To try and make it a little easier to digest the blog post has been split into the three separate arguments: 1) Genetic 2) Life & 3) Who The Heck Knows (WTHK).
So, without further ado, let's get on with it!
Anxiety Is Caused By Genetics:
What are genes?
Genes are the basic physical and functional units of our hereditary (what we inherit from our parents), and our genes are made from strands of DNA. After mapping our genes as part of the human genome project scientists estimate that we have between 20,000 and 25,000 different genes. Each one of these single genes has a comparative counterpart because we have one from our mum & one from our dad. Researchers also believe that only 1% of our genes are classed as 'different between people' (or 99% of our human genetic make-up is exactly the same). This 1% accounts for our uniqueness in terms of things like; fingerprints, eye colour and hair colour (National Institute of Health, 2017).
How genes influence anxiety:
Way back in the 60's Dr Stella Chess and her husband Dr Alexander Thomas, discovered that temperament (used to describe a person's 'nature' or personality), is inherited. In their longitudinal study (research carried out over a long period of time) which looked at the temperament of 133 different children through to adulthood, they noticed that even extremely young children could essentially be categorized as having one of 3 different temperaments they defined as: easy, difficult or slow to warm up. Based on their observations of the family members, they noticed that the same temperament was also reflected in the child's mother. It was because of this discovery, that Dr Chess, & Dr Thomas theorised that anxiety disorders were passed onto children via their mothers genes (Pearce, J. 2007).
More recent research into the link between genes and anxiety has shown that individuals inherit a predisposition (tendency/susceptibility) to becoming an anxious person. This predisposition equates for roughly 30-40% of the variability (reason why people become anxious or not) (Vann M. R. & Jones, N., 2015; Woolaston, V., 2015). Meaning, we do not automatically become a person with anxiety when we have the 'anxiety genes', but instead have a higher likelihood to develop the disorder than someone without.
& in 2015, McGregor uncovered a link between 7 different genes and anxiety and 6 of which had never previously been connected to developing the disorder.
Gene theorists (those who firmly believe genes are responsible for causing anxiety) would argue that because things like hair, eye and skin colour are determined by our gene and these cannot be influenced by the environment (even if you're one of those lucky people who develops the most phenomenal tan on holiday you'll still end up reverting back to your normal tone once you're back at home...). Meaning, if you have anxiety, your stuffed.
Unfortunately (or fortunately), there is a little more science to come because when looking at a biological basis for anxiety we need to quickly delve into the brain and our hormones.
How our brains influence anxiety
When exploring a genetic basis for anxiety using an analysis of family histories, specific brain regions were identified as being linked to developing anxiety disorders. 3 of these brain regions are responsible for our instinctual 'survival' mechanisms; the amgydala, the limbic brain centre and the prefrontal cortex (Woolaston, V., 2015).
The Brain Regions Explained:
& it is the interactions between all three which plays an integral part in determining whether an individual develops an anxiety disorder (Woolaston, V., 2015).
How our hormones influence anxiety
Hormones are the bodies chemical messages which travel to our organs and tissue through the blood stream. Our hormones are responsible for 'telling' our bodies what to do by turning our genes off and on.
Certain genes are responsible for creating hormones responsible for regulating our 'moods'; serotonin, norepinephrine and dopamine. It's theorised that when these are 'faulty' the hormone which is needed by your body, is not produced (Gaynor, M.L., 2014). Anxiety medications are designed to regulate and manage these hormones.
The 'Mood' Hormones Explained:
So... when there's low serotonin you'll develop anxiety because you're mood hormone is low, ineffective firing of the norepinephrine hormone means you're trapped in fight, flight or freeze mode, and low dopamine means life sucks.
Our genes are passed down to us by our parents.
If our parents have 'anxious' genes then we'll be 30-40% more likely to develop anxiety.
If you develop anxiety, because of your parents 'faulty' genes, the brain regions responsible for emotion are misbehaving and the hormones responsible for mood, FFF & pleasure seeking, are firing when they shouldn't or not firing when they're needed. Making us one very mentally wobbly individual indeed.
Anxiety Is Caused By Life Experiences:
Now, just to throw a spanner in the works...
Researchers analyzed the genetic make-up of 1,065 families — some of whom had OCD — and found that the gene in question was not associated with the disease & unlike things like, hair, eye and skin colour, anxiety isn't always easy to see when you look back through the generations (Vann M. R. & Jones, N., 2015).
