Psychological Causes of Anxiety: root causes of anxiety part 1
Anxiety symptoms can be physical, mental or emotional. And are often where are focus tends to land when we are anxious.
Anxiety triggers are specific people, places, things or anything else that triggers our anxiety.
Anxiety triggers may include: social situations, watching the news, money, flying or anything else that instantly triggers our anxiety. Triggers are often what we are afraid of and what we very often try to avoid.
We often neglect to look deeper into the actual cause of our anxiety – we simply see the end result – anxiety, fear, nervousness, etc.
- What is it about public speaking that makes us nervous?
- Why do we feel panic when we are in social situations?
- Why do we have a deep seated fear of dogs or water or flying, etc.?
- Why do we feel anxious in otherwise non-threatening environments?
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Psychological Causes and Theories of Anxiety
How we see ourselves and our world and what we believe to be true can determine whether or not we experience anxiety regularly.
- Generalized Anxiety and Worry – “If I worry about it enough I'll be prepared when it happens”
- Obsessive-Compulsive – “As long as I perform this (repetitive behavior or thoughts) I'll be safe/in control”
- Perfectionism – “If I'm perfect other's will love/accept me and there won't be any problems”
- PTSD – “It (traumatic experience) is happening again” or “It (traumatic experience) is going to happen again“
- Catastrophizing & Anticipatory Anxiety – “That (worst case scenario) is bound to happen”
- Panic – “I'll (go crazy, lose control, have a heart attack) and won't be able to handle it”
- Social Anxiety – “They are watching/scrutinizing my every action” or “I'm going to embarrass myself”
It is important to understand that our beliefs are simply our assumptions and judgments about ourselves and the world based on our experiences – they are not absolute Truth. When we see our beliefs to be the absolute Truth and unchangeable, we inevitably set ourselves up for trouble.
Our Beliefs About Ourselves: Self-Image/Self-Identity
Our beliefs about ourselves and who we believe we are, directly shapes how we experience our lives and directly influence our thoughts, feelings and behaviors.
Depending on our beliefs, our self-identity or self-image can cause an incredible amount of anxiety.
Our self-image includes our beliefs about who we are, what we can do and how we fit into the world. This also includes the internal representation (image) we hold of ourselves in our minds.
Our beliefs about ourselves and self-image or self-identity could otherwise be known as – “the story we tell ourselves about who we are, and how we
think hope others see us.”
How we see ourselves (our mental self-image), plays an integral role in our self-esteem and the anxiety we experience on a daily basis.
If we see ourselves as weak or unconfident, then we will tend to actually feel and behave in weak or unconfident ways.
This is because we act in ways that fit our self-image and disregard thoughts, feelings and experiences that do not fit that image.
A common problem for those of us with anxiety is identifying with our anxiety. We may label ourselves as anxious or nervous and it becomes a part of who we are. This makes the feelings of anxiety common and can make overcoming the anxiety more difficult.
This is similar to what I mentioned above about the problem with labeling yourself as having an “anxiety disorder.”
Anxiety is NOT who you are, it is a response to experience.
Once you realize what anxiety is and what is causing it – you can begin to let go of identification with it and deal with the real underlying cause.
An unhealthy self-image doesn't necessarily have to be one in which we view ourselves in a negative way.
Many of us experience constant anxiety because we see ourselves unrealistically. We may expect our behavior to be perfect or that we perform far beyond our current mental or physical abilities.
Many of us believe we should be able to handle multiple responsibilities without help. Such as being a single parent while working full time or being a full-time college student while also working and paying bills.
Expecting ourselves to be perfect or completely independent often leads to feelings of stress, burnout and anxiety symptoms.
Common beliefs about ourselves that lead to anxiety:
If you notice a running theme with the list above – it’s the strong use of the word “should.” Having beliefs about yourself centered around should(s) will lead to anxiety.
“Should” infers current lack and is also pressure. You're telling yourself that you need to do/be/have something you don’t in the present moment.
The solution to all should(s) and any of the above beliefs is self-acceptance and greater awareness/presence.
If you accept yourself, then you “shouldn't” be anything else. If you’re aware of the present moment completely, then you lack nothing.
Developing a healthy and accurate self-image is essential to our self-esteem and self-worth. It also plays a crucial role in our ability to handle stress and overcome our anxiety.
We don't need to try and change every belief or thought about ourselves.
We simply need to become more aware of what we believe so that we can let go of unrealistic, untrue or limiting beliefs. When we let go of what isn't working, we can focus on what does work for us.
Our Beliefs About The World
Beliefs about the world, society and those around us deeply influence our experience of the world and shape our interactions with others.
