Genetic Vulnerability and Generalized Anxiety Disoder

How Genes Can Influence GAD Development

Maciej Frolow/Getty Images.

Examining the potential of genetic vulnerability to develop generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) is one of the largest and most important segments of research currently being conducted on GAD. Technological and methodological advances have allowed researchers to examine the role genes play in GAD in more detail, although a complete understanding has yet to be achieved.

While this research is still in the preliminary stages, it has significant implications for anyone who faces anxiety disorders like GAD. The following is an overview on the genetic vulnerability view of GAD development.

What Is Genetic Vulnerability?

Essentially, genetic vulnerability refers to the idea that a person may have a biological predisposition to develop a disorder or condition when certain environmental factors present themselves. The gene or set of genes responsible may remain dormant for a person's entire life if the other factors are never experienced or the genes may be expressed from a very early age. This process is not only a consideration for GAD, but for many other mental disorders and medical conditions.

For instance, if your mother or father had GAD or another mental illness, according to the study of genetic vulnerability, you may be at increased risk of developing GAD during your lifetime. Understanding your family's health history, including mental health, could be an important screening tool. 

Example for GAD

The following is an example of how this genetic vulnerability may become evident. Our fictional person is a 22-year-old woman named Mary who has recently been diagnosed with GAD. Both of Mary's parents struggled with anxiety problems and she also had a grandmother that is described by family members as a worrier. Based on this family data, it is reasonable to believe that Mary may have inherited genes that would predispose her to respond with anxiety to major life stressors or environmental events. Although Mary said she has always been somewhat anxious, her recent relationship breakup and job change have pushed her anxiety to levels where she can longer cope effectively. These stressful events played on her genetic vulnerability to become anxious, which led to her developing a problem and seeking treatment.

Impact on Diagnosis and Treatment

Examining your family history can offer clues into whether or not you may have a genetic vulnerability to become anxious. The main thing to remember is that everyone is prone to some sort of psychological response to stress and that regardless of that vulnerability there are ways to cope effectively. It is also important to note that environmental, social and psychological factors related to growing up with anxious caregivers are part of the complicated equation of how GAD develops.

GAD, whether developed in part due to family history or caused by particular events, can be treated successfully through therapy and/or medication. If you haven't already, talk to a therapist about your anxiety and mention if your family members experience any anxiety symptoms as well. Your therapist will hep you come up with a comprehensive treatment strategy. Through continued visits, you will learn essential coping skills to minimize anxiety symptoms and live a richer life.

View Article Sources
  • Charney, D. "The Psychobiology of Resilience and Vulnerability to Anxiety Disorders: Implications for Prevention and Treatment". Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience, 2003, 207-221.