Anxiety is one of those disorders that often finds sufferers looked down on or misunderstood. After all, can’t they just “get over it”? Well-meaning loved ones try to reason it away and frustrated friends try to talk you out of feeling the way you do. As with many other mental health issues, it’s not very clearly understood.

“One of the largest misconceptions about anxiety is that the disorder is something people ‘bring upon themselves,’” according to a July 2015 Huffington Post article by Healthy Living Editor Lindsay Holmes. In the piece, titled “Science Finds Even More Evidence That Anxiety Isn’t Just All In Your Head,” the author asserts that the issue is biological and the brain function that underlies anxiety and depression may actually be inherited. In other words, you can blame your genes.


Breaking Down the Research

That evidence comes from a new study out of the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Researchers there observed 592 young rhesus monkeys for signs of anxiety in the brain. To complete their study, they began by putting the monkeys in mildly anxiety-inducing situations — meant to mimic those experienced by humans — by invading their space without making eye contact in an effort to monitor a potential increase in stress hormones. Then they had the monkeys undergo PET scans that analyzed metabolic activity in the areas of the brain related to moods. Additionally, the scientists looked at the anatomy of each monkey’s brain and compared it to the brains of close relatives.

The study, published in the July 6 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, found that the brain scans showed that monkeys who reacted to the stressful situation by freezing up or becoming less communicative also showed an overactive metabolism in the brain regions associated with anxiety. Researchers also found evidence that this type of behavior was hereditary: Approximately 30 percent of early anxiety could potentially be passed down by the monkey’s parents, according to the study. Lifestyle played a role too, though. Researchers found that other major contributing factors to the development of anxiety included life experience and an individual’s environment.

All About Anxiety

Previous research may have suggested that anxiety and depression are at least partially biological, brought on by chemical imbalances in the brain. Studies conducted by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) and the World Health Organization (WHO) have also found that mental illnesses, such as schizophrenia and major depressive disorder share genetic risk factors and may run in families, supporting the findings of the University of Wisconsin study.

Of course, it’s important to note that being predisposed to anxiety doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re destined to develop an anxiety disorder. Instead, it simply offers insight into how you react to anxiety-producing situations. Experts stress that there are multiple components that contribute to mental health conditions.

Anxiety and Addiction

While anxiety can have negative effects all on its own – from avoiding social situations and hindering a career – there are other dangers associated with it. Approximately 20 percent of Americans with an anxiety or mood disorder such as depression have an alcohol or other substance use disorder, and about 20 percent of those with an alcohol or substance use disorder also have an anxiety or mood disorder, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA).

Those suffering from anxiety may turn to alcohol or drugs in an attempt to self-medicate or manage their disorder, and it may work for a while, but with anxiety disorders, many find that alcohol or other substances eventually make their symptoms worse. Despite the negative impact, anxiety sufferers are two to three times more likely to have an alcohol or other substance abuse disorder at some point in their lives than the general population, the ADAA says.

It’s not always clear which issue surfaces first, but it’s clear that one can lead to the other. That’s problematic because the symptoms of one disorder can make the symptoms of another worse. Still, the co-occurrence of substance abuse, particularly alcohol abuse, is common among people who have social anxiety disorder. It’s a common belief that alcohol can help “loosen you up,” but when it comes to anxiety disorders, it can actually have the opposite effect. In fact, alcohol or drugs often cause panic attacks among panic disorder sufferers.

Breaking the Stigma

Overall, the new study’s findings are encouraging, especially given the stigma often attached to mental illness. Studies show that one in four people will experience a mental health issue in their life and one quarter of those believe mental illness is misunderstood. As we continue to learn more about mental health issues like anxiety and about addiction, we will break down those barriers to understanding. When we all see these disorders for the medical diseases that they are and not some sort of emotional failing, we can move forward in treating them even more effectively.

If you or a loved one is struggling with an addiction and a co-occurring disorder, call us today. We’re available 24 hours a day, seven days a week and can provide information on treatment programs, help with insurance and answer questions about the treatment process.

Articles posted here are primarily educational and may not directly reflect the offerings at Black Bear Lodge. For more specific information on programs at Black Bear Lodge, contact us today.