The Most Common Causes of Anxiety


Some of the ways in which tension shows itself in the body and in the mind have been discussed. Here are some of the common causes.

1. Sexual causes of tension

Nowadays there is a tendency to lay great emphasis on sex, and the tensions of both old and young are often ascribed (especially by amateur psychologists) to some disharmony in their sex life without due consideration of other factors.

Now, sexual conflicts are a very important cause of anxiety, but conflicts in other areas are also important, and, in fact, anxiety often results from a sum total of stresses arising from various problems.

What makes it difficult to assess the significance of sexual troubles as a cause of anxiety is the fact that people like to give socially acceptable explanations – the businessman, for instance, will tell his doctor of his hard work and late hours when explaining his anxieties, but he does not readily discuss the tension arising from his emotional involvement with his secretary.

He is ashamed to admit the real cause to the doctor.

In other cases, the patient may be too ashamed to admit the real cause even to himself. This applies to both sexes. It is common for boys and young men before marriage to suffer feelings of shame and guilt, and some remain disturbed even after their behavior is explained. Nervous tension may be extremely severe.

Also, with reference to adolescence, the current fashion for frequent reference to homosexuality in literature, the theatre, films, etc., brings the idea of this aspect of life to the minds of many sensitive young people who would otherwise never have thought of it. They come to worry about it.

Sexual problems of the shy adolescent

The shy introvert typically has greater difficulties in making the transition from childhood to maturity than his more robust extrovert contemporaries.

Inclined to be timid and embarrassed by matters of sex, he withdraws from it, his uncertainties and perplexities increase, and the general level of his anxiety remains high. Yet experience shows the inhibited introvert of either sex is greatly helped by talking the matter over with an experienced physician or psychiatrist.

Sexual experience before marriage

Only a very mature person can go against the established behavior pattern of his group without experiencing inner tension. A young person of either sex may become tense simply from the knowledge that his fellows are promiscuous. But what offends one may not offend another and, from the viewpoint of causing anxiety, there is no hard-and-fast rule.

The censure of the group, either for being too free or not free enough, according to the prevailing morality of the group, causes tension. But the inner censor is difficult to quiet, and the idea of sexual experience for the sake of one’s partner ‘ though it may seem plausible at the time) does little to dispel subsequent tension and anxiety if it conflicts with the basic personality of the individual.

Some degree of anxiety from this type of situation, which arises, is almost universal among young people.

Contraception and anxiety

The ready availability of reliable oral contraception has undoubtedly been a significant factor in relieving tens of thousands of women from tension and anxiety. On the other hand, the advent of the contraceptive pill has brought tension and guilt to many women who might otherwise have been free of it.

If a woman believes contraception is morally wrong, or if she is forbidden by her church to use it and follows her conscience and does not use it, she may still suffer considerable tension from knowing that women all around her are using contraception.

The position is much more difficult when the husband and wife disagree on the matter. She may have contraception forced on her without consideration of her religious feelings.

Another important social side-effect of the Pill is that promiscuous girls are now relieved of much of their anxiety. Also, the Pill has undoubtedly led many girls into promiscuity, and many of these suffer nervous tension caused by moral qualms about their new way of life.

Fear of pregnancy

This is one of the most common causes of anxiety in women of childbearing age. The unmarried woman who has let herself be led into a foolish sexual experience without proper contraceptive precautions inevitably experiences severe tension.

The married woman who fears pregnancy usually says it would be financially embarrassing or would interfere with her social life, but it frequently turns out to be based on a deep-seated fear of childbirth, which perhaps developed from a foolish talk by her mother or elder sister.

Other sexual causes of tension arise when the sexual appetite of the partners is ill-matched, or when one partner is emotionally remote.

2. Aggression

Man’s aggression has led him to master the other animal species and has to a large extent enabled him to control his immediate environment.

However, civilization has removed the opportunity to vent open aggression on animals that threaten him or on a neighboring tribe who would take his food or his woman. Man’s struggle with his own aggression is one of the greatest causes of tension, though he may not be aware of this.