These beliefs can include things we were taught in school, unconsciously “borrowed” from family members, learned from watching countless hours of television or any other influences that profoundly color and form our view of the world.
Our own personal experiences with others – such as our early experiences with family and friends – help us form our beliefs about others and what others are like (or not like).
Our beliefs about the world could otherwise be known as – “the story we tell ourselves about the world and those in it.”
During early childhood, we formed most of our beliefs about the world. Our family, teachers, and friends played an essential role in shaping our worldview.
This means that, for most of us, our beliefs are largely unconscious and run in the background of our minds automatically.
Many of these early beliefs are outdated or just plain false. These early beliefs are often not our own and were “given” to us by others.
For example; your mother may have told you at a young age “don’t talk to strangers.”
While this may have been for your protection as a child, is that belief still necessary to you now – as an adult? Do you avoid speaking to strangers as an adult because a parent told you this?
As a helpless child alone, this belief makes sense in many circumstances. As a 40 year old adult riding the Metro in the middle of the day, this belief may not be needed.
This is an exaggerated example obviously but the point is the same; we have many underlying beliefs like this that we may not even be aware of directly effecting our lives and even causing anxiety.
Beliefs that were formed when our brains were still developing – when we were helpless, immature and lacking in real-life experience, need to be brought into awareness and changed to reflect our current reality as adults.
Common beliefs about the world that lead to anxiety:
I could go on with examples but I think you get the point.
You can see how having just a few beliefs – like the examples above – can dramatically affect the way you view the world.
Even a single belief like – “the world is a dangerous place” – can influence the way that you behave and think on a profound level. Yet, many of us walk around with hundreds of beliefs like the ones above.
Is it any wonder then why we are anxious? Of course we are going to feel anxiety if we constantly feel threatened.
If we believe the world is against us – we're always going to be on guard looking for the “enemy” or the threat.
Often we may become so good at looking for the believed “threat” – we may even find what we believe to be true. Thus reinforcing our beliefs about the world.
Let's look at it from a different angle.
Consider the person who believes the world to be safe and believes the majority of people are good. They are not actively seeking the “threat” like the person above, instead, they reinforce their beliefs by placing their focus on the good people they meet each day.
But whose beliefs are true?
More importantly, whose beliefs are more likely to lead to less anxiety and feeling more secure and relaxed around others and in the world in general?
Essentially, the world is neutral. It is our beliefs about the world and our interpretations of events that shape and color the world we experience.
This is one of the reasons why one person can experience something and have severe anxiety and another can experience the exact same thing and have zero anxiety.
Same experience, same world – two totally different beliefs and interpretations.
All of us should take a close look at our beliefs, especially those that have been ingrained in us since childhood. We can then decide for ourselves what is true.
And if the truth can't be determined about something – we can decide the beliefs that are more likely to make us happier, less anxious and more useful for us NOW.
Cognitive distortions are inaccuracies in our way of thinking that lead to inaccurate representations of reality. This leads to stress and anxiety and can be a prime psychological cause of anxiety.
Cognitive distortions can also underlie many emotional, psychological and interpersonal problems we may have; such as depression, poor self-esteem and problems in close personal relationships.
If we can begin to identify these distortions in our thinking we can correct and release large “chunks” of thinking that distort our thoughts and perceptions of reality. Correcting distortions can release stress and anxiety and provide a much more accurate representation of reality.
In Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) – there are ten major cognitive distortions. Most of us do at least one of these on a regular basis. Many of us use all 10 distortions when we are anxious or upset, in the past I know I did.
The 10 Major Cognitive Distortions
1.All or Nothing / Black or White Thinking: no middle ground, things are either perfect or a total failure, other people are either bad or good, behaving as though there were only two possibilities
Example: You spend a lot of time and money on your child's birthday party. He loves the party and has a great time but he didn't like the birthday cake. Because he didn't like the cake you see the party (or even yourself) as a complete failure/disaster
2. Overgeneralizing: seeing a negative event as something that will happen again and again or if one thing goes wrong, everything is going wrong, drawing conclusions based on one example
Example: You don't get the job you interviewed for so you assume you'll never get the job you want or will fail every interview
3. Mental Filter: screening out the positive aspects of a situation and seeing only the negative. Can include also discounting the positive qualities of ourselves
Example: You focus on a negative comment someone made about you at a party ignoring all of the positive compliments you received
4. Discounting the Positive: overlooking, implying or insisting that your positive qualities or accomplishments don't matter or mean nothing
Example: You have an exam coming up and feel extremely anxious, telling yourself you are going to fail, discounting the fact that you are intelligent and have done well on tests for the class in the past
5. Jumping to Conclusions: negatively interpreting things even if not supported by facts, predicting things will go a certain way.
