I’ll start by saying that I have been diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder and I try my best to handle it.

I’m writing because I am so so so terrified to develop paranoid schizophrenia from my mother. I’ve read that I have a 13% chance of developing the disorder. I know other environmental factors and/or traumas play a role but I’m not sure what that means exactly (examples?). My grandmother may also have schizophrenia but we’re not sure (she stopped talking to us years ago) and I know this just increases my chances. I don’t think my mother had the best childhood. She was diagnosed when she was in her mid thirties and for some reason I thought it was in her twenties. I’m 28 so I started to get over my fear of developing it; however, a couple weeks ago my dad brought up how she developed it in her mid thirties. Well this sent me into an anxiety frenzy. I can not seem to stop the thought of developing it (intrusive thought?). I have scared myself so much that I almost feel sick. I feel bad because I distance myself from my mother because I am so scared to pick up on something that she does that I also do. I am afraid to tell my boyfriend because I am afraid it will scare him away. I am scared to have children because I don’t want them to have a chance of developing it and I am afraid the hormones will trigger something and I will develop it. I am also afraid that if I do develop it, I’ll lose my job.

Sometimes I’ll think something and then freak out because I get scared it’s a symptom of schizophrenia. For example, there’s been times I’ve wondered if there was a camera in the bathroom that I’m using but then I realize that’s silly and I move on (could this be schizophrenia or just anxiety?).

I guess my question is, will I automatically develop the disorder because my mom (and possibly grandmother) has it? Also, how do I differentiate anxiety and schizophrenia and how do I stop thinking about it. I’ve been so worried about it that I’ve convinced myself I’ll develop it and afraid my worrying will lead to schizophrenia. Please help! Thanks so much for any advice on this.

A. You learned, through research, that having a first-degree relative with schizophrenia increased your chances by 13% yet you are worried that you “will…automatically develop the disorder because my mom and possibly grandmother [have] it.” If that were true your chances would be 100% but that is not true; it is 13%. The proof is that most people who have schizophrenic relatives don’t develop schizophrenia. This is one way that your fears are unrealistic.

Scientists haven’t identified the cause of schizophrenia but generally think it’s a result of a complex interplay between genetics and environment. Genetically, an individual with a history of schizophrenia in their family might be slightly more likely to develop it if something in their environment triggers it. Environmental triggers often include severe trauma or drug abuse. Even when both ingredients are present (i.e. a genetic propensity and an environmental trigger) the likelihood of developing schizophrenia is still very low. Comparatively speaking, prevalence estimates indicate that it is a rare disorder, inflicting only about 1% of the population.

The key to decreasing anxiety is to believe in the facts. In your case, you were diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder and not schizophrenia. That fact should decrease your anxiety. If it doesn’t, it means you’re choosing not to believe the diagnosis and choosing to worry that your therapist is wrong. The way to correct this mistake is making the choice to believe your evaluators. The operative word is “choose.”

The evaluators were likely aware of your fear of developing schizophrenia and still issued an anxiety diagnosis. They didn’t do that to spare your feelings; they did it because you didn’t meet the criteria for schizophrenia. If you review the criteria for both disorders, you would see that they are very different disorders. It would be very difficult to mistake one for the other. Trust the professionals, who are trained to know the difference between the two disorders. Again, you have a choice to make: to believe or to not believe the professionals.

I want to also add that it is common for people with anxiety to think they are developing schizophrenia. I’ve mentioned this many times in this column, but it is worth repeating: it is one of the most frequently asked questions by people with untreated anxiety disorders. I think this is because people with anxiety often engage in a catastrophic style of thinking. They essentially fear the worst-case scenario. In the minds of many people (even the non-anxious), schizophrenia is considered a worst-case scenario.

The fact that you currently believe that you might have schizophrenia, despite evidence to the contrary, suggests a catastrophic style of thinking. You would greatly benefit from counseling. Counseling will help to decrease your anxiety by correcting your thinking. Once your symptoms are under control, your fear about developing schizophrenia will lessen or be eliminated.

You are making major life decisions based on unfounded fear and not on the facts. These decisions can hinder your psychological growth. Decisions require realistic evaluations. This problem can be easily resolved with counseling. I hope you will give it a try. Please take care.

Dr. Kristina Randle