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The first consideration is the possibility that anxiety is due to a known or unrecognized medical condition. Substance-induced anxiety disorder (over-the-counter medications, herbal medications, substances of abuse) is a diagnosis that often is missed.

Genetic factors significantly influence risk for many anxiety disorders. Environmental factors such as early childhood trauma can also contribute to risk for later anxiety disorders. The debate whether gene or environment is primary in anxiety disorders has evolved to a better understanding of the important role of the interaction between genes and environment. Some individuals appear resilient to stress, while others are vulnerable to stress, which precipitates an anxiety disorder.

Most presenting anxiety disorders are functional psychiatric disorders. Psychological theories range from explaining anxiety as a displacement of an intrapsychic conflict (psychodynamic models) to conditioning (learned) paradigms (cognitive-behavioral models). Many of these theories capture portions of the disorder.

The psychodynamic theory has explained anxiety as a conflict between the id and ego. Aggressive and impulsive drives may be experienced as unacceptable resulting in repression. These repressed drives may break through repression, producing automatic anxiety. The treatment uses exploration with the goal of understanding the underlying conflict. Cognitive theory has explained anxiety as the tendency to overestimate the potential for danger. Patients with anxiety disorder tend to imagine the worst possible scenario and avoid situations they think are dangerous, such as crowds, heights, or social interaction.

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