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Explaining Anxiety and Dissociation Disorders

24 September, 2015 - 10:38

Both nature and nurture contribute to the development of anxiety disorders. In terms of our evolutionary experiences, humans have evolved to fear dangerous situations. Those of us who had a healthy fear of the dark, of storms, of high places, of closed spaces, and of spiders and snakes were more likely to survive and have descendants. Our evolutionary experience can account for some modern fears as well. A fear of elevators may be a modern version of our fear of closed spaces, while a fear of flying may be related to a fear of heights.

Also supporting the role of biology, anxiety disorders, including PTSD, are heritable (Hettema, Neale, & Kendler, 2001), 1 and molecular genetics studies have found a variety of genes that are important in the expression of such disorders (Smoller e t al., 2008; Thoeringer et al., 2009). 2 Neuroimaging studies have found that anxiety disorders are linked to areas of the brain that are associated with emotion, blood pressure and heart rate, decision making, and action monitoring (Brown & McNiff, 2009; Damsa, Kosel, & Moussally, 2009). 3 People who experience PTSD also have a somewhat smaller hippocampus in comparison with those who do not, and this difference leads them to have a very strong sensitivity to traumatic events (Gilbertson et al., 2002). 4

Whether the genetic predisposition to anxiety becomes expressed as a disorder depends on environmental factors. People who were abused in childhood are more likely to be anxious than those who had normal childhoods, even with the same genetic disposition to anxiety sensitivity (Stein, Schork, & Gelernter, 2008). 5 And the most severe anxiety and dissociative disorders, such as PTSD, are usually triggered by the experience of a major stressful event. One problem is that modern life creates a lot of anxiety. Although our life expectancy and quality of life have improved over the past 50 years, the same period has also created a sharp increase in anxiety levels (Twenge, 2006). 6 These changes suggest that most anxiety disorders stem from perceived, rather than actual, threats to our well-being.

Anxieties are also learned through classical and operant conditioning. Just as rats that are shocked in their cages develop a chronic anxiety toward their laboratory environment (which has become a conditioned stimulus for fear), rape victims may feel anxiety when passing by the scene of the crime, and victims of PTSD may react to memories or reminders of the stressful event. Classical conditioning may also be accompanied by stimulus generalization. A single dog bite can lead to generalized fear of all dogs; a panic attack that follows an embarrassing moment in one place may be generalized to a fear of all public places. People’s responses to their anxieties are often reinforced. Behaviors become compulsive because they provide relief from the torment of anxious thoughts. Similarly, leaving or avoiding fear-inducing stimuli leads to feelings of calmness or relief, which reinforces phobic behavior.

In contrast to the anxiety disorders, the causes of the dissociative orders are less clear, which is part of the reason that there is disagreement about their existence. Unlike most psychological orders, there is little evidence of a genetic predisposition; they seem to be almost entirely environmentally determined. Severe emotional trauma during childhood, such as physical or sexual abuse, coupled with a strong stressor, is typically cited as the underlying cause (Alpher, 1992; Cardeña & Gleaves, 2007). 7Kihlstrom, Glisky, and Angiulo (1994) 8 suggest that people with personalities that lead them to fantasize and become intensely absorbed in their own personal experiences are more susceptible to developing dissociative disorders under stress. Dissociative disorders can in many cases be successfully treated, usually by psychotherapy (Lilienfeld & Lynn, 2003). 9


  • Anxiety is a natural part of life, but too much anxiety can be debilitating. Every year millions of people suffer from anxiety disorders.
  • People who suffer from generalized anxiety disorder experience anxiety, as well as a variety of physical symptoms.
  • Panic disorder involves the experience of panic attacks, including shortness of breath, heart palpitations, trembling and dizziness.
  • Phobias are specific fears of a certain object, situation, or activity. Phobias are characterized by their specificity and their irrationality.
  • A common phobia is social phobia, extreme shyness around people or discomfort in social situations.
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder is diagnosed when a person’s repetitive thoughts are so disturbing and their compulsive behaviors so time consuming that they cause distress and significant disruption in a person’s everyday life.
  • People who have survived a terrible ordeal, such as combat, torture, rape, imprisonment, abuse, natural disasters, or the death of someone close to them, may develop PTSD.
  • Dissociative disorders, including dissociative amnesia and dissociative fugue, are conditions that involve disruptions or breakdowns of memory, awareness, and identity. The dissociation is used as a defense against the trauma.
  • Dissociative identity disorder, in which two or more distinct and individual personalities exist in the same person, is relatively rare and difficult to diagnose.
  • Both nature and nurture contribute to the development of anxiety disorders.


  1. Under what situations do you experience anxiety? Are these experiences rational or irrational? Does the anxiety keep you from doing some things that you would like to be able to do?
  2. Do you or people you know suffer from phobias? If so, what are the phobias and how do you think the phobias began? Do they seem more genetic or more environmental in origin?