The causes of Anxiety, Panic Attacks and Phobias

There are many theories as to what the causes of anxiety, panic attacks and phobias are. Some experts believe that it is not necessary to know the cause, arguing that dealing with the problem in the present is the important thing. Are they right? Well, in some cases. That said, understanding the cause may help to chose the right therapy.

Before we examine the main causes though let’s remember that feelings of anxiety and panic are natural feelings which almost everyone experiences at some point in their life. So the question is not so much: What causes anxiety? So much as: What exaggerates and perpetuates the natural anxiety inherent in everyone?

Theory 1: Anxiety, Panic and Phobias are caused by traumas suffered in childhood.

Some people believe the cause of all their anxiety problems lies buried in the past. When you were young, the theory goes, a trauma occurred that you were unable to react to suitably at the time. You were unable for some reason to express whatever anger, fear, or sorrow you experienced and therefore that emotion has remained trapped in your mind or body somewhere. The theory goes that if you uncover the memory and release emotion your anxiety will evaporate or dramatically lessen in intensity. The analogy of releasing steam from a pressure cooker is often used. There are many therapists, and in particular hypnotherapists, that espouse this theory with missionary zeal. I have still not met, or even heard from an impartial source, of one person whose anxiety was helped to any extent by regressing back to their past or for that matter to a past life. It definitely did not work for me. That said, there is marginally more peer reviewed evidence to support regression for the treatment of a simple phobia. If I were you I would discount regression from your list of treatment options. Therapists that offer such services are not cheap and very seldom worthwhile. I advise you to look at the other therapies discussed on this site.

Theory 2: Anxiety Phobias and Panic are caused by genetic factors.

To a certain extent people who subscribe to this theory are right, anxiety is a natural emotion and we all have the genes that allow us to feel it. While geneticists believe that some of us have genes which push us towards self-protection and away from adventure, it is highly unlikely that anyone has genes which dictate that they must have unavoidable high levels of anxiety and panic all their life. No one has a genetic predisposition to phobia of shopping centres, aircraft, or anything else artificial and we all have a phobia of jumping off cliffs. If nervousness runs in your family maybe you have a genetic predisposition to such things as anxiety and panic (and therefore phobias). Does that mean you have to live with it? Of course not! There is much that you can do, and you can recover like everyone else. Investigate the therapies discussed on this site and chose which is best for you. For those that feel their anxiety and panic issues are genetically inherent I recommend the approach pioneered by Dr Claire Weeks.

Theory 3: Anxiety Phobias and Panic are learnt.

Could it be that you first felt anxiety during a stressful episode in your life and that you quickly learnt to associate those symptoms with either specific or general stressful situations? If you look for anxiety you can normally find it. If you check to see if your breathing is calm and relaxed you will probably be able to identify some tension. It is very easy to work yourself up into a panic attack or an anxious state. The sufferer starts to believe they have something wrong with them and begins looking for symptoms, relentlessly. Gradually, or suddenly, the sufferer connects anxiety with certain situations and becomes phobic of them. I think this is probably the most common cause and one of the easiest to overcome.

Theory 4: Anxiety is caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain.

Many people now believe that anxiety and panic attacks (and therefore phobias) are caused by lack of certain important neurotransmitters, amino acids, and hormones in the brain or elsewhere. Drugs like Prozac and Seroxat work by restoring levels of Serotonin to a healthy balance. Many people don’t want to take prescription medicines and over the years the use of such drugs as a sole approach to tackling anxiety, panic attacks, and phobias has become increasingly controversial. Many people now believe that such imbalances can be cured by taking certain supplements or changing diets. For more information click here to go to the cures section.

    All of the above causes are valid. If you can’t work out what caused your anxiety or panic attacks then don’t despair. You don’t need to know how they started just how to cure them.

If your anxiety was not caused by learnt behaviour then it must have been caused by something else. This could be a physical impairment, a genetic predisposition, a trauma from a past life that still effects you (if you believe in that sort of thing) or a big T or little t traumatic event in your childhood.

Anxiety caused by physical impairment such as resulting from a serious head injury can, in some cases, still be treated by Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. At the moment this kind of anxiety is beyond the scope of this website. I suggest you seek specialist medical advice.

Genetic predisposition is dealt with here. To my mind people who claim to have a genetic predisposition are copping out, accepting their limited life condition and suffering it always. There is a famous story in anxiety research circles that goes like this:

A woman who spent much of her life in a state of anxiety visited her doctor for advice. The doctor looked through his record and found that the woman’s mother had also complained of acute anxiety. A conversation with the mother confirmed that her mother, the original patients grandmother, had also suffered acute anxiety. “Easy.” Said the doctor. “It’s passed on genetically.” The theory lost all credence when the patient pointed out that both her and her mother were adopted.

There is some recent news of an over active fear gene being identified, and in the future perhaps genetic intervention will help some people. At the moment such a treatment looks a long way off and miracle panacea cures are never quite as good as the early researchers claimed.

Past Life Trauma

What then of past life traumas? Past lives are not just the stuff of Buddhists. Now many people believe they can regress, under some kind of hypnotic trance, to past lives. I should point out that most scientific minded people think this is complete and utter nonsense. That said, there are people out there who will charge plenty to “take you back” for reasons of either curiosity or therapy. If you have money to burn and you think it might be helpful then give it a bash. You can find a therapist by clicking here.

Researchers often talk about “Big T” and “Little t” traumas. Big T refers to exposure to such horrors as wars, bombings, major accidents, sever child molestation etc and small t to much lesser occurrences that may have seemed horrific to a small child. This categorization is largely useless to the sufferer. Some children come through wars mentally unscathed while others apparently develop severe anxiety and panic issues due to hearing their mother scream at a mouse. In truth trauma should be seen not in categories but as a continuum. What was traumatic for one person may not be traumatic for another.

As I said in the regression section, it might well not be as simple as one major trauma which, when revisited, will release you from a lifetimes torment. On therapist used the analogy of a dense forest, in order to clear a path you needs to chop down not just one tree but many. When you do this you are not necessarily looking for the cause of anxiety, it’s more complicated than that. You are looking for the cause of attitudes and beliefs that lead you to feel anxiety. These could be

  • I’m not good enough.
  • I can’t succeed.
  • I don’t deserve this.
  • I can’t cope.
  • I am week.
  • I need people to love me.

The list goes on, these are just a few examples.

And when you can understand and change those attitudes, and take the emotion out of some of the memories that caused them, you can start to untangle your anxiety.

A lady who suffered severe anxiety every time she wanted to travel, which mounted to panic attacks the day before and during trips, realised after much searching that she believed that if she left home she would never see it again. Discovering this belief and reprocessing the memory which lead to it and therefore the erroneous thoughts in her mind changed her perspective on travel, and desensitization became incredibly easy. She no longer wanted the anxiety to protect her. (More about secondary gain in part 7)

So how best to recover those trapped memories and start felling some of those trees? Well, after reading the disclaimer move onwards to read about PTSD, regression, trapped negative energy, journey therapy, EMDR, and more.

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