What causes anxiety?
What causes anxiety?
8 min read
“Anxiety for me is like a dark blanket. It feels like it wraps around me and I can’t get out” - Teen, 14
Anxiety is a complex set of experiences that both teens and adults face. It can develop at any stage of life and, when teens experience anxiety, it can prevent them from thriving and inhibit their social development. You might be asking - where does anxiety come from? Researchers have grappled with this question since long before Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) was acknowledged as a diagnosis in 1980. As of 2023, there are thought to be many possible causes of anxiety. Before outlining them, let’s start by asking the following question:
Why do some teens develop anxiety and others do not?
Some teens seem to have a magic ability to navigate extremely stressful situations while others do not. Though no one knows for sure why this is the case, in his seminal book, The Body Keeps the Score, Bessel Van der Kolk outlines how early child development can directly impact a teen’s ability to navigate stressful situations in life. He argues that those of us who feel safe and cared for as children are able to develop resilience later on in life. In addition, Van der Kolk suggests that strong and caring relationships, both in the family unit and outside the family unit, allow individuals to thrive and navigate difficult situations.
“As long as we feel safely held in the hearts and minds of the people who love us, we will climb mountains and cross deserts and stay up all night to finish projects.”
However, there are many who believe that there are other factors such as genetic predisposition at play. The jury is still out on identifying a direct cause for anxiety, or a direct cause for becoming resilient to anxiety. So for the purpose of this guide, we will discuss the a few of the factors that can contribute to developing anxiety. Here are the most well documented causes of anxiety in teens.
Traumatic experiences or adverse life events are one of the most well-researched causes of anxiety. Imagine being a child and getting attacked by a dog, or getting seriously injured in car crash. These events leave a lasting imprint on a child’s developing mind and, in some cases, might lead to a child developing specific or generalized anxiety. COVID-19 was a unique example of a prolonged adverse event that induced high stress and uncertainty, causing many teenagers to develop anxiety.
We could write a guide exclusively about trauma. However, it’s important to call out that each individual experiences trauma differently. As we discussed above, some teens are able to navigate traumatic experiences with resilience while others are not. One’s ability to navigate these events is not a statement on a child’s character and oftentimes has more to do with external factors than internal ones. Regardless, adverse life events can create a prolonged experience of stress and anxiety in teens.
A teen's environment can contribute to anxiety, shaping their coping and decision-making skills. As we mentioned, stressful life events such as moving to a new city or living between divorced parents may trigger anxiety. These experiences may not fall into the category of “a traumatic event”, however they can still pose major challenges to teens who are developing and creating their sense of the world.
Additionally, school can present unique environmental challenges to teens as they develop. There’s a list of potentially difficulty situations that teens may face as part of their normal schooling - navigating complex social dynamics, difficult academic courses, and more. Each of these can present an opportunity for a teen to develop a prolonged state of anxiety, especially after the uncertainty of COVID-19.
Genetics and family history
Some researches have suggested that there exists genetic links that can explain the development of anxiety. In fact, one study demonstrated that Generalized Anxiety Disorder had a genetic heritability of 31.6%(1). Another study demonstrated a link between one section of the human chromosome and phobias and panic disorders(2). Though much research is needed to say conclusively that anxiety can be caused by genetics, research suggests that predisposition to anxiety can be passed down between family members. If you or other members of your family have experienced anxiety, there’s a possibility that your teen might also be predisposed to developing anxiety.
Unhealthy lifestyle choices such as poor diet, lack of sleep, and inadequate exercise can contribute to anxiety. The link between physical health and mental health has been studied and demonstrated time and time again in the academic literature(3). Unfortunately, teens often have poor habits around diet, sleep, and exercise that might be worsen their anxiety. These bad habits can lead to increased symptoms of anxiety. It’s also important to note that anxiety can cause teens to make choices that negatively impact their physical health and therefore create a negative cycle which can be very difficult to break out of(4).
Again, we acknowledge that there are likely many other causes of anxiety with teens. Regardless, for you as the parent, trying to understand potential causes or drivers of your teen’s anxiety can empower you to find the right support for your teen and do the right kind of self-advocacy necessary to find the right support. Many of these predispositions to anxiety can be discussed with your teen’s pediatrician during a regular checkup.
Now that we’ve got a foundation in what causes anxiety, let’s identify the correct language to discuss the different types of anxiety that your teen might be experiencing.