Is Avoidant Personality Disorder Genetic? Understanding the Root Causes
Personality disorders are very challenging mental illnesses, but they are not uncommon. About 10 percent of the population can be diagnosed with one. Avoidant personality disorder, AVPD, is a fearful, anxious condition that causes a person to feel greatly inadequate and afraid of rejection. These thoughts lead to isolating behaviors, such as avoiding intimacy. The root causes of any personality disorder are not fully understood. AVPD is likely caused by a combination of genetics and innate personality and environmental factors, such as early experiences of rejection.
Avoidant personality disorder, like other personality disorders, causes a lot of dysfunction in a person’s life. AVPD is difficult to treat, because if you have this condition you struggle to recognize the error or flaws in your beliefs and behaviors. A better understanding of the underlying causes of AVPD will help researchers and therapists develop better therapeutic interventions. Currently, experts believe that child-parent relationships and early experiences can play a big role in developing AVPD. Addressing and learning to cope with these can help you if you live with AVPD.
AVPD is one of 10 personality disorders, all of which are characterized by abnormal, rigid, and unhealthy patterns of thinking about oneself and others. These thoughts are firm beliefs, difficult to change, that cause problematic behaviors and significant distress and impairment. AVPD belongs to cluster C personality disorders, those that cause fear and anxiety.
Someone with AVPD has extremely low self-esteem, to the point of feeling worthless and less than other people. They are also intensely afraid of being rejected by others and expect it. They avoid intimate relationships and even normal, day-to-day interactions with other people. They tend to be isolated. Most people develop this condition at a young age, and it is rarely diagnosed after the age of 18. About 2.5 percent of the U.S. population has AVPD.
Diagnosing Avoidant Personality Disorder
A mental health professional can diagnose a personality disorder by evaluating a patient and using special assessment tools. They will consider a person’s thoughts, beliefs, and behaviors when making a diagnosis of a specific disorder.
To be diagnosed with avoidant personality disorder you must have either poor self-esteem or self-direction and either extreme sensitivity to rejection and criticism or a severe reluctance to be involved with people unless there is a guarantee of not being rejected.
You must also exhibit social withdrawal, avoiding contact with others and normal social situations. You have difficulty experiencing pleasure in life and avoid intimacy with other people. You must also have anxiety, especially with respect to social situations. For a diagnosis, all of these symptoms must impair your function and be stable over time. They cannot be caused by substance use or a medical condition.
Genetic Causes of Personality Disorder
Most mental illnesses are assumed to have a genetic component. This is because family history of mental illness is a major risk factor. If any of your family members, especially your parents, have any of these conditions, you may not develop it, but your risk is increased. The same goes for personality disorders in general. Some experts believe that AVPD is closely related to social anxiety disorder, so the presence for this condition in your family may also put you at risk.
Early Childhood and AVPD
Genetics alone cannot explain why some people develop AVPD, because it’s possible to have a family history and never have this condition. Researchers suggest that there are early childhood experiences that contribute to avoidant behaviors and personality disorders. These are not necessarily causes but may increase the risk of developing AVPD.
A major factor in early childhood that may shape personality and lead to AVPD is parental interaction. The relationship a young child has with parents can impact mental health. For instance, studies of people with AVPD found that they are more likely than other people to describe their parents as rejecting them, being less affectionate and less encouraging, and of causing them to feel guilt.
Other studies have connected AVPD in adults with childhood neglect or abuse, lower levels of hands-on care, and even overprotective behaviors. People with all types of personality disorders are more likely to have been victims of emotional or physical abuse. Compared to people with other personality disorders, those diagnosed with AVPD were more likely to have parents with poor social skills and to have had more limited positive relationships with adults.
What all of these study results show is that the experiences and relationships of early childhood are important, and that deficits can contribute to AVPD or other personality disorders. If you were neglected or abused, had parents who were not affectionate and loving, or did not get enough encouragement, you could be at a greater risk of developing AVPD.
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Other Risk Factors for AVPD
These early child-parent or caregiver experiences, interactions, and relationships, along with genetic factors, likely contribute most to the development of AVPD. But this is a complicated condition, and there are other known risk factors. These risk factors hint at other things that can contribute to and be part of the underlying causes of AVPD:
- An unstable or chaotic family life in childhood
- Childhood traumatic experiences
- A diagnosis of childhood conduct disorder
- Abnormal brain structure and chemistry
AVPD and the Development of Personality
Personality disorders are complicated for many reasons. Not least of these is the fact that personality development is complex and not perfectly understood. Certain innate personality traits, those characteristics you may be described as having been born with, may be contributing factors to the development of personality disorders. For AVPD, a naturally shy personality, social anxiety, and general anxiety may put someone at a greater risk of developing the condition.
There may even be underlying factors that are physical. For instance, there is evidence that high reactivity, an extra sensitivity to light, sounds, and other physical sensations, can contribute to AVPD. Children with this kind of sensitivity are more likely to develop personalities characterized by anxiety, shyness, and timidity in social situations.
Avoidant personality disorder probably has many underlying causes and contributing factors. What is clear from research is that this condition develops early on in life and that early experiences play a big role. You may not develop AVPD if you were abused or had neglectful parents, but if you do get diagnosed with AVPD, these kinds of negative experiences can help explain it. They can also help you get better treatment. If mental health professionals can help you explore these underlying factors, you can learn to be less fearful and more open to social interaction.
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