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Are Anxiety Disorders Caused By a Chemical Imbalance?

Micah Abraham, BSc
Are Anxiety Disorders Caused By a Chemical Imbalance?

Many of those struggling with severe anxiety wonder how it happened. They wonder how it was possible that they could experience something this severe. Indeed, anxiety is an overwhelming condition that can have a very significant impact on your quality of life, and in some cases it can cause physical symptoms so severe that they make you feel as though something else must be wrong physically.

So those struggling from anxiety often want to believe that something else is to blame. And indeed, anxiety has been linked to chemical imbalances within the brain. The question is which came first.

Anxiety and the Physical Issues

It's natural to want to believe that anxiety isn't the result of your thoughts and your experiences. Many would like to hear that their anxiety is caused exclusively by brain chemicals. However, the issue is a bit more complex than "your low chemical levels caused anxiety."

Which Comes First?

It's a question of what comes first, and how one adapts to what comes. Here is what is known about anxiety:

This is why it gets complicated. It does seem that many people seem to have risk factors for naturally low serotonin levels, and it's likely that many people are born with low serotonin, indicating that they are at a higher risk of developing anxiety. It's not just serotonin either - most neurotransmitters influence anxiety in some way, and in some cases an overabundance of a chemical can lead to anxiety. 

If you have anxiety you can also develop chemical imbalances that were not previously present, because anxiety affects your brain chemicals. The way you think about your feelings and situations in your life is known, without a doubt, to influence whether problematic releases of serotonin, norepinephrine, and other brain chemicals occur. It is possible to develop anxiety first, resulting in chemical imbalances.

In addition, studies have shown that proper stress coping strategies can increase serotonin levels in those that appear genetically predisposed to chemical imbalances. In other words, your emotions can not only cause a chemical imbalance - they can help it. 

Identifying the Cause and the Solution

Chemical imbalances are certainly a problem. Human beings don't realize how often their neurotransmitters alter their thoughts and emotions. When you feel negative or worry about things, it's sometimes logical, sometimes emotional, and sometimes just the way your brain is responding to its natural chemical processes. It's impossible for a person to tell the difference.

All of these reasons are why it is so difficult to claim that chemical imbalances are the actual cause of anxiety, and not simply a symptom. Even if they are a cause, it appears that the ability to cope with anxiety can address some or all of the chemical problems. For those that still need help, modern medicines are actually used to address these specific issues.

Assuming a chemical imbalance is what causes your anxiety and not the other way around, knowing that doesn't change very much about treatment. You still need to:

These are what's known about anxiety and your brain chemicals, and why there is so much more to consider than simply whether or not you were genetically predisposed to anxiety. Certainly there are some conditions that increase the risk and require medical intervention - hyperthyroid, for example, is a condition that could usually needs medical help - but there is no denying that blaming one or the other is ignoring the solution, and the solution is that you need to address your anxiety.

Article Resources
  1. Bagdy, Gyorgy. Serotonin, Anxiety, and Stress Hormones: Focus on 5-HT Receptor Subtypes, Species and Gender Differences. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 851.1 (1998): 357-363.
  2. Humble, M., and B. Wistedt.Serotonin, panic disorder and agoraphobia: short-term and long-term efficacy of citalopram in panic disorders. International clinical psychopharmacology 6 (1992): 21-40.
  3. Zimmerberg, Betty, and Megan J. Farley.Sex differences in anxiety behavior in rats: role of gonadal hormones. Physiology & behavior 54.6 (1993): 1119-1124. 
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