Are Anxiety Disorders Caused By a Chemical Imbalance?

Micah Abraham, BSc

Written by

Micah Abraham, BSc

Last updated October 10, 2020

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:

  • Low serotonin levels can be genetic, and may lead to anxiety symptoms.
  • Anxiety can cause lower serotonin levels.
  • Anxiety reduction strategies can increase serotonin.

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:

  • Learn coping tools that can help you overcome your anxiety. Research has proven that your mental health affects your brain chemicals, and so learning to control the extent that anxiety affects you should make a strong difference in your chemical imbalance.
  • Exercise is still incredibly important. Both anxiety and chemical imbalances have been linked to poor exercise, especially in terms of severity. It's one of the theories about why anxiety is on the rise in an increasingly sedentary society. So exercising is extremely important
  • Finally, generally healthy living is also important, particularly sleep. Diet plays a role on neurotransmitters, but sleep plays an incredible role, and making sure you're living a healthy lifestyle that is as stress free as possible is crucial.

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.

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Where can I go to learn more about Jacobson’s relaxation technique and other similar methods?

– Anonymous patient


You can ask your doctor for a referral to a psychologist or other mental health professional who uses relaxation techniques to help patients. Not all psychologists or other mental health professionals are knowledgeable about these techniques, though. Therapists often add their own “twist” to the technqiues. Training varies by the type of technique that they use. Some people also buy CDs and DVDs on progressive muscle relaxation and allow the audio to guide them through the process.

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