of various life events like marriage, divorce, difficulties at work, death of a loved one, exams, financial status, and so on. People with lower incomes have higher rates of anxiety disorders. Similarly, disasters and natural calamities also increase the rate of anxiety disorders within the population. How these stressors are viewed by an individual’s social support network (family, friends, and peers) can either exacerbate or mitigate anxiety reactions (Brewin, Andrews, & Valentine, 2000; Ozer, Best, Lipsey, & Weiss, 2003).

Gender also has a role in the manifestation of anxiety disorders. Women are more likely to suffer from anxiety disorders than men, except for obsessive-compulsive disorder.  They are also more likely to be exposed to stress than men, making them more vulnerable to anxiety disorders.

References and Further Reading:

  1. Butcher, J. N. (2016). Abnormal Psychology (17th ed.).
  2. Chorpita, B. F., Brown, T. A., & Barlow, D. H. (1998). Perceived control as a mediator of family environment in etiological models of childhood anxiety. Behavior Therapy, 29(3), 457–476. https://doi.org/10.1016/s0005-7894(98)80043-9
  3. Comer, R. J. (2012). Abnormal Psychology (Eighth ed.). Worth Publishers.
  4. Durand, M. V., & Barlow, D. H. (2012). Essentials of Abnormal Psychology (with CourseMate Printed Access Card) (PSY 254 Behavior Problems and Personality) (6th ed.). Cengage Learning.
  5. Kazdin, A. E. (2000). Encyclopedia of Psychology: 8-Volume Set 8-Volume Set (1st ed.). American Psychological Association.
  6. Kring, A. M., & Johnson, S. L. (2019). Abnormal Psychology: The Science and Treatment of Psychological Disorders, 14e WileyPLUS Card with Loose-Leaf Set (14th ed.). Wiley (WileyPLUS Products).
  7. Sue, D., Sue, D. W., & Sue, S. (2008). Understanding Abnormal Behavior (9th ed.). Wadsworth Publishing.