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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.

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Mild anxiety is rarely related to chemical imbalances, but the more severe, the more of an effect it has on your body. Take our free 7 minute anxiety test to score your anxiety severity and see next steps for treating it.

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Anxiety and the Physical Issues

It's natural to want to believe that anxiety isn't the result of your thoughts and your experiences. This is especially true of severe anxiety disorders, like panic disorder and agoraphobia. But its origins are so complex, that no matter what some aspect of your life played a role. Take my free 7 minute anxiety test to learn more about your anxiety.

The question is whether or not those concerns are real, and the answer is "sort of." That's because the issue is a bit more complex than stating "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 it, indicating that they are at a high risk of developing anxiety. It's not just serotonin either - most neurotransmitters can cause anxiety or anxiety like symptoms, and in some cases an over-abundance of a chemical can lead to anxiety. So it does appear that you can develop it without experiencing a stressful life.

But at the same time, if you have anxiety you can also develop chemical imbalances, because anxiety genuinely affects your brain chemicals. The way you think and your emotions is known, without a doubt, to cause problematic releases of serotonin, norepinephrine, etc. So it's possible that you developed anxiety first, and your chemical imbalances were the result.

In addition, studies have shown that proper stress coping strategies can increase serotonin levels in those that appear genetically pre-disposed to chemical imbalances. In other words, your emotions can not only cause a chemical imbalance - they can cure it. If they can cure low serotonin levels, then how genetic can the chemical imbalance be?

Identifying the Cause and the Solution

Chemical imbalances are certainly a problem. Human beings don't realize how often their neurotransmitters quite literally 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.

In the past I've helped thousands of people control their anxiety using my free anxiety test. Take the test to get your free anxiety profile.

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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.

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.

Zimmerberg, Betty, and Megan J. Farley.Sex differences in anxiety behavior in rats: role of gonadal hormones. Physiology & behavior 54.6 (1993): 1119-1124.

Author: Micah Abraham, BSc Psychology, last updated Sep 28, 2017.

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