Do you know that feeling when your stomach drops when you ride a roller coaster that’s just about to fall over the edge? Or feeling your heart beat wildly against your ribs, so loud you can almost hear it? That’d what anxiety feels like, and a lot of people all over the world struggle with it for most of their lives.
According to a recent survey by the National Institute of Mental Health (2017), it’s the most common mental illness, with over 40 millions adults in the US alone being diagnosed every year. The American Psychological Association (2013) defines anxiety as a future-oriented concern that may lead people to avoid situations that trigger or worsen their distress.
Often called “the common cold of psychology”, along with depression, it’s one of the most prevalent and widespread mental health concerns of today. Anxiety is an uncomfortable feeling, to say the least, but you shouldn’t let it rent space in your mind. Otherwise, it will end up taking control over everything in your life — from your thoughts, to your attitudes and behaviors.
An important first step in overcoming anxiety is to acknowledge it and understand where it’s coming from, so if you’ve been having a hard time figuring it out for yourself, here are 6 of the most common causes of anxiety:
Also called “rumination” in psychological terms (Nolen-Hoeksema, 2000), this is when you make a big deal out of everything to the point where every experience and interaction you have starts to seem negative. Reading too much into everything – from the slightest change in someone’s voice, to the subtlest of facial expressions – can be enough to drive anyone mad. Sweating the small stuff and never letting anything go can keep you up at night, obsessively thinking about that some small mistake you made years ago. Overthinking makes you worry about the most unimportant details and twist everything in your mind into something much, much worse than it actually is.
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While the high of excelling at something can be a wonderful feeling, in the end, it’s not worth all the anxiety you end up giving yourself in the long run. Overworking yourself and feeling stressed out all the time leads you to becoming more susceptible to anxiety and depression (Laux & Krohne, 1982).
When you strive for unrealistically high goals, you’re only setting yourself up for failure and disappointment. You’ll feel compelled to busy yourself with work or school all the time and feel guilty about relaxing and having fun. You never feel contented with yourself or what you’ve achieved, because there’s always some other mountain you think you need to climb.
3. Low Self-Esteem
In today’s day and age, when popularity comes at the price of your privacy, the internet makes it easy to feel like you always need to impress everyone. Some people think that their social media presence defines who they are, so the pressure to be accepted and well-liked by your peers has reached an all-time high (Caplan, 2006). This is probably why having a negative self-image has become one of the most common causes of anxiety everywhere (Kinsey, Bailey, Sheridan, Padgett, & Avitsur, 2007).
Insecurity is something all of us struggle with, but failing to overcome it can cost you a great deal of your happiness, energy, and peace of mind. Self-doubt can make the prospect of being judged and criticized by those around you absolutely terrifying. However, caring too much about what other people think and letting this fear rule your life is not healthy.
4. Pessimistic Thinking
Similar to overthinking, pessimistic thinking is another kind of mind trap most people with anxiety find themselves falling into a lot of the time. This means always worrying about the worst things that could happen in any given situation. Having a negative mindset about yourself, your circumstances, or those around you makes it difficult for you to feel calm, because you’re forever finding something new to worry about. You can turn even the smallest inconvenience into a downward spiral of anxiety and depression that’s hard to escape (Reiss, 1991).
5. Traumatic Events
Any negative experiences you may have had in the past play an important role in shaping your fears and anxieties, even if you don’t know it. Our sense of self-preservation is so strong that oftentimes, our minds will do everything it can to keep us happy and safe. This means avoiding anything that may have previously given us distress or anxiety. In fact, this is one of the most common reasons why we develop phobias (Stearns, 2012; Greenson, 1959).
When it comes to anxiety, on the other hand, traumatic events teach us what to fear and be wary of, no matter how irrational it may seem. So if you find yourself feeling anxious for seemingly no reason at all, it might be because you have some deep-seated trauma or lingering issues you still need to resolve.
6. New Experiences
Finally, trying new things and stepping out of your comfort zone is another one of the leading causes of anxiety. Certainly the most positive point on this list, the anxiety you feel here is actually a good sign that you are being brave and making a conscious effort to grow as a person. This kind of anxiety is more of a nervous excitement than dreadful worry.
Change can be scary, especially if it’s sudden and stressful, but it’s also one of the many constants of life. Learning to embrace change takes a lot of emotional maturity. Of course, the nervousness and worry that accompanies it is only normal. In fact, it can even drive you to do better and try harder if you let it inspire you and remind you of all the possibilities life has to offer.
- National Institute of Mental Health. (November 2017). What Are Anxiety Disorders?. Retrieved from https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/statistics/any-anxiety-disorder.shtml
- Nolen-Hoeksema, S. (2000). The role of rumination in depressive disorders and mixed anxiety/depressive symptoms. Journal of abnormal psychology, 109(3), 504.
- Laux, L., & Krohne, H. W. (Eds.). (1982). Achievement, stress, and anxiety. Hemisphere Publishing Corporation.
- Caplan, S. E. (2006). Relations among loneliness, social anxiety, and problematic Internet use. CyberPsychology & behavior, 10(2), 234-242.
- Stearns, P. N. (2012). American fear: The causes and consequences of high anxiety. Routledge.
- Greenson, R. R. (1959). Phobia, anxiety, and depression. Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 7(4), 663-674.
- Reiss, S. (1991). Expectancy model of fear, anxiety, and panic. Clinical psychology review, 11(2), 141-153.
- Kinsey, S. G., Bailey, M. T., Sheridan, J. F., Padgett, D. A., & Avitsur, R. (2007). Repeated social defeat causes increased anxiety-like behavior and alters splenocyte function in C57BL/6 and CD-1 mice. Brain, behavior, and immunity, 21(4), 458-466.