The Complex Causes of Anxiety: Why Do We Think the Way We Do?

Anxiety can make our thoughts race with fear and worry. It's not simple enough to "just stop worrying" because the causes of anxiety are complex.

Anxiety causes are complex, and living with anxiety can be agonizing. Case in point: three people are walking together down a hallway in an office. A coworker passes by and says absolutely nothing. Person A thinks, “Hmmm. He seems in a hurry. Must be busy today.” Person B thinks nothing at all about this but continues to mull over whatever she is mulling over.

Person C thinks, “Oh no. He didn’t say anything to me. He must be upset. I must have offended him somehow. What do I do about this? How can I face him? Should I approach him or let him approach me? What if he doesn’t want me to work here anymore?”

One situation, three different reactions. Why? What causes the anxious reaction of person C?

There’s an approach that is frequently used in treating such things as anxiety and depression called cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). This approach is based largely on the belief that it’s not events that cause difficulties but instead it’s the thoughts about those events that cause the problems. In the above situation, neither person A nor B experienced generalized anxiety about the event like person C did. Clearly, it was C’s thoughts that caused the feeling of anxiety. Indeed, that’s true. However, what caused person C to think that way in the first place?

Anxiety Causes Complications in Thinking

Person C is probably not thinking that way on purpose. Most people would never intentionally subject themselves to such misery. I’ve been person C, and I absolutely didn’t make myself interpret the world as if it were a scary place.

Because anxiety is often misunderstood, people who don’t experience anxiety often wonder why those of us with anxiety think the way we do. Perhaps you’ve heard some of these (from others or even from yourself):

  • Don’t make such a big deal out of things.
  • Since you're aware that you’re anxious, just stop having those thoughts.
  • Why are you worrying so much?
  • I think what you need is a good night’s rest, so stop thinking about your problems and sleep.

Would that it were that simple.

The Causes of Anxiety Are Complicated--Not Simple

Anxiety can make our thoughts race with fear and worry. It's not simple enough to "just stop worrying" because the causes of anxiety are complex.The brain is complex. People are complex. The world is complex. Since anxiety is tangled up in all three of these, of course it’s complex.

It would be wonderful to explain to ourselves and others why we think the way we do. Unfortunately, there isn’t a simple cause, and researchers are just beginning to understand anxiety disorders. Many different things underlie anxiety:

  • Things happening inside the brain itself contribute to anxious thinking.
  • There is a genetic, or hereditary, component to anxiety.
  • Environmental stressors and triggers can cause anxiety.
  • Trauma often results in altered thinking patterns that are involved in anxiety.

No Matter the Complex Cause, Anxiety Isn't Your Fault

We’re still learning about anxiety and its many causes, and there are things that we don’t quite yet know. However, one thing is known with absolute certainty: anxiety isn’t a weakness or a flaw. Having anxious thoughts does not make someone a deficient person. Anxiety is not your fault.

Person C thinks differently than persons A and B (note that A and B each thought differently, too). C experiences generalized anxiety because his/her brain processes things differently, fires differently, he/she has a different gene pool and different past experiences. But among persons A, B, and C, none is better or worse than the others.

For various reasons, people live with anxiety disorders. We who do interpret the world differently. But whatever the cause, our humanity is the same.

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APA Reference
Peterson, T. (2014, June 4). The Complex Causes of Anxiety: Why Do We Think the Way We Do?, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, July 20 from

Author: Tanya J. Peterson, MS, NCC, DAIS

Tanya J. Peterson is the author of numerous anxiety self-help books, including The Morning Magic 5-Minute Journal, The Mindful Path Through Anxiety, 101 Ways to Help Stop Anxiety, The 5-Minute Anxiety Relief Journal, The Mindfulness Journal for Anxiety, The Mindfulness Workbook for Anxiety, and Break Free: Acceptance and Commitment Therapy in 3 steps. She has also written five critically acclaimed, award-winning novels about life with mental health challenges. She delivers workshops for all ages and provides online and in-person mental health education for youth. She has shared information about creating a quality life on podcasts, summits, print and online interviews and articles, and at speaking events. Tanya is a Diplomate of the American Institution of Stress helping to educate others about stress and provide useful tools for handling it well in order to live a healthy and vibrant life. Find her on her website, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

June, 11 2014 at 6:45 pm

I suffer from anxiety. Sometimes it ruins my day. Other days I can push through. We need to remember this is just one facet of who we each are. Anxiety does not define who I am as a person. I also believe the sooner we speak up for ourselves, the sooner people will begin to understand. Help others understand mental illness does not equal violence!

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

June, 13 2014 at 12:55 pm

Hi Dawn,
Thank you so much for your thoughts! Very well said, and I couldn't agree more -- with all of it.

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