Nature versus Nurture: Anxiety Disorder

Anxiety disorder is a mental illness that plagues more than 284 million people in the world. It has been denoted by researchers worldwide as one of the most common mental disorders in the world. However, up till today, researchers are still not 100 percent certain of the causes of anxiety. The root causes are often divided between both genetics and environmental factors.


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Therefore, today, we will explore the notion of nature versus nurture in Anxiety, more specifically Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD). We will begin with tackling the genetic aspects of anxiety before delving into the environmental influences.


Genetics in simple terms is the scientific study of both genes and heredity, how certain qualities or traits are passed from parents to offspring as a result of changes in DNA sequence.


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When looking at the impact of genetics on Anxiety, you would have to focus on the genetic component of anxiety disorder known as the “Heritability” of the disorder. After countless research works over the years, researchers have estimated it to be at around 30 to 40 percent, meaning that almost half of the underlying causes of anxiety is due to genetics. This is similar to other mental illnesses such as depression which has a heritability rate of close to 50 percent.


Psychologist Amy Przeworski, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the department of psychological sciences at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland stated that “Individuals inherit a predisposition to being an anxious person, [and] about 30 to 40 percent of the variability is related to genetic factors,” reiterating the influence genetics can have in the development of anxiety disorders.

With rapid movements in technology and methodology, researchers are now better equipped to examine the role genes play in the development of GAD in more detail but research is still in its preliminary stages.


That being said, we now know that a person can have a genetic vulnerability to developing GAD if certain genetic markers have been passed onto them. Vulnerability, in combination with certain environmental factors, can trigger the development of symptoms.

Studies have shown that first-degree relatives who have anxiety are likely to be diagnosed with anxiety. This would include family members most closely related to you, such as a parent, sibling, or child.


The disparity between genders is also a poignant aspect of how genetics play a role in dictating the chances of having anxiety. Taking, for instance, women are genetically more prone to anxiety disorders. Statistics from the ADAA show that women are actually twice as likely to be impacted by a generalized anxiety disorder.


This highlights the notion that mental illnesses such as Anxiety explore philosophical conceptions such as nature versus nurture, suggesting that we can be bounded by ‘nature’ in the sense that we are prone to developing certain brain changes because of our DNA.

However, to completely attribute the causes of anxiety to genetics would be an overstatement. Environmental causes do play a prominent role in the development of anxiety disorder, largely due to our fight or flight responses that change over time.


Environmental factors largely refer to life experiences such as traumatic events that appear to have triggered anxiety disorders in people.


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Instances of these events include childhood trauma, stress, personality traits that developed over the years, together with the consumption of substances such as drugs and alcohol. This suggests that even if you do not have the genetic predisposition, you are still at risk of developing an anxiety disorder.


Taking, for instance, mental health researchers have found that trauma in childhood can increase a person's risk of developing GAD. Difficult life experiences such as abuse, neglect, the death of a loved one, abandonment, divorce, or isolation can all be contributing factors.

Another phenomenon that researches are concerned with is the idea of ‘Learned Behaviour’. There are behavioral scientists that believe that anxiety is a learned behavior, suggesting that if a person has a parent or caregiver who demonstrates anxious behavior, they may tend to mirror that same anxious behavior. Children, being extremely impressionable, learn from their caregivers and people close to them on how to handle challenging or stressful situations. When they model less effective methods of stressful management, children tend to do the same. These early social learning experiences can influence the development of long-lasting anxiety.


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Another example of environmental factors would be stress. Being in a stressful environment can prompt your body and mind to enter “survival mode”. This would mean that your body could get used to long periods of stress and eventually see it as normalcy. An example would be traumas from abusive relationships, as victims get out of such relationships, they find that it is significantly harder to trust another person. They could also be burdened by the anxiety of imagining the worst-case scenario and seeing the worst in people. Such events can foster anxious feelings even when conducting day-to-day activities, developing irrational fears that stifle daily life routines.

Therefore, there is no clear indication of the root causes of anxiety, the line drawn between nature and nurture is undeniably blurred. After all, mental illnesses by their very nature are both ubiquitous and ambiguous. While there is more research and treatments being churned out, there is still much more information that needs to be refined, in order to accurately denote the root causes of anxiety. Fortunately, anxiety treatment, such as medications and cognitive behavioral therapy, appears to be just as effective for people with a genetic history as for those without. In summation, nature or nurture, it essentially does not matter. Taking care of your own well-being and working toward emotional equilibrium is the best thing you can do for yourself.


References: https://ajp.psychiatryonline.org/doi/10.1176/appi.ajp.2020.20010038

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5573560/

https://www.everydayhealth.com/news/is-anxiety-hereditary/

https://www.verywellmind.com/social-anxiety-disorder-causes-3024749

https://ourworldindata.org/mental-health

https://www.verywellmind.com/gad-causes-risk-factors-1392982