The Etiology of Generalized Anxiety Disorder: Factors that Contribute to the Development of GAD

Page content

Etiology of Generalized Anxiety Disorder

Anxiety occurs for a variety of reasons. Most people will experience a certain amount of anxiety when faced with a fearful situation or problems in their lives. However, while a certain degree of anxiety is normal and even beneficial, it usually subsides after a short while, or the problematic situation has been resolved. People who suffer from generalized anxiety disorder experience persistent levels of anxiety, even when there is no apparent danger or problem. The reasons that this occurs are not totally understood, although a mental health report by the Surgeon General’s office points out that some of the more well-known reasons anxiety disorders develop are due to genetics, life experiences and certain psychological traits, such as being sensitive or introverted.


If your parent or another family member suffers or suffered from generalized anxiety disorder, your chances of developing this disorder are higher. In a 2007 study, researchers at the Academy of Finland found that certain genes may have an influence over the development of this condition and other types of anxiety disorders. Additionally, the study found that stressful life events may trigger the development of anxiety more easily in individuals with inherited predispositions toward this mental health issue.

Further studies will focus on trying to understand the cellular processes that link these genes to the anxiety behaviors.

Biochemical Factors

Like many types of anxiety disorders, generalized anxiety disorder may occur due to imbalances in brain chemistry, including decreased production of the neurotransmitters serotonin, norepinephrine and dopamine. These chemicals also have an impact on other types of mental health disorders. People who suffer from depression may be at a higher risk of developing an anxiety disorder.

Traumatic Life Experiences and Personality

Traumatic or stressful life experiences generally have a great deal of influence on the development of generalized anxiety disorder. Experiences such as early childhood psychological or physical abuse, neglect, the death of a loved one, abandonment and early exposure to fearful situations can all have an impact on the development of generalized anxiety disorder, especially if the child is sensitive, introverted, shy or reserved.

Individuals with these traits tend to have less resistance to outside events and an over-developed sense of responsibility for them. Generalized anxiety disorder may develop when children blame themselves for these external events and try to think of ways of preventing them from happening again in the future. Obsessive thought patterns may develop and persist into adulthood, although the content of the thought patterns usually changes with maturity.


Although the reasons are not totally understood, generalized anxiety disorder appears to occur with higher frequency in females than in males. In fact, twice as many women are diagnosed with the disorder than men. However, this can be due to a number of factors, including the fact that women are generally more likely to seek help for a mental health problem than men.

References Mental Health: A Report of the Surgeon General

Science Daily: Genetic Predisposition May Play a Role In Anxiety Disorders