Anxiety Disorders: Nature or Nurture?
Anxiety is a part of human nature. It's a survival mechanism that has evolved over millions of years in
order to protect us and the problems it can bring, in themselves, reflect what it means to be human.
Worrying (planning ahead)
Physical symptoms (eg. increased heartrate/breathing to prepare us for action)
Even obsessive compulsive behaviour (the need for order and control)
All of these behaviours are deeply ingrained in human make-up to help us survive.
However, when we talk about the nature versus nurture debate in regard to anxiety problems we are usually referring to the cause of the problem: is it due to
nature (a faulty gene, brain structure, chemical imbalance or disease) or nurture (the environment we live in, our experiences, learning and conditioning)?
The answer is, of course, both – but what role does each actually play?
Genetic information passed from parent to child could contain much more than we are aware of today, possibly even passing on hopes, fears
and desires, since such things are an integral part of a person's make up. Without doubt a parent that has lived a life 'surviving' with OCD (or depression or high anxiety
etc.) will pass such 'survival' information to their offspring.
HOWEVER, all such information can only be in the form of predispositions. That is: the learning for potential ways to behave given the 'right' (although negative)
conditions for the inherent information to be used. This must be the case, for adaption (survival) purposes. It would not be sensible to be born into an unknown environment
with 'fixed' attitudes/behaviours. Eg. it would not be appropriate to be constantly fearful in an environment of love.
So, genetics is important in the form of predispositions: coded information from our ancestors to help us survive/ thrive in various environments... but it is the
environment in which we live that controls whether these predispostions survive and flourish or wither and die.
Let's look at OCD (a hot topic in the nature nurture debate) since it is a major anxiety-related problem that current trends proffer 'nature' as the
OCD represents trying to get control over 'unseen' forces and dangers through rituals (there is no other way to attempt to get control over powerful negative
forces that control us other than by rituals) and ordering (to have everything ordered, in control) etc.
Given the right (wrong) set of life circumstances (those that make us fearful) it is not surprising that many turn to ordering / rituals to try and get control over relentless,
This is why it is called an anxiety disorder ... but it's the environment and the fears and anxieties that have been learned
and conditioned that drive this need to get control (to assuage the fears).
Genetic history may enhance this or not.
Note also, that a parent with OCD not only promotes direct learning (as a role model) but often treats their children in such a way (over cautious, negatively due to
their own problems etc.) that may promote fears and anxieties. A child with OCD from a parent with OCD does not confirm a genetic link as the cause.
Included in the 'nature' argument is the idea of physical brain differences being the cause of OCD. They are not, they are the result of it, and
many books that proffer this cause go on to say that the brain can be changed by learning (to a non-OCD state) – yes it can, just as it is changed in the first
place to an OCD state by learning and conditioning.
This change of brain state obviously involves changes in levels (usually deficiencies) of such things as neurotransmitters (Dopamine and Serotonin are the
ones frequently mentioned), proteins and probably even genes.
The work of Barbara McClintock in the 1950's (originally ignored by her peers, later awarded the Nobel Prize) showed that genes in plants can actually change
in stressful environmental conditions. Whole sequences of DNA were moving from one place to another. This is in plants, imagine what could be really happening in
And so, science may find brain structure changes, neurotransmitter level differences, protein difficiencies, genetic differences in those with
OCD ... BUT all these changes are, more logically, the result of the OCD not the cause.
Manipulating these factors can only alleviate some symtoms for they never touch the actual cause of the problem. (The failure of modern
medications to cure OCD supports this.)
The way we are nurtured (the environment in which we exist and learn) must be the overriding factor.
Of course, genetics has a part to play. However, by reconditioning and relearning our attitudes, beliefs and fears (in effect, re-shaping
the structure of our brain) we can actually change part of our genetic make up.
We need not be slaves to our genes!
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"The basic or inherent features, character, or qualities of something."
"The action or process of nurturing someone or something."
"Upbringing, education, and environment."
(Oxford English Dictionary)
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1. See description in: Moalem, S with Prince, P. (2007) SURVIVAL OF THE SICKEST. London: HarperCollins. pp. 136–141