In this article I identify 3 of the most common forms of anxiety (including social anxiety, performance anxiety, and choice anxiety), as well as 5 of the most common causes of anxiety (including genes, health, psychology, history, and environment).
Anxiety disorders affect between 13-18% of the general population, but the truth is we all experience different forms of anxiety throughout our lives. An anxious mental state is often defined by feelings of fear, worry, uneasiness, or dread. It is often future-oriented, meaning that our anxieties are directed toward possible threats or negative experiences that haven’t yet happened.
In the real world, most of us experience anxiety in varying degrees depending on the situation. It isn’t always a bad thing, as some anxiety can motivate us to re-plan or re-think a situation before acting. However, excessive anxiety can be crippling to a point where we can’t decide, we don’t take action, or we mess up when the event finally comes.
Different Forms of Anxiety.
Anxiety can come in many different forms depending on what it is that triggers our feelings of fear, worry, or dread. These three types of anxiety are often the most common types discussed in modern psychology research, but there are probably other types of anxiety that don’t fit so neatly in these categories (specific phobias, existential anxiety, death anxiety, etc.) Nevertheless, these are the types of anxiety I will be referring to in this post:
Social anxiety is a fear or worry about social situations. We may feel uncomfortable or avoid environments that involve large groups of people (like school, work, public speeches, high school reunions, etc.) or we may even feel uncomfortable or avoid certain kinds of 1-to-1 interactions (like job interviews, dating, interacting with a stranger for the first time, or meeting a celebrity).
Most people feel some kind of anxiety in these situations but it varies greatly from person to person. Some people may feel more comfortable in groups, while others feel more comfortable during 1-to-1 interactions. Some people may feel more comfortable talking to familiar faces, while others feel more comfortable meeting someone for the first time. It really depends on the environment and the person.
For more on social anxiety, and how to overcome it, check out Sean Cooper’s The Shyness and Social Anxiety System.
Unlike social anxiety, performance anxiety is a fear or worry about performances, such as a student taking a final exam at school, or a musician performing on stage, or an athlete playing at a big sports game. We worry that we won’t do our best, or that we will mess up or lose, and that anxiety can actually inhibit us from performing to our maximum capacity (or even performing at all, for example due to too much “stage fright”).
Instead of focusing on what we need to get done to succeed, we become more focused on all the ways things that may go wrong. This can sometimes become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Our thoughts make us more uncomfortable and ill prepared, and then those thoughts lead to actions that reinforce our previous conceptions.
Choice anxiety is an anxiety rooted in uncertainty when making decisions. The truth is that none of us can act or make a decision with full knowledge of what the consequences will be; the universe is just too complex, and our minds aren’t capable of completely understanding it. Due to this, we often feel anxiety when making a big decision in our life, because we don’t know if we will make the best possible choice.
Some common big decisions we need to make throughout our lives include: what college to go to, what career to pursue, who to date/marry, where to live, what kind of car to drive, etc.
We make decisions everyday and we have to face the “opportunity costs” from choosing one option over another. Some research suggests that the more options we have to choose from, the more difficult it is to make a decision. They claim that having more options leads to a higher “opportunity cost” (theoretically: the more we have to choose from, the more we miss out on), and when this opportunity cost becomes too big we can often suffer from paralysis by analysis. Paralysis by analysis inhibits us from making ANY decision because we are so lost on what the right course of action is.
I’m sure that you’ve experienced these kinds of anxieties through your life to varying degrees. That’s good. A lot of our anxiety can be healthy and natural. However, when it starts interfering with how we want to live our lives, then it can become a problem that we need to deal with. The first step toward dealing with this problem is identifying some of the potential causes of our anxiety, then we can determine what are the best ways to treat it.
The Most Common Causes of Anxiety
There are a lot of factors that can contribute to our anxiety (and our mental health more generally). In this section, I am going to discuss some of the most common causes of anxiety, and also some potential treatment options for each one. However, it’s important to remember that because our anxiety can be due to such a wide array of different variables, it is often better to integrate several treatment options simultaneously.
Certain gene variants may be associated with greater levels of anxiety. We all have a different biological make-up, and sometimes individuals may experience increased levels of anxiety for no other reason but that it is embedded in their genetic code. These genes essentially cause chemical imbalances in the brain that leader to your anxiety.