Yup, what was said a few paragraphs ago has just been firmly stubbed out like a used cigarette... (n.b., I don't smoke, this is just the image which came to mind - apologies for any offence caused). The research is showing that while people may have the anxiety gene, they don't always develop anxiety and when you look at peoples family history you actually can't always connect the dots between who has, or if indeed anyone previously did have anxiety. Meaning (in their theory), genes don't mean diddly squat.
Ready for another spanner?
There's also research which shows that if two people have a similar mix of genes (often using twin studies), whether they develop anxiety or not, could actually depend on their experiences or environmental risk factors (Vann M. R. & Jones, N., 2015). This conclusion is drawn because even in the case of identical twins (where nearly all of their DNA is exactly the same (they still have different finger prints)) both do not always develop anxiety. Therefore, an individuals life experiences can 'turn off' the anxiety gene (Gaynor, M.L., 2014). Because, they experience life differently, it is therefore theorised that life trumps genetics.
It is also, this 'life trumps genetics' theory (this is not an actual name of a theory although I personally believe it should be because it's much more simple than some of the other names used out there...), which is the premise for using 'risk factors' to determine an individuals life trajectory. For example, a child growing up in an area of low socioeconomic (an area which is relatively poor), has limited access to good education, lives in a single parent family and has a 'difficult' temperament is more likely to end up in prison than someone living in a rich area, goes to private school is looked after by mum, dad and a trillion nannies and has a really easy going personality. The same 'risk factor' analysis is used by psychologists (and other professionals) to determine the likelihood of developing mental health disorders like anxiety. They are also used when determining whether someone has developed a mental health difficulty as part of the diagnostic process.
Back in the 1930's research showed that we to learn to think and behave based on what we see others doing, & this is known as the theory of learned behaviour. Over the past (almost centry) this theory has sparked further theories such as Social Learning Theory (Bandura, 1977) and a whole school of thought in psychology known as behaviourism. It also influenced Dr Albert, T Beck who developed Cognitive Behavioural Theory (CBT) a widely used therapy technique to help individuals with mental ill health and is particularly beneficial for individuals with anxiety, depression and PTSD.
This is important because it leads to the premise that; our thoughts drive our behaviours but also, our behaviours alter our thoughts. Therefore if someone's behaviours (e.g., an individual with social anxiety disorder) are not helpful by circumventing thought process and getting an individual to behave differently you can then change the way the brain is working so that it no longer works to be unhelpful. Research into this (e.g., CBT effectiveness research), shows that an individuals brain literally changes and rewires when the process is applied. Although, CBT is the most effective therapy for anxiety disorders it is only effective between 75 & 90% of the time (CBT LA, n.d).
However, all is not fun and games in the behaviour-thought-behaviour circle because it also happens to influence us in a negative way... Research shows that most phobias develop between the ages of 6 and 7 because they have witnessed mum or dad (or main care giver) in action when their phobia presents itself. For example., mum is scared of cotton wool (yes it happens & is called Sidonglobophobia), mum sees some cotton wool on the floor screams, panics and has a full blown anxiety attack in front of her child. The child sees this reaction & thinks 'jeeps that little ball of white fluff is not to be messed with' (thought). The next time the child encounters cotton wool they have a bout of mild anxiety, maybe a bubbly tummy or raised heart rate (behaviour). This FFF behaviour reinforces what they've learned (thoughts) and repeated interactions of the same nature means over time they too scream, panic and have a full blown anxiety attack when they see cotton wool.
Finally, while CBT isn't 100% effective, medications designed to replace, increase or support mood hormones to do their job only work around 50% of the time. Proposing that if genes were responsible for anxiety medications which are designed to fiddle with those genes would work 100% of the time (McGregor, N., 2015).
Anxiety Is Caused By 'Who The Heck Knows' (or Both)
Now, there really is no getting away from the genetic influence because we are all made up of genes and these are responsible for sending hormones around the body when needed.
But we all also, live in society and learn to think and behave because of who we are associated with and this in turn fiddles with our genes by turning them off or on...
I know, I really am sorry.
But, for every piece of groundbreaking genetic research there's some pesky scientist who ends showing that it's not completely accurate and vice versa...
