Is A Chemical Imbalance Responsible For Your Anxiety?

Anxiety disorders affect millions of Americans to varying degrees. And as specialists try and treat our problems with therapy and medication, there is, understandably, a desire to answer that pressing question, “Why is this happening to me?” According to some, the answer may lie in something as simple as a chemical imbalance. But not everyone agrees.

The mind and body are intrinsically linked, and a problem in one can manifest as a disorder or illness in the other. According to one school of thought, psychological or mental disorders including anxiety problems may have their root in a chemical imbalance in the body. Others take a different view on anxiety disorders and suggest it is more complex than that and not one that can simply be caused by imbalance of a neurotransmitter. Here’s a quick weigh-in on the evidence.


The Stigma Of Mental Disorders

Anxiety disorders and depressive disorders – and, in fact, any kind of mental disorder – have an attached social stigma that until a few years ago was quite severe. Just as someone with autism was misunderstood and even ostracized, an anxiety disorder could bring labels like “mentally ill” which became a euphemism for “unfit” or “not good enough”. It also meant much finger pointing at who was “responsible” or to “blame” for the mental problem – an unfit mother, an incompetent father, a dysfunctional family. As the chemical imbalance theory of anxiety and depression disorders gained popularity, some of this stigma around mental health problems began to fall away. The possibility of a chemical imbalance being behind a mental problem made it somehow more acceptable and easier to understand. It significantly reduced the blame game. Unfortunately, as one study found, while this lowered stigma (after all, there was a chemical reason for someone’s condition), it was also accompanied by a graver view of the outcome and pessimism about the chances of recovery.1

Which begs the question, does the chemical imbalance theory still hold true?


Understanding The Chemical Imbalance Theory

If you have an anxiety issue, the neurotransmitters in the body responsible for heightening or lowering the stress response are usually out of balance. Levels of serotonin and gamma-aminobutyric acid which calm you down and counter stress will likely be lower than they should be.2 As such, treatment takes a line that uses medication to correct the imbalance. For instance, a dose of Valium contains gamma-aminobutyric acid to calm you down by inhibiting the stress response and easing symptoms of anxiety.3 But this may not always be adequate. As a result, patients can be misled into assuming a certain drug will miraculously cure all their symptoms and do away with the problem for good. To treat an anxiety disorder, it is important for you to get a more holistic understanding of the psychiatric problem.

So Why Do You Get Anxious?

According to the Social Anxiety Institute, a surge in levels of cortisol and adrenaline in the body create that all too familiar feeling of anxiety.4 But what triggers this abnormal anxiety? Is it genetics, a chemical imbalance, or something else? Some researchers suggest that mood disorders are a result of information processing issues in the neural networks in our body. And the reason antidepressant medication seems to work is not because it corrects a chemical imbalance, but because they cause changes in neuronal connections and the way the information processing happens. The result? Improved mood and lowered anxiety.5


Need For A Multi-Pronged Approach

The risk with taking a chemical imbalance view of things is that it implies that taking medication to “correct” the imbalance will solve the anxiety issues. However, in reality, you may need a combination of medication as well as counseling or therapy.6 As our understanding of anxiety disorders and other psychiatric illnesses improves, it seems more likely that the condition is the result of the interplay between a combination of psychology, social factors, genetics, biology, as well as environmental factors.7 While a chemical imbalance isn’t solely responsible, understanding the role neurotransmitters play has allowed huge strides in the field and how we manage anxiety disorders and other mental health problems.