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What Causes Anxiety?

Anxiety arises from fearful behaviour, which encompasses both our thoughts and actions. When we exhibit fearful behaviour, we contribute to the development of anxiety.

An example of a fearful behaviour that triggers anxiety is excessive worrying. By indulging in worrisome thoughts, where we imagine negative or unpleasant outcomes, we actively engage in fearful behaviour that gives rise to anxiety.

From the following definitions we can infer that anxiety stems from our inclination to anticipate and fear future situations or circumstances that might pose risks or harm:

Anxiety is characterised as a state of fear and apprehension, particularly concerning future uncertainties. It involves a sense of uncertainty around real or imagined events that we perceive as potentially threatening.

Fear, on the other hand, refers to being anxious about the possibility of something bad or unpleasant happening.

Anticipation plays a crucial role in anxiety, involving the formation of expectations or predictions about future events or circumstances.

Expectation is the belief that certain events could, should, or will occur, and it is a fundamental aspect of anxiety.

Therefore, anxiety arises as a result of our fearful behaviour, which includes engaging in worrisome thoughts, predicting negative outcomes, and imagining potential harm.

Anxiety originates from fear

Anxiety is driven by fear, specifically the fear of potentially unpleasant or harmful events. In order to experience fear, we need to predict that something has the capacity to cause harm.

Making predictions involves assessing various risk factors and making judgments about the probable outcomes. Some of the factors involved in risk assessment include:

  • Can a particular situation or circumstance (the threat) lead to harm?

  • What kind of harm could the threat potentially cause?

  • How severe might the resulting harm be?

  • How would this harm impact the quality of my life?

  • What ramifications could this harm have on my future?

  • Do I possess the necessary abilities or resources to protect myself from the threat?

  • Is the threat imminent?

To experience fear, we need to deliberate upon all these factors and make informed decisions. Making decisions requires anticipating likely outcomes. And in order to anticipate, we must make predictions regarding what could, should, or will happen.

Even though a conclusion can materialise in an instant, it still relies on a series of cognitive processes that culminate in that conclusion. Consequently, anxiety is exclusively caused by a succession of cognitive processes that lead to the prediction that some forthcoming situations or circumstances might be dangerous or harmful.

The degree of fear is directly proportional to the severity of the threat.

When facing threats that have the potential to cause significant harm, a heightened level of fear arises, resulting in substantial anxiety. Conversely, threats with minimal potential for harm generate little to no fear and therefore elicit mild or no anxiety.

Hence, the extent of perceived harm determines the magnitude of fear, which in turn determines the intensity of anxiety, given that anxiety is driven by fear.

For instance, when we assess a threat as capable of inflicting great harm, we are likely to experience profound anxiety. On the other hand, if the potential harm is minor, our fear and subsequent anxiety will be limited.

The degree of anxiety is contingent upon the degree of threat

Anxiety arises from the act of predicting the possibility of a dangerous or harmful future event.

Consequently, anxiety is caused by being in a state of fear regarding a potentially perilous or detrimental situation or circumstance that may occur.

Fearful behaviour, characterised by assessing threats and imagining negative outcomes, leads to the state of anxiety.

Once again, worry serves as a prime example of how fearful behaviour fosters anxiety.

To validate this reasoning, consider removing the fear component. Recall a situation that caused significant anxiety due to excessive worrying. Now, imagine that the threat involved is no longer dangerous and poses no potential for harm or unpleasantness.

Observe how eliminating the threat also eliminates fear and the resulting anxiety.

Let's consider an example: the fear of experiencing panic attacks. Anxiety arises from worrying about panic attacks, and unfortunately, this anxiety further fuels the occurrence of panic attacks. Thus, a vicious cycle ensues, wherein fear of panic attacks and their actual experience reinforce each other, often seen in individuals with panic disorder.

Now, suppose you discovered a method to instantly and consistently halt panic attacks whenever they arise. Even if the panic attack is initially intense, you can swiftly terminate it every time. Would you still fear panic attacks? Would they still cause anxiety?

No! If you knew you had full control over panic attacks, with a 100% success rate in stopping them, the potential for harm or unpleasantness would cease to exist.

By eliminating the fear component, anxiety dissipates.

Fortunately, in the example above, it is possible to gain complete control over panic attacks, regardless of their severity. Learning how to manage panic attacks effectively has liberated countless people from panic disorder.

What causes anxiety disorder?

Anxiety disorder emerges when anxiety significantly disrupts a person's daily life. The primary cause of anxiety disorder lies in the presence of excessive fearful behaviour, which gives rise to anxiety-related challenges that impede our ability to lead a normal lifestyle.

