Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) is a mental health condition characterized by excessive worry that is present more days than not for at least six months. [2] Symptoms of anxiety often include irritability, restlessness, sleep disturbance, and trouble concentrating. [2]

GAD is relatively common, affecting around 3.1% of the general population. [1] Anxiety symptoms can cause significant impairment in relationships, work, and daily functioning. It is more commonly diagnosed in women than in men. [4]

There is no single known cause of this mental health disorder, but researchers believe that genetic, biological, and environmental factors each play a part.

So, is generalized anxiety disorder genetic?

GAD has a strong genetic component. Recent genetic studies suggest that approximately 33% of the risk of developing generalized anxiety disorder is hereditary. [1] A number of different genes have been connected to the development of the disorder. [3]

Disruptions in the pathways of the neurotransmitters dopamine and serotonin have also been associated with the disorder. [1] These are chemicals in the brain that help to regulate fear and other emotions.

While having a family history of anxiety can increase your chances of developing GAD, there are other environmental and biological risk factors that play a role. A genetic predisposition does not guarantee that you will have the disorder. It is also possible to develop GAD even if it does not run in your family. [1] 

Other causes of GAD

Beyond genetic factors, there are many other causes of GAD. Biology, parenting styles, personality traits, life experiences, and even medical conditions can all have an impact.

Although not entirely understood, one’s biology can contribute to the risk of GAD. Those with the disorder tend to have larger amygdalas than the general population. [5] The amygdala is the region of the brain responsible for regulating emotions, including fear. 

An individual’s natural temperament can also affect their likelihood of developing GAD. Children who are shy, reserved, and more cautious are more prone to developing this disorder. [3] It is also more common in individuals with neurotic personalities, in which they are more prone to emotional intensity. [3]

Early childhood experiences can also increase the risk of developing generalized anxiety disorder. Children can, consciously or unconsciously, learn neurotic behaviors from those around them, leading to GAD. [1] Traumatic experiences, such as abuse, divorce, bullying, or violence in childhood or adolescence are also associated with the onset of the disorder. [3] 

Beyond childhood, stressful life events, like natural disasters, can trigger GAD. [3] Ongoing stressors, such as abusive relationships or toxic work environments, can also increase the risk.

Certain physical conditions that affect hormone levels in the body can also trigger generalized anxiety disorder. For instance, hyperthyroidism can increase the body’s physical response to stress. [4]

Resources:

  1. Boston Children’s Hospital. (n.d.). Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD). Retrieved November 29, 2022 from https://www.childrenshospital.org/conditions/generalized-anxiety-disorder-gad
  2. Gale, C. K. (2003). Generalized Anxiety Disorder. Am Fam Physician, 67(1):135-138.
  3. Gottschalk, M. G., & Domschke, K. (2017). Genetics of generalized anxiety disorder and related traits. Dialogues in clinical neuroscience, 19(2), 159–168. https://doi.org/10.31887/DCNS.2017.19.2/kdomschke
  4. John Hopkins Medicine. (2021). Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD).  Retrieved November 30, 2022 from https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/conditions-and-diseases/generalized-anxiety-disorder
  5. Martin, E. I., Ressler, K. J., Binder, E., & Nemeroff, C. B. (2009). The Neurobiology of Anxiety Disorders: Brain Imaging, Genetics, and Psychoneuroendocrinology. Psychiatric Clinics of North America, 32(3), 549–575. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.psc.2009.05.004