Can Anxiety Disorders Lead to Suicide?
Anxiety disorders are common conditions that impact millions of people worldwide. In this article, we discuss anxiety and its relationship to suicide.
Clinically Reviewed By: Don Gasparini Ph.D., M.A., CASAC
July 22, 2023
Table of Contents
Trigger warning: Suicide, self-harm.
If you’re experiencing suicidal thoughts and think you’re in danger of harming yourself, this is a mental health emergency. In this case, you should contact The Suicide & Crisis Lifeline by calling or texting 988.
Anxiety disorders like generalized anxiety disorder, selective mutism, panic disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, or specific phobias are extremely common conditions that impact millions of people worldwide. These disorders often affect an individual’s quality of life, including social isolation, difficulty going to school, and feeling purposeless. But can these disorders be linked to self-harm or even thoughts of suicide? Unfortunately, yes.
In this article, we discuss research that has proven associations between anxiety disorders and suicide, review anxiety disorders that can be linked to suicide, and discuss how you can get help for yourself or a loved one to avoid these dire consequences.
Research linking anxiety and suicide
The most recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lists suicide as the 11th leading cause of death in the United States. In 2021, 48,183 Americans died by suicide. That’s 132 suicides on average per day. Because of the magnitude of this devastating loss, research studies in the past several decades have explored the risk factors of suicide. Many of these studies find a relationship or association between anxiety and suicide, but it is usually difficult to say with certainty if anxiety is the ultimate cause of suicide.
In a study published in 2013, for instance, researchers collected and reviewed information from 43,935 people looking for a link between anxiety and suicide. Researchers specifically looked at the following anxiety disorders: agoraphobia without panic disorder (those afraid to leave a safe environment like their house), generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), social anxiety disorder, and specific phobias. PTSD was included in this study because it was classified as an anxiety disorder at the time of data collection, but this designation has since changed (more on that below).
Researchers determined that all anxiety disorders studied except for agoraphobia were independently associated with increased odds of lifetime suicide ideation and suicide attempt—meaning that people with one of these anxiety disorders were more at risk of suicidal ideation and completion because of their history of anxiety alone. This study affirms the link between suicide and anxiety since researchers could attribute an increased risk for suicide to anxiety disorders—not just other related risk factors like depression, alcohol abuse, substance abuse, bipolar disorder, and more.
Why might anxiety cause suicide?
Although difficult to pinpoint specific causes, researchers have speculated why anxiety could be related or even cause suicide. Anxiety might cause suicide for the following reasons:
- Overwhelm: People may become overwhelmed by anxiety or their anxiety disorder. In this way, the disorder may become “too much to bear” and prompt someone to consider suicide.
- Daily suffering: Many people with anxiety disorders suffer from daily feelings of panic or stress and might contemplate suicide as a way to end these recurring feelings.
- Distortions in thinking: People with anxiety disorders may have negative, distorted thinking patterns. Having worrying thoughts such as “my life is not going to get better” may drive an individual to consider self-harm.
- Loss of social support: People with anxiety disorders may self-isolate or avoid friends, family, or loved ones. Then, if they contemplate suicide, these people are no longer protected by support systems that could have seen signs and intervened.
- Negative emotions: Feelings of guilt, anger, and impulsivity are common features of anxiety disorders that can drive feelings of self-harm.
- Harmful behaviors: Anxiety can cause people to engage in harmful behaviors like alcohol or drug use, which can exacerbate thoughts of suicide.
- Co-occurring conditions: Anxiety can co-occur with conditions like depression or medical problems that leave people more susceptible to suicide or suicidal ideation.
Which anxiety disorders can be linked to suicide?
Feeling anxious is a normal part of life that all individuals experience. However, persistent anxiety can sometimes begin to interfere with your daily life. Anxiety disorders are disorders in which anxiety has gotten out of control. They can be diagnosed by a clinician and be treated with therapy or even medication if needed. Any anxiety disorder can be linked to suicide, though having an anxiety disorder doesn’t necessarily mean that someone will struggle with suicidal ideation. A few common examples of anxiety disorders are listed below.
