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Generalized Anxiety Disorder Causes

Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) causes include genetic, psychological and environmental factors. Learn what causes GAD.

It is not fully understood what causes generalized anxiety disorder. It's thought that differences in brain structure and brain chemicals may be part of the cause of GAD. Likely, a combination of genetics, personality and the environment form the cause of generalized anxiety disorder.

Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) is a common anxiety disorder characterized by exaggerated and persistent worries and fears in everyday life. People with GAD can become so anxiety ridden that they retreat from most activities.

Neurological Causes of Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD)

It is thought differences in the following neurotransmitters (brain chemicals) play a role in causing GAD:

  • Serotonin
  • Dopamine
  • Norepinephrine
  • Gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA)

It is these chemicals that are altered by antidepressants, some of which are effective treatments for generalized anxiety disorder. Abnormal levels of other chemicals, like peptides and hormones, may also partially cause generalized anxiety disorder.

MRI scans have revealed that some structures of the brain are changed in some anxiety disorders.

Impaired cognitive functioning also appears to be tied to generalized anxiety disorder in both children and adults.

Psychological Causes of Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD)

While the physical causes of GAD are extremely challenging to study, psychologists have done work to try to tie together neurology and psychology.

Using a functional MRI scan, it was found that people with GAD show greater activation in certain regions of the brain when confronted with situations to which an average person would not react with anxiety. For example, a situation where a person accidentally chokes on, and spits up, their host's food would not normally cause anxiety for a person, but the brains of those with GAD show evidence of anxiety.

The underlying cause of GAD in this situation is thought to be a heightened fear of social disapproval. Healthy individuals only show increased brain activation levels when confronted with intentional transgressions, which are considered to be more significant stressors as they challenge the social hierarchy.

Causes of GAD in Childhood

The highest risk group for developing generalized anxiety disorder is adolescents. It's thought the causes of generalized anxiety disorder may begin in childhood.

Anxiety disorders may be passed down not only by genetics but also by the behavior children see in the adults around them. Part of the cause of GAD is that of a learned, exaggerated, fear response shown by those who grew up with parental figures who exhibited anxious behaviors.

Other causes of generalized anxiety disorder that may occur in childhood include:

  • Early traumatic experiences such as a parent's death
  • Chronic experiences of fear
  • Chronic feelings of helplessness
  • Abnormal hormones, possibly due to stress, prenatally

article references


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next: General Anxiety Disorder (GAD) Treatment that Works
~ all articles on generalized anxiety disorder
~ all articles on anxiety-panic

Last Updated: 29 June 2016
Reviewed by Harry Croft, MD

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