Are You

Are anxious people born that way?  Studies suggest some people are "wired to worry" right from the start. What causes a predisposition toward anxiety, and what does it mean if you're wired that way?

Everyone worries occasionally. Some people, however, feel afraid when they really don't need to or experience anxiety at a level that's unreasonable for the threat they face. When anxiety interferes with normal living, it's called an anxiety disorder.

According to the National Institutes of Mental Health, anxiety disorders are characterized by an excessive, irrational dread of everyday situations. Some people experience general, chronic anxiety, while others become anxious in response to specific triggers. Many studies implicate activity in two brain regions in anxiety:

  • The amygdala, which causes fear responses and
  • The ventral prefrontal cortex, which suppresses or regulates fear.

A recent study published in the journal, Neuron, looked at how a person's trait anxiety (the typical anxiety level on any given day) affects how these two regions function.

Researchers conducted experiments to determine how the amygdala and ventral prefrontal cortex responded in three types of situations:

  • Cued fear, which is compared to the situation-specific type of anxiety experienced by those with a specific phobia, such as a fear of heights.
  • Contextual fear, which is similar to the non-specific anxiety that affects people with generalized anxiety disorder.
  • Safety-a neutral or safe situation that served as a comparison for the other two situations.

Participants with high trait anxiety showed greater amygdala response and less ventral prefrontal cortex response to cued fear situations compared to those with low trait anxiety. Researchers say this could account for why some people develop phobias or social anxieties. 

Developmental psychologist, Jerome Kagan, PhD and professor of psychology at Harvard, conducted multiple studies to determine if some people are simply born with a predisposition to worry. He followed hundreds of newborns for decades to determine if infant tendencies to react negatively to new situations followed them into adulthood. 

Kagan determined that some people are biologically more sensitive to perceived threats and that stimulates their amygdala more than less-sensitive people. When the amygdala functions properly, it causes certain physical responses including heightened memory for emotional experiences and all the symptoms of fight or flight syndrome.  Kagan says that in people born with certain brain circuitry, the amygdala is hyper-reactive and stimulates these physical responses when no threat is present.  He also found that some hypersensitive children and adults had more right brain activity.  The right brain is associated with negative mood and anxiety.

These studies don't mean that people who are born wired to worry are defective or necessarily dysfunctional.  They're just different than people whose brain is more traditionally wired. It may mean, however, they need to take adaptive measures to live comfortably in a highly stimulating world designed for less sensitive people. That might mean evaluating their lifestyle to reduce anxiety provoking situations, actively participating in stress-reduction techniques, cognitive behavioral therapy, counseling, or medication.