Sunday, 21 December 2014

Anxious: Genes and the nature nurture debate

We all feel anxious from time to time, and that is healthy, but for some people anxiety can dominate their lives, giving them panic attacks, various physical health problems, and altering their use of space. Anxiety is the key component when someone becomes afraid to leave the house, or travel on public transport. For some people it can be very limiting.

Social scientists have long argued over how much aspects of people's personalities are in our nature, as opposed to being nurtured through our socialisation (which means the way we're taught to fit in in our society).

Since the discovery of the genome, the media seems keen to pin our personality traits on our genes. This is problematic, because it's overly simplistic. We are not binary sims, with traits on or off. In reality, it is likely that our lifestyle can alter our genes, and that genes which might make us susceptible to something, are not actually causal.

In 2001 there was news that anxiety might be linked to a gene. More research was required to find out how that worked, but it's useful information to have, both because it legitimises anxiety as a condition , for those that had previously suggested people might pull themselves together. Also, this information helps us work out how anxiety works, and so tackle this debilitating condition more effectively.

There are two further research avenues to be explored here:
  1. We need more information about the specific genetic mutation/s involved. And how they're involved.
  2. We need to look at the people who have the genetic mutation but don't have anxiety to work out how they've avoided it.
On the second point, the clinical psychologist, Prof Roger Baker said in 2001 that people might start suffering from anxiety not just because they were more susceptible, but also because they had been through some stressful event. He also noted, from his own research, that people who suffered from anxiety also tended to be people who suppressed their emotions (presumably they were all British then).

On the first point, the researchers continued to look into the genes involved, and in 2013 results came out about one gene (more info here): NTRK3, being a factor in panic disorder - a condition wherein the person may feel generally anxious, but also suffers from panic attacks, and worries about having panic attacks. Now, I'm guessing they used this condition because it is a fairly concrete one, so could provide good data, because it is worth noting that general anxiety, even if it limits people's behaviour, is not generally taken seriously at the moment.

In studying NTRK3, the researchers learned that if it's not working properly then there are problems in the fear related memory system. Fearful aspects are over-exaggerated, so the person overestimates the risk in a situation, and also compounds this by backing this up in a lasting memory. They have been testing drugs to deal with this, but, I would stress, that this is in people with panic disorder, who may be atypical of anxious people.

Research is ongoing into lots of different types of anxiety disorder, and the genes that might be involved. However, it's important to note that 20% of those with the genetic mutation in the 2001 study did not have any anxiety problems.  In fact, if genes are involved it would seem that they simply make it more likely that someone might have anxiety problems. It is not a done deal. Even if you are suffering from problems with anxiety, there are things that you can do about it. There is a great source of information on it here. You can also go to your doctor for help.

You may be genetically predisposed to anxiety, but there are ways to avoid it, and to deal with it - all of which is easier if you're not having a stressful time. Just as being tall makes you predisposed to hitting your head on a lintel, but you can usually duck.