Sunday Scaries

What causes anxiety? 10 scientific facts you need to know

It’s possible you’ve already experienced it.

Over 40 million Americans do despite the fact that only 36.9 percent receive treatment. And while the Covid-19 pandemic prompted a surge, it’s been more rising tides than sudden floods. Anxiety is increasing, but it’s never been absent.


It’s also true that 41 percent of Americans are more anxious in 2021 than they were in 2020.

This doesn’t necessarily mean they have an anxiety disorder — this involves persistent, sustained emotional and physical symptoms and can be diagnosed by a professional — but it is still not awesome for mental health.

Experts are worried about the post-pandemic aftermath, while investors, sniffing the winds, are pouring money into mental health startups.

“The mental health fallout from the pandemic will continue to grow,” psychiatrist Dr. Lisa MacLean reported in an interview with the American Medical Association.

“History has shown that the mental health impact of disaster outlasts the physical impact, suggesting that today’s elevated mental health need will continue well beyond the coronavirus outbreak itself.”

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So we know anxiety exists and persists — but what is it really?

While war metaphors are overwrought in medical writing, there is something to be said of the idea of know your enemy and know yourself.

Understanding the science of something is the first step toward transforming it from a vague and dominant force to something manageable and beautifully unremarkable.

This doesn’t mean anxiety will stop being a challenge, but it can help reframe it as something you have power over.

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Here are 10 scientific facts that can help you better understand anxiety.

10. The American Psychological Association defines anxiety as “an emotion characterized by feelings of tension, worried thoughts, and physical changes like increased blood pressure.” Anxiety disorders involve “recurring intrusive thoughts and concerns.”

9. Anxiety symptoms have been traced back to a kind of brain cell called Hoxb8-lineage microglia.

This 2019 discovery may offer a biological answer for one of the drivers of acute anxiety and could point to a place future treatments can target.

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8. A single exposure to fear can evolve to ignite new patterns of brain activity over time. A 2021 paper suggests this is why fear from frightening events can turn into lifelong anxiety.

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7. Anxiety has also been linked back to the overstimulation of an immune molecule called IL-17. Research on this molecule also implies the immune system and the brain co-evolved.

6. Symptoms of depression and anxiety can overlap.

A 2017 study found this is reflected in the brain: People who have one or the other have similar structural abnormalities in the brain, specifically in the gray matter of the brain’s salience and dorsal attention networks.

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5. A 2020 study found trait anxiety is linked to serotonin transporters in the amygdala. Researchers want to develop anti-anxiety medications that target these transporters.

4. Diet can reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety. Scientists have identified “12 antidepressant nutrients” among 34 essential nutrients. These include iron, omega-3 fatty acids, and zinc.


3. Exercise can also reduce symptoms of anxiety, especially performance resistance exercises like push-ups and squats.

2. People diagnosed with social anxiety disorder who received nine weeks of online cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) were found to have increased telomerase and glutathione peroxidase activity in their blood. These are the enzymes that protect telomeres — implying CBT can both protect you from cellular aging and decrease symptoms of anxiety.

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1. Anxious people strategically choose worrying over relaxing

A 2019 study found this happens because they want to avoid a potential spike in anxiety later. Anxious people are also “more sensitive to big swings in negative emotions.”


However, the study authors report it’s healthier to let yourself experience those shifts; the more you do so, the more you realize you can manage them.

For more articles on mental health, tap here.

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