Anxiety and Genetics

May 17, 2017|Mental Health|
Hartgrove Hospital Anxiety Genetics

Mental health disorders are often misunderstood. That includes where the issues originate from in the first place. “One of the largest misconceptions about anxiety is that the disorder is something people ‘bring upon themselves,’” says Healthy Living Editor Lindsay Holmes in a July 2015 Huffington Post article. In the piece, titled “Science Finds Even More Evidence That Anxiety Isn’t Just All In Your Head,” the author asserts that the issue is biological and the brain function that underlies anxiety and depression may actually be inherited. In other words, you can blame your genes.

Digging Into the Research

That evidence comes from a new study out of the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Researchers there observed 592 young rhesus monkeys for signs of anxiety in the brain. To complete their study, they began by putting the monkeys in mildly anxiety-inducing situations — meant to mimic those experienced by humans — by invading their space without making eye contact in an effort to monitor a potential increase in stress hormones. Then they had the monkeys undergo PET scans that analyzed metabolic activity in the areas of the brain related to moods. Additionally, the scientists looked at the anatomy of each monkey’s brain and compared it to the brains of close relatives.

The study, published in the July 6, 2015 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, found that the brain scans showed that monkeys who reacted to the stressful situation by freezing up or becoming less communicative also showed an overactive metabolism in the brain regions associated with anxiety. Researchers also found evidence that this type of behavior was hereditary: Approximately 30 percent of early anxiety could potentially be passed down by the monkey’s parents, according to the study. Lifestyle played a role too, though. Researchers found that other major contributing factors to the development of anxiety included life experience and an individual’s environment.

Anxiety ABCs

Previous research may have suggested that anxiety and depression are at least partially biological, brought on by chemical imbalances in the brain. Studies conducted by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) and the World Health Organization (WHO) have also found that mental illnesses such as schizophrenia and major depressive disorder share genetic risk factors and may run in families, supporting the findings of the University of Wisconsin study.

Of course, it’s important to note that being predisposed to anxiety doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re destined to develop an anxiety disorder. Instead, it simply offers insight into how you react to anxiety-producing situations. Experts stress that there are multiple components that contribute to mental health conditions.

Breaking the Stigma

Overall, the new study’s findings are encouraging, especially given the stigma often attached to mental illness. Studies show that one in four people will experience a mental health issue in their life and one quarter of those believe mental illness is misunderstood. As we continue to learn more about mental health issues like anxiety, we can move toward breaking down those barriers to understanding. When we all see these disorders for the medical diseases that they are and not some sort of emotional failing, we can move forward in treating them even more effectively.

If you or a loved one is struggling with anxiety or other behavioral health issues, call us today for a free, confidential assessment. We’re available 24 hours a day, seven days a week and can provide information on treatment programs and the treatment process.

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