Two other distortions typically related to Jumping to Conclusions
- Mind Reading: believing you know what someone else is thinking about you
- Fortune Telling: predicting things will turn out badly or unfavorably.
6. Magnifying or Minimizing: over-evaluating (“magnifying”) or under-evaluating (“minimizing”) the importance of a situation or information
Example: Magnifying: you came from a broken home and you see it as shameful — Minimizing: despite the fact that you had to work extra hard and you now have a good career and a loving family to show for it
7. Emotional Reasoning: assuming that how you feel reflects how things are, assuming how you feel reflects who you are
Example: You assume that because you feel anxious/fearful something bad is bound to happen
8. Shoulds: believing things “should” or “shouldn't” be a certain way – whether it's ourselves, others or situations.
Examples: “I shouldn't get anxious” , “He shouldn't act like that” , “I should be more successful”
9. Labeling: A combination of both #1 and #2 above, we can label ourselves or others but typically implies a negative connotation based on mistakes or events that upset us.
Examples: “I'm such a screw-up” , “She's such a bitch”, “All of the people that work there are idiots”
10. Personalizing (Self-Blame): Seeing ourselves as the cause of an external negative event. Holding ourselves responsible for things not under our control. Often stems from childhood. Also beating ourselves up when we do make a mistake.
Example: You see a coworker is having a bad day so you assume you must have done something wrong.
Cognitive fusion is another important psychological cause of anxiety.
Cognitive fusion is a central term used in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), which refers to being “entangled” or “fused” with the contents of our minds to the point of confusing our thoughts, memories, beliefs etc., with reality.
Cognitive fusion in its mildest form may simply involve overvaluing certain thoughts or beliefs.
In its extreme form, we may completely identify with our thoughts and see each thought as the absolute truth, each thought to be taken literally and each mental image overshadowing actual reality.
The basic concept of cognitive fusion (being entangled/attached to our thoughts and mistaking them for reality) isn't new.
Many of the world's religions and spiritual practices (such as meditation and mindfulness) have been teaching the importance of detachment from our thoughts and developing the ability to step back from our mental chatter for centuries.
Given how “entangled” with our thoughts many of us can become, it's easy to understand how cognitive fusion is one of the most pervasive psychological causes of anxiety, possibly more so now than ever before.
- Do you ever find yourself responding to the contents of your mind (thoughts, interpretations, etc.) instead of to what is actually occurring in the present moment?
- Does your attention often center on your thoughts, mental images or memories instead of what you are feeling and experiencing with your senses?
- Have you ever found it difficult to distinguish between your mental “creations” and what is actually occurring in reality?
- Do you ever see your thoughts as “who you are” or take a thought literally (“if I'm thinking it then it must be true about me”)?
All of the above are examples of cognitive fusion and describe how some of us tend to become “ensnared” in our own thoughts, memories and other mental chatter.
Almost all of us have some degree of cognitive fusion. We may get caught up in our thoughts sometimes and neglect our present experiences or we may see some of our beliefs as the truth even if they contradict reality.
The stronger and more severe cognitive fusion becomes – the more we begin to disconnect from the present moment and reality. Ultimately leading to problems and feelings of anxiety, distress, depression, and (in the most extreme cases) mental illness.
Nowhere is cognitive fusion more pronounced than with those of us who are Obsessive-Compulsive (OCD).
For those of us with obsessive thinking, or OCD, our thoughts and mental images are at the center of our awareness most of the time.
This can create a sort of mental “wall” between us and reality.
We can take thoughts literally and see the need to “banish” thoughts we don't like. We believe we can do this by certain actions or rituals or even by more thinking (obsessive thinking).
We are overvaluing our thoughts and see them as representing reality, therefore we go to extreme lengths to counteract thoughts we don't like.
When in reality they are just thoughts.
This is cognitive fusion in the most literal sense.
Instead of seeing thoughts as just thoughts we react to them as we would something outside of us. We have completely identified with them.
I have often heard stories of new mothers who have a single random fleeting thought about harming their newborn child, even though they know they would never do that in a million years.
That one random fleeting thought can create relentless disgust, shame, and guilt – creating extreme anxiety for the mother to be around their own child.
This single thought about harming their child can often lead to obsessive-compulsive thoughts and behaviors as the poor mother tries everything to cancel out the thought she had.
She may begin taking extra precautions, being overly safe with how she holds or touches the baby or she may refuse to go near the baby for fear of acting out that one single thought.
