What exactly is #anxiety? What sparks this and why do some people have it and some people don’t? These are all great questions, but there is not one right answer. Genetics, environment, experiences, biology, and thinking patterns all contribute to the an individual experiencing anxiety.
Let’s first talk about genetics. Social anxiety and generalized anxiety are heritable, meaning they can be passed down from generation to generation. In fact, first-degree relatives of someone with social anxiety or generalized anxiety have a much greater chance of developing it than someone who does not have a first-degree relative with the disorder. When someone has a genetic predisposition to developing anxiety, they are also more likely to model anxious behaviors of others. Our genes play a role in our eye color, height, abilities, and also our medical conditions, including anxiety.
Environment and Experiences
The environment we are raised in and the experiences we have in life also have a significant impact on the development of anxiety. Learned behavior is part of what contributes to this. One way children learn is by modeling behaviors of the people around them. Children take cues from the trusted figures in their life to determine if situations are safe. If a child has a parent that constantly demonstrates anxious behaviors, the child will learn that the world and others are not safe. So if the child is already predisposed to developing an anxiety disorder, this environment will further foster this development.
Unpredictability in life can be another factor in the development of anxiety. Most children require routine and predictability to develop into healthy, self-sufficient adults. The reason for this is because when there is routine and predictability in their life, they know what to expect next and know what they can and cannot do to stay out of trouble. There are usually not major surprises in their life, but even if there are, their predictable parent will be there to help them through it. By knowing what they can and cannot do to stay out of trouble also builds self confidence and autonomy. They have a very clear understanding of what is right and wrong and are able to avoid trouble most of the time. This creates a positive sense of self and an understanding that they are good, capable, and loveable. On the other hand when predictability and routine are missing, children often feel unsure of themselves, the world, and the people around them. They are never sure when the next surprise will come or if there will be someone there to help them through it. This causes a constant sense of worry and hypervigilance. Furthermore, when clear expectations are not set, the child is unsure of what behaviors they can and can’t do to stay out of trouble because these may change at any given point. This causes a lack of self confidence and autonomy in the child. They may internalize the idea that they are bad, incapable, and unlovable.
We see the interaction between environment and the development of anxiety in adults as well. Often when there is a sudden change to a relatively predictable life such as a divorce or a death of a loved one, anxiety is the result. Sudden, drastic changes in life can often make a person feel they have no control and that again, life is unpredictable. Anxiety can also develop after a humiliating experience such as public bullying. The person feels unsafe in their environment and worries about how they will be perceived.
Trauma, whether this is one event or ongoing, is another environmental factor that often leads to anxiety. Again, this relates to things being unpredictable. We cannot always control bad things from happening so when a person experiences trauma, they often feel powerless. Beliefs then form that the world and people are unsafe and a constant sense of hypervigilance can develop.
Hormones and the Brain
I would like to start of this section by saying there are still many unknowns when it comes to anxiety and the brain. Our brains are one of the most intricate and complex systems on earth and there is still a lot to be learned.
Scientists believe there are multiple parts of the brain and multiple chemicals that produce our “stress response” or anxiety. When we first detect a threat (actual or perceived), our bodies send a signal to the part of the brain called the amygdala, the part of the brain that contributes to emotion processing. When the danger is detected in the amygdala, it immediately sends a distress signal to the hypothalamus, sometimes known as the “control center.” The hypothalamus communicates with the rest of the body through the autonomic nervous system, which controls involuntary body functions such as breathing, heart rate, and blood pressure. The hypothalamus then sends out signals through the autonomic nervous system to the adrenal gland, which responds by pumping adrenaline into the bloodstream. This is when we might feel some of the different physiological responses to anxiety like tense muscles, rapid breathing and heart rate, or your stomach dropping. This response is often referred to as the fight or flight response. If the body continues to perceive a threat (actual or perceived), which typically happens with anxiety disorders, three other chemicals (corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH), adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH), and cortisol) are released to keep the body revved up and on high alert*.
We know genetics, environment, experiences, and brain interactions play a role in the development of anxiety, but there is one more very important aspect to consider, and that is the way we think about situations. If an individual is predisposed to developing anxiety, their thinking patterns might be more negative and more distorted than someone who is not. As previously discussed, if we are presented with a situation and perceive it as a threat, our brains activate the appropriate response for anxiety so we are prepared for whatever comes next, even if it is a neutral situation. An example is driving a car. Many individuals describe an anxiety response to driving and the fight or flight response is activated. Can we fight or run away from driving? No, of course not, but the response is the same as it would be to an actual threat. Furthermore, clients will often say to me, “Driving makes me anxious.” I will challenge that with, “Driving does not make you anxious; the way you think about driving makes you anxious. The fact that you think you are going to get in a car accident and be hurt is what makes you anxious.”When our thoughts are more negative and distorted than positive and realistic, we tend to experience more unwanted emotion.
What to learn more about anxiety and how to treat it? Check out my eBook, Conquer Anxiety in Ten Weeks: A Guidebook for Overwhelmed Women Who Dare to Be Fearless
*Harvard Health Publishing. (2011). Understanding the Stress Response. Retrieved from https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/understanding-the-stress-response