What Causes Generalized Anxiety Disorder?

By: Suzanne Feinstein, PhD

For some people, anxiety crops up in response to a specific situation, like meeting a deadline or navigating a hectic roadway. This is not necessarily a cause of concern as it does not result in interference with everyday functioning or a significant decrease in one’s quality of life. However, if it manifests daily, and it’s difficult to pinpoint a specific external stressor, this may be a generalized anxiety. If this sounds familiar, it’s quite possible that you’re one of the 6.8 million American adults suffering from generalized anxiety. 

Living with generalized anxiety can make life much more difficult. You may find yourself slipping into fight or flight in low-stakes situations or struggling to make necessary decisions. Where does this anxiety come from?

Anxiety is a complex disorder that can manifest in unique ways from one person to the next. Read on to learn where generalized anxiety comes from and what to do about it.

Do You Have Generalized Anxiety?

There are several different types of anxiety, some of which are marked by a very specific set of symptoms. For example, OCD is a type of anxiety accompanied by intrusive thoughts and repetitive behaviors. Panic disorders are a type of anxiety marked by an extreme fear of panic attacks and the situations that trigger them.

If you have generalized anxiety, you likely experience anxiety more often than most people, including in situations that don’t warrant notable feelings of dread or worry (although you may also appear to be a high-functioning person). This anxiety may manifest in mental, emotional, and physical symptoms including (but not limited to):

  • Thoughts of concern or catastrophe that are disproportionate to their source
  • Difficulty relaxing and/or focusing
  • Increased heart rate
  • Fatigue
  • Insomnia caused or accompanied by racing thoughts
  • Irritability and/or mood swings
  • Digestive irritation like diarrhea or nausea
  • Air hunger and/or dizziness

It’s always useful to seek out an official diagnosis from a mental health professional. If these symptoms sound familiar to you, continue reading to learn more about generalized anxiety and the types of treatment you may seek. 

What Are Some Common Anxiety Causes?

We all have unique experiences that shape things like our perspectives and outlooks on life. While everyone’s story is different in subtle ways, there are common overlaps in the roots of generalized anxiety.

Genetics and Familial Inheritance

Ongoing studies are uncovering a distinct link between genetics and mental illnesses like generalized anxiety. There is increasing evidence that this genetic link is found directly in our genomes, although this may not be the only way a child inherits anxiety from a parent.

Children learn a lot about how to make sense of the world by watching and mirroring their parents. If your parent was often anxious or pessimistic, you likely learned that worry, nervousness, and a belief in negative outcomes were the appropriate way to face life’s obstacles. 


Trauma is another common source of generalized anxiety. Many people experience forms of trauma in childhood, including abuse and neglect. Others may not experience trauma until adulthood, which can lead to a seemingly sudden or surprising shift in affect and behavior. 

Trauma can lead to generalized anxiety because of its impact on everything from our beliefs about self and others to the way our nervous systems react to external stimuli. For example, a traumatic event can lead to a constant or regular state of fight-or-flight or a deep fear that you’re losing your mind

Ongoing Stress

Some people develop generalized anxiety when facing ongoing stress that we may not consider traumatic. For example, you may work in a highly competitive environment where you’re always worried that you’re going to get fired. You may be a caregiver for someone like a child or parent who has serious health needs that require your constant time and energy.

It’s possible that resolving the stressful situation can allow your generalized anxiety to dissipate on its own. However, generalized anxiety often leads to new habits and thought patterns that aren’t easy to break without active intervention. 

Seeking Anxiety Treatment

Knowing what may have caused your anxiety to develop isn’t the end of your journey. There are several anxiety treatment options that you can pursue to find long-term relief. 

Anxiety Therapy

Anxiety therapy comes in many forms ranging from cognitive-behavioral therapy to EMDR. While practices and methodologies differ, supportive anxiety therapy involves working with a trained and licensed therapist.

Anxiety therapy provides a safe outlet for patients to explore their past, present, belief systems, and triggers. The goal is to not only understand how you developed an anxiety disorder but to learn new and healthy ways to relate to your life and environment. For example, in CBT, you’ll learn what triggers your anxiety, what behaviors and beliefs occur as a result, and more productive and functional ways to react. 


Medication is one possible tool that you can use in the short or long term to manage anxiety symptoms. Some anxiety medications are daily while others are designed for as-needed use to prevent panic attacks. 

It’s important to note that anxiety medication is not the “quick fix” that some patients hope it will be. Not all medications work well for all patients, and finding the right one can feel a bit like trial and error. It’s also useful to pursue other outlets such as therapy even when taking medication. 

Grounding Techniques

How can you start managing your generalized anxiety on a day-to-day basis? One good place to start is with a grounding technique. 

Grounding is the process of reintegrating your mind and body into the present moment. Often, patients with generalized anxiety are having severe reactions to otherwise safe conditions. Breathing techniques, meditation, yoga, and other forms of grounding can help you stay calm and present to manage anxiety symptoms and keep them from running rampant. 

Seeking Therapy in NYC? Call Dr. Feinstein 

Generalized anxiety often comes from genetics, trauma, or ongoing stress. The good news is that with the right resources, you can find ways to manage your anxiety and live a life filled with more ease, relaxation, and centeredness. 

If you’re looking for cognitive-behavioral therapy in New York City, Dr. Feinstein can help. Since 1995, she has specialized in the full spectrum of anxiety disorders and seen quite a few success stories. Contact us today to learn more and schedule your first appointment.

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