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What Causes Anxiety?

Personal Article

40 million adults alone in the United States suffer from anxiety. But what is the cause of that anxiety? Is it genetic, or is it something more?

by Kiersten Ngeow

Sweaty palms. Shaking hands. A racing heartbeat that you can’t seem to get out of your head.

As someone who has suffered from anxiety, these are a few of the many symptoms I’ve encountered. Having anxiety can interfere with your daily life and can often feel overwhelming. It’s moments like these where I’ve wondered, “What is the cause of my anxiety?”

This is where the argument of nature vs. nurture comes in. Is anxiety truly a result of genetics or our environment? And is there a neutral stance?

Our genetics causes anxiety:

Did you know that it’s more likely for you to inherit anxiety if your parents have anxiety?

According to a 2017 study, “GAD is a heritable condition with a moderate genetic risk (heritability of approximately 30%). Within the anxiety spectrum, it is closely related to childhood separation anxiety, social phobia, and panic [...]”

The study observed the correlation between families with parents who have General Anxiety Disorder (GAD) and the susceptibility their children were to GAD. The study examined how many children were diagnosed with the same condition as their parents.

Additionally, some studies suggest that anxiety can be hereditary through studying twins. Alexandra Benisek’s article, “Depression and Anxiety: Are They Hereditary?,” published by WebMD, explains this connection:

“Doctors see signs that anxiety and depression are partly hereditary from studies of twins. Identical twins have the same set of genes, while fraternal twins share only half of their genes. They’re more likely to both have anxiety or depression compared to fraternal twins. Thus, this study suggests that these conditions may be linked to certain genes, which makes them hereditary.”

As a result, genetics can be the cause of your anxiety due to the connections of specific genes in your body.

Our environment causes anxiety:

Trauma isn’t genetic.

Your environment can determine if you are more likely to have anxiety. As Verywell Mind states, “...what we see, hear, breathe, and smell can impact mood and stress levels, which directly impact mental health.” Even a simple bright light can improve depression and anxiety, according to Rachelle Scott, MD, Eden Health’s medical director of psychiatry.

But in other cases, crime, poverty, and environmental racism are causes of anxiety—factors caused due to our environment. As the previous article mentioned, “Other environmental factors that can have a significant impact on mental health include poverty, crime, and environmental racism. For example, research has found that a person’s housing environment can play a role in their well-being. Another study found that crime, as well as the fear of crime, had a substantial effect on mental well-being.”

There are also other factors to consider as well, aside from genetics. Medical News Today explains how “A variety of environmental factors can increase the likelihood of anxiety. For example, a person’s family composition, their cultural and religious upbringing, and many other childhood experiences can influence anxiety levels, according to a 2018 review.”

Thus, whether it be through culture, crime, or other experiences stemming from childhood, it is evident that your environment can induce anxiety.

Genetics and the Environment Cause Anxiety:

What if we don’t have to choose whether having anxiety is limited to just our environment or hereditary causes? What if it’s both?

Elena Tournoi, PsyD, a psychologist and co-CEO at My Online Therapy, explains how “‘Family provides both the genes and the environment. It might be genes, or it may be because a family member modeled a very anxious way of being in the world — or often a combination of both.’” This is because, as she states, “‘Our mental wellbeing is influenced by so many different factors, and because of that, it’s difficult to isolate genetic loading from environmental influence.’”

My experience with anxiety started with irrational feelings of anxiousness. These feelings of nervousness would follow me, even if everything around me seemed okay. So, I dismissed them, believing that I was just anxious for no reason because anxiety had become my new normal. It wasn’t until my anxiety had worsened to panic/anxiety attacks and more that I started to reach out for help. But looking back, I wish that I reached out for help sooner, before the severity of my anxiety increased.

So if you’re like me and suffer from anxiety, please reach out to get help or find healthy ways to cope with your mental health.

Currently, I manage my anxiety through grounding (my favorite example of grounding being wrapping myself in a blanket), meditation, controlling my breathing through the 4-7-8 technique, and journaling. Different methods work for each person, so it takes time to discover what works for you.

There are also other treatments for anxiety—from medications to reaching out to therapists. If you’d like to learn more information on ways to reduce anxiety and signs to talk to a mental health professional, visit WebMD’s article here. And, if you’re interested in other resources to speak to someone when you’re dealing with anxiety, see this source.

Regardless of the cause of anxiety--whether it be because of your genetics or the environment--, it’s crucial to ensure you’re taking care of your mental health. Anxiety is different for everyone. There are different types of anxiety disorders such as General Anxiety Disorder (GAD), Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD), and Social Anxiety Disorder. But, if you’re struggling with anxiety, there is hope. There are different ways to manage anxiety and trained professionals, such as therapists who can help with your anxiety. You are not alone.


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