Anxiety disorders occur when a person regularly feels disproportionate levels of distress, worry, or fear over an emotional trigger. Identifying the reason behind a presentation of anxiety can be the key to successful treatment.

To assist diagnosis, the conditions under the umbrella of anxiety disorders have certain characteristics that set them apart from normal feelings of anxiety. A wide variety of factors can contribute to anxiety disorders.

This article explores the different causes of anxiety disorders and the criteria a doctor or psychologist would use to reach a diagnosis.


stress anxiety cause
Stress around work or school can lead to an anxiety disorder.

Anxiety disorders have a complicated network of causes, including:

  • Environmental factors: Elements in the environment around an individual can increase anxiety. Stress from a personal relationship, job, school, or financial predicament can contribute greatly to anxiety disorders. Even low oxygen levels in high-altitude areas can add to anxiety symptoms.
  • Genetics: People who have family members with an anxiety disorder are more likely to have one themselves.
  • Medical factors: Other medical conditions can lead to an anxiety disorder, such as the side effects of medication, symptoms of a disease, or stress from a serious underlying medical condition that may not directly trigger the changes seen in anxiety disorder but might be causing significant lifestyle adjustments, pain, or restricted movement.
  • Brain chemistry: Stressful or traumatic experiences and genetic factors can alter brain structure and function to react more vigorously to triggers that would not previously have caused anxiety. Psychologists and neurologists define many anxiety and mood disorders as disruptions to hormones and electrical signals in the brain.
  • Use of or withdrawal from an illicit substance: The stress of day-to-day living combined with any of the above might serve as key contributors to an anxiety disorder.

Sometimes, stressful events occur as the result of a third party, such as an employer or partner, but anxious feelings might emerge from people telling themselves the worst will happen. An anxiety disorder may develop without any external stimuli whatsoever.

Disproportionate anxiety can result from a combination of one or more of the above causes.

For example, a person may respond to stress at work by drinking more alcohol or taking illicit substances, increasing anxiety levels and the risk of further complications.


anxiety diagnosis
A person must meet all criteria of an anxiety disorder to qualify for a diagnosis.

A mental health professional can diagnose anxiety and identify the possible causes.

The physician will take a thorough medical and personal history, perform a physical examination, and order laboratory tests if needed. These tests may provide useful information about a medical condition that may be causing anxiety symptoms.

To receive a diagnosis of generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), a person must:

  • experience excessive worry and anxiety about several different events or activities on more days than not for at least six months
  • have difficulties controlling worry
  • have at least three anxiety symptoms on more days than not in the last six months

To identify the condition, a doctor will look for one of the following anxiety symptoms:

  • restlessness
  • fatigue
  • irritability
  • muscle tension
  • difficulty sleeping
  • difficulty concentrating

A doctor must be able to note that symptoms are interfering with daily life, perhaps causing absence from work or school.


A range of factors can work together to cause an anxiety disorder.

People with anxiety disorders regularly have a genetic predisposition towards them, and physical factors, such as an imbalance of hormones and chemical messengers in areas of the brain, also play an important role. However, environmental factors, including stress and traumatic life events, can also impact the scale of an emotional reaction to a trigger.

Withdrawal from alcohol or an illicit substance can also contribute to anxiety.

A doctor will recognize and diagnose an anxiety disorder by noting excessive worry, difficulties managing worrying emotions, and the presence of at least three symptoms of anxiety on more days than not over the last 6 months that have been severe enough to interfere with daily living.

These symptoms include restlessness, fatigue, and irritability, as well as muscle tension and difficulties with sleep and concentration.


I feel anxiety symptoms every day that do not seem to link to a specific cause or trigger. What should I do?


Make an appointment with a professional. Often, we are unable to see the patterns in our own lives that are apparent to others, especially professionals with experience in this area.

Dillon Browne, PhD Answers represent the opinions of our medical experts. All content is strictly informational and should not be considered medical advice.