Chemical Imbalance And Anxiety: Is anxiety caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain?
No, anxiety is not caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain. The theory never was true.
The chemical imbalance theory - which suggested that anxiety and depression (and others) were caused by a neurochemical imbalance in the brain - was merely a theory, but never proven. No experiment has ever shown that anyone has an ‘imbalance’ of any neurotransmitters or any other brain chemicals. As such, the chemical imbalance theory for mental illness was just that: hypothetical.
The chemical imbalance theory was posited by pharmaceutical companies back in the 1990s. They said, based on their research, many forms of mental illness were caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain that required medication to ‘correct.’
For example, a Pfizer’s television advertisement for Zoloft stated, “depression is a serious medical condition that may be due to a chemical imbalance”, and that “Zoloft works to correct this imbalance.”
At that time, many front line mental health care workers disagreed with the chemical imbalance cause for mental illness because their practical experience helping people was contrary to the chemical imbalance notion. But, due to mass marketing and deep pockets, the pharmaceutical companies ‘sold’ the chemical imbalance theory to the masses. As a result, society became convinced the chemical imbalance theory for mental illnesses, including anxiety and depression, was true. The chemical imbalance theory became so popular that almost every doctor and psychiatrist in North America prescribed medication to ‘correct’ the imbalance. Anti-anxiety and antidepressant medication sales soared worldwide.
From the late 1990s to 2006, anti-anxiety and antidepressant medications totaled multiple billions of dollars in sales worldwide each year. Many of these medications were listed in the ‘top ten’ sales for medications each year.
The chemical imbalance theory became so widely accepted that people who questioned it were deemed ‘quacks.’
Thanks to independent research and freedom of the Internet, however, many independent studies after 2006 showed that the chemical imbalance theory wasn't true. Moreover, independent studies also found that the drugs used to 'correct' these supposed imbalances performed no better than placebo and were largely ineffective, which also demonstrated the chemical imbalance theory wasn't true. Once the media picked up on these studies, the chemical imbalance theory was, for the first time, seriously called into question.
Study after study challenged the chemical imbalance theory, and finally, on July 11, 2011, Dr. Ronald Pies, the editor-in-chief emeritus of the Psychiatric Times, laid the theory to rest in the July 11, 2011, issue of the Times with his admission:
“In the past 30 years, I don’t believe I have ever heard a knowledgeable, well- trained psychiatrist make such a preposterous claim [about chemical imbalance in the brain], except perhaps to mock it”
“And yes, the ‘chemical imbalance’ image has been vigorously promoted by some pharmaceutical companies, often to the detriment of our patients’ understanding.”
“In truth, the “chemical imbalance” notion was always a kind of urban legend - never a theory seriously propounded by well-informed psychiatrists.”
Shortly after, pharmaceutical companies said they used the chemical imbalance theory as a “metaphor” and that the theory wasn’t ever intended to be understood as an actual imbalance. It wasn’t long after that that the chemical imbalance notion was dropped from all of their marketing materials.
So, once again, no, anxiety is NOT caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain. It never was.
Many people struggle with problematic anxiety because they don't understand it and/or know how to overcome it. We have addressed this information in the Recovery Support area of our website.
The combination of good self-help information and working with an experienced anxiety disorder coach, counselor, or therapist is the most effective way to address anxiety disorder and its many symptoms. Until the core causes of anxiety are addressed - the underlying factors that motivate apprehensive behavior - a struggle with anxiety disorder can return again and again. Identifying and successfully addressing anxiety's underlying factors is the best way to overcome problematic anxiety.
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Authors: Jim Folk, Marilyn Folk, BScN. Last updated January 1, 2019.