Anxiety is a common issue among people. It can be viewed as an umbrella term with many specific disorders that have an anxiety component falling underneath it (i.e. generalized anxiety disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, etc.). When treating people, it is often helpful to understand what the root cause of anxiety is. Where does it come from? Often times, if the root can be found and addressed, the anxiety can be decreased. However, sometimes there does not seem to be a root cause. In fact, anxiety can be attributed to some genetic factors. Researchers and scientists are still working hard to learn about the brain and the development of mental health issues like depression and anxiety. Some people are genetically predisposed to being a more anxious person. Studies have shown that certain structures and activity in specific areas of the brain that “light up” during stressful situations can be genetic. Chemically, there are certain hormones released when a person is stressed and anxious that pushes them towards certain behaviors. For example, if someone is swimming the ocean and they come across a huge shark, certain hormones pumping through the brain help a person move into flight or fight mode. Predisposition to certain behaviors based on the hormonal makeup can come from genes. However, because the brain is so complex and anxiety can be such a broad term, there is still a lot to discover and study in terms of the brain and mental health issues.
When dealing with anxiety, it is important to consider both a genetic or a biological component along with an environmental component. So far, researchers have found that genetics only make up part of anxiety issues. Even then, there is still more information to uncover to fully understand the biological side of anxiety. Environment also plays a major role in the development of anxiety. Children who grow up in a stressful or anxious environment have a better chance of developing anxiety. In terms of managing anxiety, these tools and skills can be learned. If children do not learn coping mechanisms for managing anxiety and other difficult emotions, they are more likely to struggle with anxiety. Environment is an important factor to consider when understanding anxiety, where it comes from, and how to potentially go about treating it.
In terms of treating anxiety, potential genetic factors and environmental factors need to be taken into account. If a person comes from a family where others dealt with anxiety, depression, or other mental health concerns, it is likely they might be facing similar issues as well. Speaking with a physician about potentially testing for certain chemical imbalances or a psychiatrist about medications that might help can be beneficial when seeking understanding and a diagnosis. While medication can be beneficial for treating mental health issues such as anxiety, it is important to consider a person’s environment. Research has found the best treatment using medication works best when the person is also in therapy. In therapy, a person can learn coping skills and other tools to manage anxiety as well as work through issues that contribute to the root of the anxiety. When addressing root issues like the fear of failure or crippling self-doubt, it can help decrease general anxiety levels.
Whether or not scientists and researchers discover the exact percentage of how much genetics affects anxiety does not really matter. In reality, both genetics and environment are found to be important when understanding and treating anxiety. If a person finds themselves struggling with anxiety, it will be important they seek treatment allow them to explore both the genetic and environmental components.
Michelle Overman is a Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist working as a counselor for students, faculty, and staff at Abilene Christian University in Abilene, Texas. She also has a special interest in working with athletes and has been bridging the gap between athletics and mental health at ACU. She is in the process of becoming a Certified Mental Performance Consultant to further her expertise in sports psychology. Prior to her move to Abilene, Michelle ran her own private practice in Austin, Texas where she worked with a diverse population, including couples and families. Michelle earned a Master’s in Marriage & Family Therapy and has been working in the field for 6 years.