Treatment options: If your anxiety is driven by your biology it may be possible to get prescribed medication from a professional psychiatrist. Beware, however, that many of these medications can have negative side effects (you may go through several different medications before finding one that works best – a good psychiatrist will help you through this process). Also beware that if your anxiety is caused by other factors than medication will only serve as a quick fix, but it won’t solve the deeper issues in your life. You may need to supplement your medication with other treatments.
Anxiety can also be caused due to physical inactivity and poor diet. When we don’t treat our bodies right then that can often have an effect on our mental states.
If we don’t eat balanced meals and get all the nutrition we need, that often means our brains aren’t getting enough nutrition either. This inhibits our brains from functionally as efficiently as they could be, which could very well become a contributor to higher levels of anxiety.
Physical activity is also crucial to both our physical and mental health. Running, playing sports, going to the gym, dancing, and anything that provides exercise is a great way to relieve stress and anxiety that may build up throughout the days or weeks. It’s important that we have a way to channel hormones (like adrenaline and cortisol) in positive and healthy ways, otherwise they manifest themselves as stress and anxiety.
Treatment options: If you don’t already take good care of your body, you’d probably be surprised of just how much less stressed and anxious you’d be if you started taking better care of your health. Try doing little things like replacing soda with water, eating less cake, going for a jog several times a week, or being more mindful of what you eat, and you’ll begin to feel better both physically and mentally.
Psychology (our thoughts and beliefs)
Many psychologists believe that our thoughts and beliefs are some of the biggest contributors to our mood and anxiety. When we look at our lives from a certain perspective or worldview, we may become more anxious than if we reframed our perspective to something different and more productive. One simple example: If you go into a date or a job interview believing that “I’m not good enough,” then you set yourself up to have an anxiety-driven experience. However, if you reframed your perspective, and instead you saw yourself coming from a place of strength or value, then you would probably be less likely to be as anxious.
Treatment options: It’s important to be mindful of the thoughts and beliefs that drive our mood and behavior. If we discover that our thoughts inhibit us from acting appropriately, then it may be appropriate to adjust those beliefs or replace them with something new. For more on this approach you can check out “Social Anxiety and CBT.”
For more on how to use psychology and Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy to overcome anxiety, check out Sean Cooper’s The Shyness and Social Anxiety System.
Our personal history and past experiences can also lead to more anxiety in the future. If we have a poor track record of job interviews or dates, then we may think we are inherently incapable of succeeding in these domains of life.
Early psychologists theorized that our self-esteem could be calculated by taking our successes and subtracting them with our failures. The more we succeed, the greater our self-esteem. While this theory definitely doesn’t depict the full picture of self-esteem, it does provide insight into one factor that can influence our self-perception.
Treatment options: It’s important to not let past failures dictate our self-esteem or anxiety about a situation, but when we start accumulating successes it can often become easier to keep ourselves motivated to overcome obstacles in the future. Keep this in mind, reflect on success for inspiration, and you can begin to turn your history around.
It is also likely that our anxiety is caused by a novel or unfamiliar environment. Anxiety can often be a rational response to an unknown environment because we never quite know what will happen or what risks or at stake. Our anxiety therefore signals to us that we are in danger, and often times this can rightfully inhibit us from taking part in behavior that we may sense as too risky.
Of course, there are also some environments that we may fear irrationally. We may understand that it is a lot safer to take a plane than drive a car, but our anxiety remains persistent despite understanding the risks at stake.
Treatment options: One way to treat these irrational anxieties is through something known as exposure therapy. Basically, we gradually expose ourselves to these environments until we become more and more comfortable with them. This kind of therapy largely makes up the “behavioral” component in Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy. I also elaborate on this more in “Social Anxiety and CBT.”
These are some of the most common causes of anxiety that I know of, although I’m sure there may be other causes that don’t necessarily fit in any of these categories. As you can also probably tell by now, there is a good chance that your anxiety is a combination of one or more of these factors. What makes you “you” – and what determines your thoughts and mood – is a very complex and interconnected process. But hopefully by reading through some of these causes you now have a greater understanding of what may be the driving forces behind your anxiety.
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