Manifestations of aggression

A man is angered; he goes to strike another but is withheld by his friends. In such a simple situation you can see how his aggression was mobilized and how it found direct expression. But aggression is constantly manifesting itself in much more devious ways: the indifferent manner of the civil servant toward the public; one’s own authoritative attitude to the shop assistant.

When people talk too loudly or too quickly on a subject that affects them, it is aggression that motivates them. In fact, aggression is continually influencing behavior in an emotional way in all the small facets of everyday life. If a person looks for it, he soon recognizes it in friends, and with a little introspection is humiliated to find the same force within himself.

Aggression childhood and adolescence

The beginnings of this aggression element can be seen in early infancy. Baby is happy when the mother’s milk comes freely and easily, but if it does not he is frustrated, and in a moment we see the anger in his face, and his aggression is vented in crying and generalized movements of his body.

One child’s aggression may be aroused by a degree of parental discipline that would be easily tolerated by another. Anything which serves to make the child different from his fellows may arouse his aggression.

When basic cultural or religious factors work to separate the family from others in the district, the child often suffers a smoldering aggressive reaction and his childhood may be marred by chronic anxiety and tension.

The adolescent is angered if he is still treated as a boy. This arouses aggression. To prove he is grown-up he becomes defiant and unconsciously sets about to show the world that no one can tell him what he must do.

The company of other young men with impulsive aggression like his own provides an easy milieu for the dissipation of his aggression; thus the genesis of the teenage gang.

The control of aggression

It may simply be dissipated, as when a child is thwarted by his parents. His aggression is aroused, but he cannot give it direct expression or he will be punished. His aggression is dissipated as he stamps about, handles his toys roughly, etc.

In a more sophisticated way adults dissipate aggression by playing games or by watching sports in which they identify themselves with the players and experience their emotions.

Aggression can also be displaced so that aggressive impulses toward one person or situation are vented on some completely innocent party. The husband is frustrated at work by his boss. His aggression is aroused. He cannot give it direct expression, but on reaching home he blows up and vents it on his unsuspecting wife.

Aggression can also be controlled by acts of will. But this control, and the awareness of the necessity for it, creates a further stress, and the individual is tense and anxious as a result.

The person who is controlling a good deal of aggression is vulnerable to minor additional stresses. This is an important factor in the cause of bad temper. Father tolerates the bickering of the children for a long time, then he suddenly blows up and punishes them more severely than he intended.

Aggression needs not to be a destructive force. The same impulse that drives a man to feel like punching someone in the nose can be àiverted and used to drive him on in life to achieve goals in commerce, industry, science, or artistic fields.

Anxiety is the price paid when victory over aggression is incomplete.

So, the individual must aim to establish a pattern of life in which overt aggression is not easily aroused. He can do this by understanding the factors involved, using native aggression in a creative fashion, and by practicing relaxing mental exercises which give ease of mind.

3. Anxiety and insecurity

People are basically insecure, and this is the root of much anxiety. They can never hope for real material security. At any moment, even in the most protected situations, they may be stricken down with illness or death.

As man has learned to doubt, the security of religious belief has ebbed from him, and as a result his latent anxiety and tension is so much the worse.

Childhood insecurity

Children are insecure because of their relative weakness compared with those about them. This childhood feeling of insecurity may persist and form a pattern of tension and anxious behavior in adult life.

An interesting point is that the child withstands the evil influence of a constantly hostile environment better than he does an inconsistent one, where those around him are changeable, sometimes harsh, and sometimes loving. In the latter circumstances the child does not know what to expect, and as a result lives in a state of chronic anxiety.

At school the child may be subject to subtle influences that further increase his insecurity. The native aggressive impulses of children are easily turned on some less fortunate members of the group. Minor degrees of bullying may take a form that is scarcely perceptible to adults, but at the same time may produce chronic tension in the unfortunate victim.

Insecurity at work

Man has evolved to what he is today through hundreds of thousands of years of insecurity. In fact, it would seem he functions best when not completely secure.

At work there is always insecurity. A man may lose his job, or his business may fail. If this insecurity reaches a certain degree he becomes tense and anxious. The sensitives are among the first affected, and those who are less gifted, less competent, and less well trained soon feel the strain.

The situation is always worse when aggression is aroused. Because of insecurity, aggression has to be controlled at work, and as a result is likely to be displaced on to a wife and children at home.

