What causes anxiety?
Whilst there is no single known cause of anxiety disorders, there are a number of risk factors or triggers that may contribute. These differ between the different anxiety disorders too. According to the Australian Psychological Society (APS) the following factors may play a role:
- Genes: certain anxiety disorders appear to have a genetic component, with some anxiety disorders running in families.
- Physical health: poor physical health can increase a person’s vulnerability to developing symptoms of anxiety.
- Thinking style: patterns of thinking characterised by anticipating the worst, persistent negative self-talk, low self-esteem and unhelpful coping strategies (e.g., avoidance) are linked to problem anxiety.
- Stress: stressful events such as a marriage breakdown, work or school deadlines and financial hardship can act as a trigger for anxiety.
The APS list treatments that work
Cognitive-behaviour therapy (CBT) has been found to be the most effective treatment for anxiety disorders. CBT is a type of psychotherapy that helps an individual to change unhelpful thoughts and behaviours which can contribute to anxiety. CBT combines some of the following strategies for identifying and challenging unhelpful thoughts:
Problem-solving skills can help a person cope with situations or thoughts that are making them stressed or anxious. Structured problem solving involves identifying the problem, developing and selecting a solution to the problem, implementing the solution, and evaluating its helpfulness.
In exposure therapy the psychologist guides the person through a series of real or imaginary scenarios to confront specific fears. Through a gradual process of exposure, the person learns to cope more effectively with these fears, and with practice, the anxious response naturally decreases.
In mindfulness-based therapy, distress about the experience of anxiety, rather than anxiety itself, is the focus. As such, the psychologist assists the person to focus on the bodily sensations and thoughts that arise when he or she is anxious, and instead of avoiding, withdrawing or fighting against these symptoms, he or she remains present and aware of them. As a result, the person becomes more open and accepting of the thoughts and sensations associated with anxiety and less overwhelmed by them, enabling them to engage more fully with life.
Feelings of anxiety sometimes stem from an individual’s negative or unhelpful thoughts. Cognitive restructuring is a technique used by psychologists to help a person to challenge negative thoughts and develop more helpful and constructive ways of thinking.
Many individuals who experience high levels of anxiety often report that they have trouble relaxing. Learning a form of relaxation, such as meditation or progressive muscle relaxation, and practicing it regularly, has been found to be an effective treatment for anxiety.
In addition to the above psychological techniques, making simple changes to a person’s lifestyle can help lower stress and anxiety. Including regular exercise, lowering or eliminating alcohol and caffeine, engaging in enjoyable activities, improving time-management skills, and having adequate sleep can help to lower anxiety.