Does the Environment Cause Generalized Anxiety Disorder?

While Genetics Play a Role, the Environment Is Also a Major Cause of GAD

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Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) is a disorder characterized by constant worrying, stress, anxiety and fear, without any real cause behind these feelings. Whether it's worrying about money or loved ones, if you have GAD, you may expect disaster at every turn. The anxiety can get so pervasive that it interferes with your daily functioning. 

GAD is extremely prevalent, with over 4 million Americans affected each year.

It often begins during adolescence or young adulthood, but it can take hold at any age. The exact cause of GAD is not known, but scientists believe GAD is caused by a mix of genetic, biological and environmental factors. 

Genetics and Biology

Family history may play a role in determining whether or not you will have GAD. If you have parents or grandparents who struggle with anxiety, your risk of also having it is increased. 

Some researchers suggest that GAD is caused by defects in the brain, particularly brain regions involved in processing emotions. It's believed that if these regions are compromised in any way, your mood and fears are impacted.  

It is hypothesized that genetics and biology only play a small role in the development of GAD; it is suggested that approximately 35% of people with GAD have the presence of genetic or biological factors. The rest of the population with GAD may have been shaped by environmental factors instead.

Environmental Factors

Mental health researchers have found that trauma in childhood can increase your risk of developing GAD. Physical and mental abuse, the death of a loved one, desertion, divorce or isolation can all be contributing factors.  Using everyday addictive substances like caffeine can also heighten feelings of worry or nervousness.

Some scientists believe anxiety is a learned behavior so that if you have a parent who is always anxious, you emulate and mirror that behavior as well.Poor early social skills and awkward encounters can also shape long-lasting anxiety.  

During severe periods of stress, the potential for developing anxiety conditions is increased. Prolonged stress is also a common time when GAD first appears. For many people, they discover they have GAD while holding a job they cannot stand or while going through a nasty divorce.  

Treating GAD

Anxiety disorders like GAD are incredibly complex and are not something that you can just snap out of. You may not be ever able to pinpoint the exact cause of your anxiety. But understanding the potential causes of GAD can be important in your treatment plan. Regardless of how GAD comes about, it can be treated through therapy and medication. 

If you have been struggling to cope with overpowering anxiety and feel that it is impacting your quality of life, it may be time to talk to your primary care physician and get a referral for a mental health provider. A therapist with a strong background in anxiety disorders will be understanding of what you're going through and won't make you feel silly or act like you're paranoid.

She will help you manage your symptoms and develop coping skills so you can begin to tackle GAD and lead a richer life. 


Maddux, James E. Self-efficacy, adaptation, and adjustment: Theory, research, and application. The Plenum series in social/clinical psychology., (pp. 69-107). New York, NY, US: Plenum Press, 1995.