Despite extensive research, scientists have not been able to determine a single cause of generalized anxiety disorder.
Generalized Anxiety Disorder is a mental health condition that refers to excessive, persistent and often uncontrollable worry or anxiety about everyday events and activities leading to significant distress, ranging from loss of joy to depression and sometimes suicidal thoughts.
Although the exact causes of GAD have not been fully understood, research suggests that it ranges from factors related to genetics, right down to environmental and neurological factors.
In this article, we will consider in detail these causes of generalized anxiety disorder.
Causes Of Generalized Anxiety Disorder
1. Genetics Factors
Evidence suggests that GAD may run in families and that certain genes may increase the risk of developing this disorder, making people with such genes more susceptible to anxiety.
Research has shown that GAD has a 30 – 40% hereditary rate. Let’s look at a few genes that have an increased risk of developing this disorder:
- Serotonin transporter gene (SLC6A4) – This gene regulates a person’s mood and affects feelings of depression and appetite. It is also crucial in maintaining a sense of well-being and security. Studies have shown that individuals with low serotonin are often prone to increased anxiety.
- COMT gene – This gene breaks down the dopamine or ‘feel-good hormone’ in the brain.This hormone could cause a person to seek more of things that he feels are good for him, including drug addiction. Studies have found that individuals with a variant of this gene are more likely to develop GAD.
- CRHR1 gene – This gene has also been linked with GAD because it is involved in regulating the stress hormone – ‘cortisol’. Studies have shown that people with a certain variance of this gene are more likely to develop GAD.
Although genetics plays a role in the development of GAD, it is important to note that it is not a sole cause for GAD.
However, understanding that these genetic factors can contribute to the development of GAD can help to identify individuals who may be at increased risk and inform the development of new treatments.
2. Environment Factors
Environmental factors play a major role in the development of GAD, knowing this can help us identify potential triggers and develop strategies to help us manage the symptoms. These causes include:
- Traumatic events: This can include physical or sexual abuse, violence or fatal accidents. The trauma from these events can cause changes in the brain and result in increased anxiety and fear.
- Chronic stress: Stressful events such as financial difficulties, relationship issues and a toxic work environment, can cause the body to release stress hormones like adrenaline. This response can cause persistent feelings of anxiety and worry leading to the development of GAD.
- Life transitions: Events such as relocation, starting a new job can trigger feelings of uncertainty and insecurity leading to more anxiety and worry and eventually GAD.
- Substance abuse: Drugs and alcohol abuse can alter brain chemistry and lead to severe anxiety and panic attack, thereby contributing to the development of GAD.
- Childhood experiences: Neglect, parental divorce, seeing sexual, physical and emotional abuse contribute to the development of GAD.
- Chronic illness: Heart disease, diabetes, paralysis leads to increased anxiety and worry about one’s health and eventually GAD develops.
3. Personality Traits
- Neuroticism: This is a personality trait that is often affiliated with negative emotions like anxiety, depression and anger. People with this personality trait are more sensitive to stress and more likely to be excessively worried.
- Low self-esteem: Individuals with this trait often entertain personal negative beliefs and attitudes. They worry often about been judged or criticized and are always vulnerable to stress.
- Perfectionism: When a person sets excessively high standards for themselves and others. They have a higher tendency of developing GAD especially when they fall short of their standards.
- Social Phobia: This personality trait is characterized by inadequate feelings and an intense desire to avoid social situations. Individuals with this personality are often scared of being rejected or humiliated in social situations.
- Brain Chemistry has to do with neurotransmitters that are responsible for transmitting signals between nerve cells. Some of these neurotransmitters affect the brain’s ability to manage stress and anxiety. They are believed attributed to play a role in the development of GAD.
- Norepinrphrine: This chemical is meant to regulate how the body responds to stress. High levels of this chemical has been linked to an increase in anxiety and panic attacks which eventually results to GAD.
- Glutamate: This neurotransmitter plays a major role in shaping learning and memory in the brain. It needs to be present in the right concentration, right places and right time. The accumulation of this chemical is linked to many psychological disorders including GAD.
Asides from neurotransmitters, the structure and function of the brain can play a role in the development of GAD. Understanding the role of brain chemistry in GAD can help individuals and health care providers develop more effective treatment for the condition.
4. Medical Conditions
- Cardiovascular disease: This includes: heart disease, high blood pressure or stroke. People with this health condition are often worried about having another cardiac event or stressed out with managing their chronic condition and this most times can contribute to the development of GAD.
- Thyroid disorders: The thyroid gland is responsible for the production of hormones that control metabolism and energy. An under-active thyroid or Hypothyroidism can lead to health issues like weight gain and depression, which can contribute to GAD. On the other hand, an overactive thyroid or Hyperthyroidism can result in symptoms such as nervousness, restlessness and irritability which can also contribute to the development of GAD.
- Respiratory disorders: Asthma, Pneumonia and Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) can cause shortness of breath and trigger anxiety and panic attacks. For many with this health condition, the fear of having difficulty breathing can contribute to the development of GAD.
In addition the medications used to treat these conditions can have anxiety as a side effect and therefore, worsen the symptoms of GAD.
However, speaking with a health care provider to adjust certain medications can help to alleviate the symptoms of GAD.
In this article, we have learnt in detail the causes of GAD.
In future articles, we will learn about the effect, symptoms and treatment for Generalized Anxiety Disorder.