- Generalized anxiety disorder: This disorder is characterized by consistent feelings of worry or dread coupled with symptoms like fatigue and restlessness. Think of your normal anxiety dial being dialed all the way up every day. Even small, mundane tasks (like taking the bus to school) that may not seem like a big deal to others could cause you great stress.
- Panic disorder: Panic disorder revolves around an individual experiencing a panic attack. Panic attacks are waves of anxiety that result in emotional distress, a feeling of impending doom, and real physical symptoms like a racing heartbeat, cold sweats, or fainting. Experiencing one panic attack doesn’t mean a person has a panic disorder. A person with this disorder usually has multiple panic attacks and begins to worry about when the next one will occur. Often, individuals go to great lengths to avoid individuals, places, or events that they feel might bring on a panic attack.
- Social anxiety disorder: Social anxiety disorder is all in the name. If you have this anxiety disorder, you may fear being watched, judged, or made fun of in public or social situations. To combat this, some people feel so self-conscious that they avoid social gatherings, talk softly, or avoid eye contact.
- Phobias: Phobias can involve a great fear of almost anything. Common examples are phobias of flying, spiders, being around people, small spaces, and more.
In addition to the above, agoraphobia (e.g.-fear of leaving a safe environment like a house), substance or medication-induced anxiety, and anxiety due to a medical condition are also defined as anxiety disorders.
What about OCD or PTSD?
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) were formerly categorized as anxiety disorders in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders—a classification guideline used by psychiatrists and behavioral specialists. Both conditions involve feelings of anxiety but are categorized by other feelings and behaviors. PTSD and OCD are important to understand when discussing anxiety and suicide, though, because both conditions are discussed in articles relating to anxiety and suicide. Here’s an overview of PTSD and OCD:
PTSD is a condition that occurs after an individual has witnessed or been a part of a traumatic event. Symptoms include intrusive thoughts such as recurrent nightmares, flashbacks, or memories and avoidance of certain triggering events, people, places, or objects. Individuals with PTSD also experience mood changes like depression or anger and may feel like they’re always on “high alert” and can’t relax. PTSD is now classified under its own chapter in the DSM-5 called trauma/stressor-related disorders.
OCD is a disorder characterized by both obsessions (unwanted or recurring thoughts) and compulsions (repetitive behaviors). For example, an obsession an individual may have is repetitive or recurring thoughts about germs or cleanliness. As a result of this obsession, an individual may have a compulsion to wash their hands or decontaminate clothing dozens of times a day, in order to neutralize the obsession. As with PTSD, having OCD can definitely cause a great deal of anxiety for those who have it.
I have anxiety. How do I avoid increasing my risk of suicide or self-harm?
Early recognition and treatment of anxiety and anxiety disorders can help prevent suicidal ideation and self-harm. Treatment often involves therapy, medication, or, when necessary, both.
One way therapy can help people with anxiety decrease their risk of suicide or self-harm is through the use of Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). When engaging in CBT, individuals work with their therapist to discuss how thoughts, emotions, and actions are connected. For example, if you are feeling anxious, you may self-harm (action) and begin to think negatively (thoughts). Working with a therapist can help you break this cycle and find ways to decrease anxiety.
In addition to therapy, people with anxiety, especially those who are struggling with suicidal ideation or self-harming behaviors, may also be referred to a doctor who can start medications as necessary.
Finally, having a good support system can promote resiliency and decrease the risk of suicide or self-harm for people with anxiety. Making sure you keep in touch with family, friends, or even just one or two loved ones who you can speak with and rely on in tough times is key.
Managing anxiety and suicidal ideation at Charlie Health
If you are struggling with anxiety and thinking about self-harm or suicide, Charlie Health may be able to help. Our compassionate mental health professionals are here to listen to your story, understand your needs, and match you with an appropriate treatment plan.
Charlie Health’s personalized virtual Intensive Outpatient Program (IOP) offers mental health treatment for teens, young adults, and families who are dealing with a variety of mental health struggles, including anxiety and suicidal ideation. Get started today.