It is worth noting that "anxiety disorder" is not a medical term but rather a commonly used phrase to describe individuals who struggle with anxiety-related difficulties. As such, anxiety disorder is not a specific medical diagnosis but rather a mental health term employed to classify those whose lives are significantly impacted by anxiety.

What causes fearful behaviour?

The causes of fearful behaviour, which leads to issues with anxiety, are subject to various theories. Some of these theories include:

Environmental factors

Numerous environmental factors have been associated with anxiety, including early life trauma, abuse, unhealthy parenting, rejection or abandonment by parents, separation from parents, overprotection or criticism from parents, serious medical problems in early life, and being raised by parents with anxiety issues, among others. Research indicates a strong link between environmental factors and the development of anxiety disorders, suggesting that they play a significant role.


Anxiety disorders have been observed to run in families, suggesting a potential genetic influence. However, no specific "anxiety gene" or set of genes has been definitively identified as the cause of anxiety disorder. The existing evidence points more towards learned and passed-on behaviours rather than solely genetic factors. The relationship between genes and behaviour, including anxiety-related behaviour, is not yet fully understood, and further research is needed to establish clearer connections.

Medical factors

Certain medical conditions and medications can produce symptoms resembling anxiety. Additionally, people may experience worry and anxiety related to medical conditions and procedures. However, it is important to note that medical factors alone do not cause people to engage in anxious risk assessment behaviour. Fearful behaviour is still considered the primary contributor to anxiety-related issues, even if medical factors can play a role.

Biological factors connected to the brain

Several theories have been proposed regarding the biological underpinnings of anxiety and the brain. Past theories, such as the concept of a "chemical imbalance," have been disproven. While differences in brain function, structure, and chemistry are observed in individuals with anxiety disorders, these differences are thought to result from how fearful behaviour and stress affect the brain, rather than being the direct cause of anxiety. Biological factors associated with the brain, such as certain medical conditions or physical damage, account for only a small percentage of those struggling with anxiety disorders.

It is important to recognise that anxiety is a natural and necessary response in certain situations and not an abnormal reaction. For most people, anxiety disorder is not caused by a malfunction in the brain, but rather by an excessive fear response to a broader range of stimuli compared to individuals without heightened anxiety. Therefore, the core issue lies in risk assessment behaviour, which is learned rather than a result of brain dysfunction.

Underlying factors linked to fearful behaviour

When it comes to fearful behaviour, there are various underlying factors at play that have been identified as the unhealthy behaviours, situations, and circumstances that influence fearful behaviour.

These underlying factors are rooted in the environments we grew up in, the experiences we had, and the conclusions we formed. Parent-to-child transmission is a common pathway for generalised anxiety disorder, with factors such as helicopter parenting, overindulgent parenting, and over-critical parenting playing a role. Early-life trauma, neglect, and abandonment are additional environmental factors that influence a child's development and the adoption of fearful behaviour.

This fearful approach contributes to the development of unhealthy anxiety, elevated stress levels, and associated symptoms. However, by successfully identifying and addressing these underlying factors, it is possible to achieve resolution from anxiety disorders.


It is important to emphasise that therapy is the most effective treatment for anxiety disorder. The reason behind this effectiveness lies in the fact that working with a skilled therapist directly addresses the underlying factors that contribute to excessive fearful behaviour, which is the root cause of anxiety issues. By replacing anxious behaviour with more helpful behaviour, it becomes possible to resolve the problem of anxiety disorder. The success stories of the people who have overcome their struggle with anxiety disorder serve as strong evidence that the condition is caused by behaviour rather than genes, biological brain problems, or the use or withdrawal from medication or recreational drugs. Fearful behaviour is the primary cause of anxiety, and therefore, by addressing and modifying such behaviour, it is possible to overcome anxiety disorder.


Sally Edwards Counselling

I am a fully qualified counsellor based in Orpington, Kent

I work with clients with problems including: depression, anxiety, panic attacks, stress, low self-esteem, low self-confidence, identity issues, relationship problems, self-destructive behaviours, self-harm, childhood sexual abuse, sexual violence, domestic violence, domestic abuse, trauma, PTSD, eating disorders and body image problems.

I am easily accessible from local areas near me including Orpington, Bromley, Chislehurst, Petts Wood, Sidcup, Beckenham, Sevenoaks, Tonbridge, Knockholt, West Wickham, Chelsfield, Swanley and Bexley

Face-to-face in person or online counselling

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