But, it was just a thought – it's not reality.
So what's the antidote to cognitive fusion?
The truth is – we often have very little control over what thoughts pass through our minds.
Thoughts can often be extremely random.
For example, I had a song pop into my head the other day that I hadn't heard in probably 15 years. I could have unconsciously heard it at a grocery store or something, but the point is I wasn't actively thinking about the song it just randomly popped into my head uninvited.
Random thoughts often come into our minds uninvited. But we need not judge ourselves by them or see them as truth.
Thinking you have a brain tumor (without any medical proof) – doesn't make it a fact that you have a brain tumor.
Thinking a random “disgusting” thought – isn't the same as acting on it.
Your memory of a person/place – isn't the same as experiencing that person/place NOW.
Thoughts are just thoughts. By becoming less attached, less invested and less “fused” with them we seek to break their hold and the brutal importance and seriousness we place on them.
We will dive more into cognitive fusion and the techniques behind defusion in future articles…
When we experience feelings or emotions that are uncomfortable to us we will typically find ways to suppress them as much as possible.
But no matter how much we try – our feelings will eventually find a way to expression.
The feeling we have suppressed may express itself in a way completely different from the original feeling. For example, feeling anxiety instead of anger.
Any feeling that we deem uncomfortable, unacceptable or “bad,” we will try to suppress in some way or another.
These can include feelings that are typically labeled as “negative,” such as rage – as well as those other people would label as “positive,” such as confidence.
Whatever doesn't fit into our self-image – either our internal self-image or our external personality – we will attempt to suppress.
Below are some of the most commonly suppressed feelings and emotions related to anxiety.
When you're experiencing anxiety it can be useful to ask yourself what's really going on.
Think about this list of suppressed emotions and see if you are attempting to suppress how you feel.
Did something recently trigger one of those emotions? Is a situation or event coming up that you deeply fear or you feel very excited about?
Questioning or “becoming curious” about your anxiety – instead of labeling it as “my anxiety” – is a powerful way of getting to the source.
Anxiety is always a response to something, whether real or imagined.
Once you begin to look at your life you will notice patterns and experiences that trigger this response.
One suggestion is to begin noticing the feeling or emotion right before the feeling of anxiety. This is typically the uncomfortable emotion that is being suppressed and expressing itself as anxiety.
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Repressed Emotions & Trauma
One of the most common and pervasive causes of anxiety stems from repressed emotions, feelings and memories.
Repression is generally associated with experiences of traumatic events both witnessed or experienced directly.
These include physical and emotional traumas, life-threatening experiences and witnessing terrifying events.
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) tends to fall into this category.
Whenever we experience events in our lives that are beyond what our conscious minds can rationally handle or what we can emotionally process in a healthy way – we repress.
Depending on the “severity” of the event we may block out the memory completely.
Some of the more difficult experiences include; war, rape, murder, car accidents, childhood traumas/abuse, domestic abuse and other instances of violence or the loss of parent or guardian at an early age.
Understandably these types of experiences are hard for us to accept and comprehend – let alone emotionally process.
As a result – if we are unable to accept and process the event we will repress it or attempt to repress it by any means.
Repressed emotions and memories do not necessarily have to be associated with the extremes mentioned above. Most of us will experience some form of trauma in our lives. Whether it is the loss of a loved one, a divorce, loss of employment or any number of possible events.
Any emotion or experience that can not be properly accepted or processed by an individual can/will be repressed.
How someone responds and interprets events is specific to that person. Two people can experience the same event in different ways and therefore process the experience differently.
Below are some of the more common life events that can lead to repressed emotions or feelings:
Bear in mind, no two people are going to respond to an experience in exactly the same way. The examples given above are just examples.
How someone responds and interprets an event is specific to that person.
That means that while one person may handle a breakup by expressing themselves as they need to – through crying, screaming, accepting, etc. – another person may shove those same feelings down and deny themselves proper expression, never truly getting over the experience.
So how does this lead to anxiety? In many ways actually….
Just because something is repressed doesn't mean it's gone from your mind.
In fact, repressed memories or emotions are always seeking awareness, expression and/or resolution in some form or another.
As the memory or emotion comes closer to the surface of your mind you may begin experiencing strong resistance and anxiety. Events, people or places that could possibly “trigger” the emotion or memory can stir up anxiety as well.
Since these memories and emotions are “repressed” – when we experience anxiety related to them it may be difficult to determine the cause.
It's not always necessary – or desirable – to uncover repressed memories.