Insecurity at home

Home is not always a refuge, a haven from the storms of the outside world. Tension in the home is a familiar theme. Sexual difficulties and the displacement of the husband’s aggression onto his wife are common enough.

But often simple insecurity is an important factor in the wife’s nervous tension. She is insecure because she does not know how her husband will react. He is a different man according to whether he has had a good day or a bad day at the office, or whether he has had a few drinks on the way home.

There is obvious insecurity when the marriage is about to break up. But there are many less clearly defined actions that produce the same unease.

The subtle change of attitude, the defensive reply, the inconsequential greeting, the vague reasons for this or that, and above all a lessening of sexual demands even when she herself has no particular sexual desire; these may all combine to produce a state of subclinical insecurity in the wife.

She becomes chronically tense and ill at ease, perhaps without knowing exactly why.

4. Anxiety from personality traits

The perfectionist and anxiety

The perfectionist unconsciously tries to ward off his inner tension by having everything just right. His efforts to be perfectly neat, scrupulously conscientious, and meticulously clean soon bring worries of their own and the perfectionist comes to live a rigid and rather constricted way of life with a constantly high level of mental tension.

These difficulties are so much the more accentuated if the perfectionist is married to, or works with, a person who is freer and less restricted. Then he is constantly ill at ease, wanting to clean up after his less orderly companion so that he can once again have everything just right.

Anxiety and the need for dependence

Children are dependent upon parents for physical survival, so a pattern of accepting dependence is ingrained at an early stage.

Although they grow up into relatively independent adults, a need for some degree of dependence persists. This is more obvious in the character of a woman and has the biological function of allowing her to accept dependence when it is necessary for her during her childbearing period.

On the other hand, the idea of being dependent on others may conflict with the aggressive and self-assertive aspects of a man’s personality. Such men want to be independent of their parents or their wife, but at the same time they feel the need for dependency. As a result they feel a tension for which they can see no reason.

Another cause of tension concerns the need to be depended upon. It is not uncommon for an emotionally mature woman to marry a man less mature than herself. He comes to rely on her and to be dependent upon her.

She in turn enjoys giving this support from the fullness of her maturity. However, it often happens when the couple has their first baby that the wife switches and puts the child’s need for dependence on her first. The husband becomes tense! He is not quite sure what has happened.

On the other hand, a man who is a little immature may have fought hard to become independent of his parents in spite of his deep-seated wish to remain dependent. He succeeds and has the feeling of well-being because his independence satisfies his masculinity.

However, if such a man marries a mature, motherly type of woman, as he is often unconsciously driven to do, he may become tense again, because she, without knowing it, tries to develop a dependent relationship with him, which he unconsciously wants but at the same time strives to avoid.

Anxiety and intelligence

People of less intelligence, and with less well-integrated minds, find many ordinary everyday tasks quite difficult, while other more gifted people do these things naturally and easily without giving the matter any particular thought. The less gifted are therefore under a constant stress which others are not. As a result, they remain tense but are usually unable to see the cause.

Of course, this situation is relative. A highly intelligent person who is doing a job requiring exceptionally high intelligence experiences the same tensions as a dull person does in a less exacting job. Similarly, the intellectually backward individual may learn to live a useful and happy life as long as he can work and live in an environment that is not too demanding for him.

A disparity of intelligence between husband and wife may be a constant source of tension, especially when the wife is the more gifted one. Unless she is a very perceptive woman, this disparity will lead her into a dominant role in the household which is likely to clash with her husband’s masculinity and so produce further tension.

Anxiety and conscience

Very simple problems of conscience can produce tension in quite a surprising fashion.

It is a common clinical experience to find that patients are tense on account of some problem of tax evasion. It is usually not so much a matter of frank dishonesty but rather a problem of stretching the loopholes of the law to such an extent that inner conscience becomes uneasy.

Sensitive, introverted people may become overwhelmed by the material values that they find around them only to become aware that they themselves are lacking in any spiritual goal.

Every sensitive individual, man or woman, if he is to remain free from inner tension, must make for himself some way of life which satisfies these vague needs of conscience and idealism.


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