In truth, not everyone who has anxiety has parents who had anxiety and not everyone who has parents with anxiety develops anxiety (try saying that 10 times without fumbling), environment theorists would say that this therefore, disproves both the 'gene' theory and the 'environment' theories as stand alone theories.
In conclusion, the genetics of anxiety disorders reflect all the difficulties proper to the genetics of complex disorders (Gorwood, P.H. 1998).
It really is important to understand that both genetics and environment play a part when you're trying to develop an effective treatment model.
Neither one is more influential than the other (if it were, the research wouldn't be so conflicting).
But instead of being dismayed by this point, it is in fact extremely exciting and positive.
Well, it genuinely does not matter why you have anxiety.
If you have developed anxiety because your parents had faulty genes and passed them on without a care in the world, you can turn the faulty genes off and get rid of your anxiety.
& on the other hand, if you developed anxiety because your parents (or significant childhood influences) behaved in an anxious way & you just copied them believing that was how you were supposed to behave, you can just behave differently and over time this will rewire your brain so that you no longer behave anxiously.
Seriously, the why doesn't matter.
What matters is what you now choose to do about it...
You could, continue to behave the same forever (and this is the option your anxious brain is rooting for because the fear of not being anxious or changing the way you are is pretty darn scary), or you can choose to stop being anxious (& yes I 100% acknowledge it isn't the same as turning off a light switch it takes time and a bit of work - after all you are altering the way your brain works).
The thing to try and really hold onto is - changing the way you think and behave is 100% possible regardless of why you developed anxiety, your circumstances and your type of anxiety.
While, I can't wave a magic wand & stop your anxiety from existing right this second, I have created a really simple & FREE PDF for you to download which lists the top '3 Fast-Acting Anxiety Cancelling Tips' so that you can turn off the FFF and stop your anxiety literally in its tracks enabling you to get on with doing all the things you love!
Have a phenomenal rest of your day & I'll catch you soon - Katie x
CalmClinic (n.d.). Introduction to Inherited Anxiety CalmClinic Retrieved 26th August 2017, from: http://www.calmclinic.com/anxiety/causes/inheriting
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, Los Angeles (n.d.) Does CBT Work? Retrieved 26th August 2017, from: http://cogbtherapy.com/how-effective-is-cbt-compared-to-other-treatments/
Folk, J. & Marilyn F. (2017). Anxiety is caused by behavior, not genes anxietycentre.com Retrieved 26th August, 2017 from: From <http://www.anxietycentre.com/anxiety-tips/behaviors-not-genes.shtml>
Gaynor, M.L. (2014). Genes, Depression, and Anxiety. Steering your mood with food. Psychology Today. Retrieved 26th August 2017, from: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/your-genetic-destiny/201411/genes-depression-and-anxiety
Gorwood, P.H. (1998). Is Anxiety Hereditary? Encephale. May-Jun;24(3):252-5. Hôpital Louis Mourier, Service de Psychiatrie Adulte, Colombes
Kagan. J. (2010) Born worried: Is anxiety all in the genes? The Independent Retreived 26th August, 2017 from: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/science/born-worried-is-anxiety-all-in-the-genes-1981022.html
McGregor, N. (2015) 7 new genes linked to anxiety disorders. The Conversation. Retrieved 26th August, 2017 from: http://theconversation.com/seven-new-genes-linked-to-anxiety-disorders-42835
National Institute of Health (2017) What is a Gene? National Institute of Medicine Retrieved September 12, 2017 from: https://ghr.nlm.nih.gov/primer/basics/gene
Pearce, Jeremy. (2007) Dr Stella Chess, Child Development Specialist Dies At 93. The New York Times Retrieved 26th August, 2017 from: http://www.nytimes.com/2007/03/22/nyregion/22chess.html
Vann M. R. & Jones, N. (2015). Is Anxiety Hereditary? Everyday Health Retrieved 26th August, 2017 from: https://www.everydayhealth.com/news/is-anxiety-hereditary/
Woollaston, V. (2015). Anxiety is HEREDITARY: Briain scans reveal anxious parents are more likely to have nervous and depressed children. Daily Mail Retrieved 26th August, 2017 from: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-3151227/Anxiety-HEREDITARY-Brain-scans-reveal-anxious-parents-likely-nervous-depressed-children.html
N.B. This article was updated on the 16th Sept 2017 to include the section 'what are genes'