But it can be beneficial to see a therapist if you have deep phobias – anxiety and fear around specific situations, places or people. Or you have unresolved trauma in your life.
Bringing the repressed to conscious awareness is one way of processing the experience and releasing it so that you can move on with your life.
Definitions & Examples: Suppressed Emotions vs Repressed Emotions
Suppressed emotions are; feelings or emotions in the present that we are consciously or subconsciously trying to ignore, minimize, reduce or avoid feeling (subconscious).
An example of suppressing feelings/emotions:
Your driving on a city street on your way to work – out of nowhere a car pulls out in front, nearly hitting you, causing you to slam on your brakes and lose your coffee in your lap in the process. The instantaneous fear that you experience is replaced by all-out rage at the other driver. You briefly imagine pulling up beside the driver, rolling down your window and telling them what you think. Instead, you pull yourself together and get yourself to work on time to clean off. You can still feel the rage inside but begin pressing it down, trying to focus on the day. Soon the memory of the incident is fading from your mind along with the rage towards the other driver. Slowly over the course of the day, however, you begin to notice you're having trouble concentrating. You feel uneasy and begin to feel anxious. You think your coworkers are talking about you or have something against you today. Everyone seems to be slightly irritated and angry today and as the day goes on you feel more and more anxious.
What you have done here is effectively suppressed the rage you felt towards the other driver. Because the feeling was still there but simply suppressed you began projecting some of that rage onto your coworkers. This made it feel as if everyone else was experiencing rage and targeting it towards you – making you feel anxious in return.
Repressed emotions (also feelings or memories) are ones that your conscious mind is unaware of (unconscious).
This includes repressed memories – which even if completely blocked out or “forgotten,” can still have a deep effect on our daily lives without our awareness.
Similarly, thoughts or feelings that we label as “bad” can be repressed and we may be unaware that we ever had them in the first place.
These feelings or thoughts can then seek expression in the conscious mind – causing anxiety as we battle ourselves unconsciously to keep them from being made conscious.
An example of a repressed emotion/memory:
For all of your life, you've been deathly afraid of dogs. Over the years you've slowly learned to trust smaller, “cute” dogs – but the bigger “meaner” dogs you can't stand to be near. Even though you're now in your 40's you still feel panic and extreme anxiety and fear whenever you see one. One evening while you are walking, you notice a pitbull wandering the streets without a leash or an owner. Panic sets in, you quickly run out of sight of the dog and catch your breath, saving yourself from a full-on panic attack. As you rest, a memory comes into your mind of yourself as a small child. You see an angry pitbull on a leash inches from your face. His small owner is grinning ear to ear barking commands for the dog to attack you, pulling him back at the last second. Then you remember- the dog's owner was an angry little kid a few years older than you that lived up the street. He would constantly harass and scare you by having his dog nearly bite and attack you. Each of these incidents left you with feelings of total fear and terror. You would imagine the dog getting loose from his leash and hurting you.
This example begins with the result/symptom – you are deathly afraid of dogs. Then the source of the fear is revealed – your repressed memory of the original events.
(It's not always common for a repressed memory or emotion to simply reveal itself like in the example above, the point was simply to show the effect as well as the cause.)
Understanding the psychological theories of anxiety we described above can help us to become more aware of the patterns, strategies and beliefs that cause our anxiety.
As we become more aware we can begin to break free of these patterns and notice where/when they arise.
A powerful step we can take for our anxiety – and our lives in general – is to become more aware of these patterns in our lives and more accepting of ourselves.
What do we think and believe about ourselves and our world?
Who created or deeply influenced our beliefs?
Now more than ever our thoughts and beliefs about the world are being shaped by outside information coming in at an incredible speed. New things to worry about – new things to fear.
While we can't always control every image, news article or opinion that we see on our phones, computers or TVs – we can consciously choose what we believe and focus our attention on.
What are we repressing or refusing to face in our lives?
What feelings need to be expressed?
By establishing a better connection with ourselves and our emotions; often by grounding ourselves in our bodies and feeling our emotions fully, we can accept and release feelings that have needed expression.
While it's not always necessary – or beneficial – to go drudging up the past or opening old wounds – deep-seated trauma can best be addressed with the help of a competent therapist.
Acceptance – of ourselves, where we've been, where we are now and acceptance of others – is a great place to start when healing many of the psychological causes of anxiety.
Having the power and the awareness to see how these psychological processes are creating anxiety in our lives is a powerful step in the direction of freedom from anxiety.
Throughout this site, you can find strategies and techniques to help you on this journey.
Anxiety is not strictly psychological – there are many biological causes of anxiety which we will be discussing in the next article here