Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) is a very commonly occurring anxiety disorder. Understanding the causes of generalized anxiety disorder can help us better understand the condition and accordingly aid treatment.
GAD is a mental disorder characterized by chronic worrying. According to research 1, a number of different factors, such as genetic predisposition and environment, tend to influence the development of this condition, although the root cause of generalized anxiety disorder is still unknown. According to experts, some of the main causes of generalized anxiety disorder are as follows:
1. Biological Causes Of Generalized Anxiety Disorder
Certain factors, such as heredity, neurotransmitters, comorbid illnesses, etc. have been indicated in the development of generalized anxiety disorder. The biological causes of generalized anxiety disorder have been discussed below:
A person’s genetics can significantly influence their chances of developing GAD. You are 5 times more likely to have GAD if any of your family 2 members are affected by it. A 2017 study 3 revealed that GAD has a moderate genetic risk of approximately 30%. Studies 4 have also found that first degree relatives, such as a parent, sibling, or child, of a person with GAD are more likely to suffer from mood & anxiety disorders in general.
Researchers are yet to identify any specific genes associated with the disorder. However, a 2015 study 4 indicates a possible involvement of the RBFOX1 gene in the development of GAD.
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B. Brain chemistry and structure
It was found that an imbalance in certain brain chemicals 5, like noradrenaline, serotonin, and GABA 6 can lead to the development of anxiety disorders such as GAD, as these chemicals are involved in regulating and controlling mood.
Various other biological processes 7 can also influence anxiety and fear. The amygdala 8, a part of the limbic system in the brain, is supposed to be involved in the regulation of our behavioral & emotional responses.
People suffering from generalized anxiety disorder tend to have higher amygdala activity 9, leading them to judge a stimulus as threatening even when its not.
Research 10 also indicates that higher gray matter volumes for certain areas of the brain are involved in anticipatory anxiety, worrying and emotion regulation. GAD patients also show significant volume reductions 11 in the brain areas of hippocampus, midbrain, thalamus, insula, and superior temporal gyrus, as compared to others.
C. Other medical illnesses
Several medical conditions are comorbid 12 with generalized anxiety disorder. Certain chronic gastrointestinal diseases, cardiovascular diseases, respiratory illnesses, etc. are associated with higher levels of anxiety.
2. Psychological Causes Of Generalized Anxiety Disorder
Quite a few psychological factors relating to the inner dynamics of an individual can lead to the development of GAD Some of these factors are:
A. Personality traits
It has been found that certain personality traits, such as neuroticism 13 have a strong positive association with generalized anxiety disorder. Other traits related to neuroticism are also predicted to be risk factors for anxiety disorders such as GAD.
B. Negative cognitions
Certain “cognitive distortions” arising from faulty beliefs can eventually lead to the development of GAD, according to the cognitive model 14. This results in a cycle of negative thinking that can cause significant distress and anxiety.
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C. Personal conflicts and stressors
As per psychodynamic theories 15, certain conflicting impulses, instincts, and mental processes within a person can lead to stress and the eventual development of generalized anxiety disorder.
3. Social and Environmental Causes Of Generalized Anxiety Disorder
Apart from biological and psychological factors, complex environmental 16 and social elements also play a vital role in this disorder.
Some of the social causes of GAD are:
Research 17 reveals that childhood trauma can make it more likely for a person to be affected by GAD. Physical and mental abuse often make people apprehensive of others, which can lead to severe anxiety in the future.
Uncertainty 18 about a possible future threat that disrupts our ability to avoid it or mitigate its negative impact. Thus, victims of abuse often tend to misinterpret threats and incorrectly believe that certain interactions or experiences are dangerous and threatening when in reality they are not.
It was found that experiencing one or more negative life events 19 in an unexpected way can significantly increase the risk of developing GAD. The most common environmental risk 20 factors for GAD include Early Life Time Trauma (ELT) and Psychological Stressors in Adulthood (PSA).
B. Learned behavior
Experts believe that if a person has interacted with a caregiver, parent, or family member with anxious behavior during childhood, they may have ‘learned’ the behavior by mirroring the role models around them.
Early social learning experiences greatly influence anxiety-related behavior well into adulthood. A 2010 study 21 found that irrespective of the gender of the parent, children experienced higher anxiety levels in the presence of an anxious relative even in a non-anxious environment.
Parents with GAD tend to manipulate 22 the ability of their children to identify potential threats in the environment by communicating to them that the world is unsafe. They may indirectly teach their children that worry can help them prepare for uncertainty. This can significantly alter their cognitive styles leading them to develop GAD as well.
C. Financial issues
Several socio-economic factors have been identified in the etiology of GAD. A strong correlation has been found between low levels of education and unemployment 23 and generalized anxiety disorder. A 2022 study also found perceived financial decline 24 in the family to also be associated with symptoms of GAD.
Other GAD risk factors relating to the environment include:
- Interpersonal conflicts 25
- Domestic violence 26 and abuse
- Influence of social media 27
- Loss of a loved one
- Other adverse experiences, etc.
4. Lifestyle Causes Of Generalized Anxiety Disorder
Apart from the potential causes of generalized anxiety disorder mentioned above, certain lifestyle-related factors can also influence the onset of this condition, such as:
A diet 28 consisting of fast foods and excessive meat has been seen to be associated with increased risk of anxiety disorders including GAD. In fact, avoiding consumption of gluten and artifical sweeteners has been recommended to help reduce the risk of anxiety disorders 29.
B. Substance use
Substance abuse 30 is considered to be one of the main etiological factors for GAD. Studies 31 show that comorbid generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) and alcohol use disorders (AUD) are prevalent among many patients. Smoking 32 has also been found to be associated with anxiety disorders.
Moreover, regular addictive substances like caffeine and nicotine can also increase feelings of worry, nervousness and anxiety. According to a 2015 study 33, weekly consumption of coffee, tea, cola, and energy drinks can significantly influence the development of stress and anxiety, even in children. However, the effects tend to vary among men and women.
C. Work-related stress
Certain work environments 34 demand high levels of performance and productivity, causing severe stress 35 among employees. The fear of unemployment can also significantly heighten anxiety levels.
A 2014 study 36 found that ‘career unreadiness’ can possibly increase anxiety levels in university students. Researchers 37 have found that work stress, coupled with ‘home stress’ can lead to generalized anxiety in the working population.
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5. Other GAD Risk factors
Certain other factors can also contribute to generalized anxiety disorder, such as:
- Gender 38: Women have a higher risk of developing GAD.
- Age 39 : GAD is more common among people over the age of 20.
- Quality of relationships 40, etc.
The causes of generalized anxiety disorder are quite myriad. We may not be able to control the various factors that influence the onset of GAD. However, we can take certain steps to cope with the symptoms so that we can effectively overcome the condition in the long run.
If you think you are suffering from GAD, then it is advised that you consult a doctor or a mental health professional immediately. With accurate diagnosis and treatment, you can live a healthier, anxiety-free life.
At A Glance
- The exact cause of generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) is still unknown.
- Several risk factors, including heredity and environment, have been indicated in the etiology of GAD.
- Some biological causes of generalized anxiety disorder include genes and brain chemistry.
- Psychological factors such as personality traits and cognitions can also influence the onset of GAD.
- Certain social factors indicated in the development of GAD include trauma and financial problems.
- Other lifestyle causes of generalized anxiety disorder include diet, substance use, and work stress.
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