Is Anxiety Genetic?
This is one of the most common questions I am asked by clients. Or are we the way we are because of nurture, and have our relationships and environments shaped us?
Many of the things that make us who we are come from our parents. Looks and even parts of our personality are passed down genetically from one generation to the next. This often leads people to wonder if anxiety can also be inherited from parents.
While there is truth that genetics can play a part in any anxiety we experience throughout our life, it is far from the sole factor. There are many causes of anxiety, and understanding the role genetics play can help you better understand your risks and the underlying reasons behind any anxiety you experience whether or not anxiety is common in your family.
Causes of Anxiety Disorders
There are many different types of anxiety, and many different ways that anxiety can develop. The causes of anxiety are typically grouped into two categories:
‘Environmental’ causes of anxiety refers to the experiences that can lead to anxiety. They may include the environment you grew up in, any stresses you are currently under, or a traumatic event you lived through.
‘Biological’ factors that lead to anxiety refer to anything that can be traced to your DNA and/or your current physical health. Not only are genetics an example of a possible biological cause of anxiety, but any physical changes to your brain, any health issues you’re experiencing, and any medications that you’re taking.
Anxiety is typically not ‘Genetic.’ But it’s also not *just* ‘Environmental.’ Anxiety doesn’t simply happen overnight – not even to those that developed anxiety because of severe trauma.
What scientists have found is that if your parents have anxiety, you may be more prone to anxiety, but you also are not necessarily going to develop it either. There is no switch in the brain that creates anxiety at a certain age or after a particular event.
Instead, each of the individual causes of anxiety combine over time and build on each other. At certain points in your life, the right combination of experiences and biology can lead to an anxiety disorder or episodic anxiety.
This is also why anxiety is considered highly treatable. If it were genetic, treating anxiety would be far more difficult. But because it is not based on genes alone, anxiety responds very well to therapy and other treatments, showing that genes alone cannot be responsible.
Still, with all of these potential causes for anxiety and the uniqueness of each individual’s situation, it is difficult to determine exactly how important genetics are in your anxiety.
Studies and personal experience have proven many times that genetics can be a factor, but are never going to be the single reason behind anxiety.
Anxiety as a Genetic Marker
There is ongoing research into the biology of anxiety, and we are far from understanding it completely. But scientists have discovered a correlation between individual genes and the chance that a person will develop an anxiety disorder.
In research on ‘inherited anxiety,’ scientists are looking at how anxiety can be passed on from a parent to a child. This primarily happens through genes, or the building blocks of your genetic makeup. Individual genes contain all of the information for things like your hair colour and the hand you write with, but also information on the ways your brain and body function.
You get your genes from both your parents. One set comes from your mother and the other set from your father. Not every gene your parents carry will be passed down, while others are passed down even if your parents do not display those traits.
Scientists have found that people with certain genes are more likely to have generalised anxiety, panic disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, social anxiety, and certain phobias. These genetic markers may be carried from parent to child, meaning they are often shared among siblings.
A family history of anxiety or having close relatives that live with anxiety could indicate that one or more of these genes is present in your family tree. This could possibly increase your risk of developing anxiety.
How Genes Contribute to Anxiety
For people who experience anxiety, the brain’s physical processes and chemical composition will often be different than those people without anxiety. Your brain changes throughout your life as you learn and go through new experiences, but genes can influence hormone levels and brain activity.
Hormones and Neurotransmitters
The emotions you feel are triggered by chemicals in the brain, called hormones and neurotransmitters. Hormones and neurotransmitters that can impact your symptoms of anxiety include:
When your brain produces hormones like cortisol and adrenaline, also called ‘stress hormones,’ you will start to feel anxiety. Other hormones and neurotransmitters like
testosterone and serotonin reduce symptoms of worry and provide a sense of well-ness or balance.
Any imbalances in brain chemistry can cause anxiety or other mental health conditions, and many of these imbalances are tied to genetic markers.
Why Genetics Does Not Explain Anxiety
Having already explained the scientific correlation between genetics and anxiety, and there is strong evidence to suggest that grandparents, parents, or siblings with anxiety makes it more likely that you may also have anxiety at some point. But it is not ‘All or nothing.’
For all of the people who experience the same anxiety disorders as their parents, there are hundreds of people who never have anxiety while their parents dealt with extreme symptoms. At the same time, you may not have a single family member with a mental health condition, but have anxiety yourself.
The reality is that there are so many potential causes of anxiety and every person’s situation is unique to them. For instance, take this small range of situations:
1. Your parents have an anxiety disorder, but the genes were not passed on.
2. A sibling experiences post traumatic stress disorder after a car accident, and no one in your family carries genes linked to anxiety.
3. You inherit an anxiety-causing gene, but you never experience stress or trauma that leads to symptoms of anxiety.
4. You have a gene linked to anxiety, and after moving to a new city and starting a new job, you start experiencing panic disorder.
5. Your parents have anxiety, and the way they raised you as a child caused you to pick up on that anxiety and experience it more yourself.
Exploring the links in your anxiety is a helpful step in your treatment, and you may benefit from asking parents or siblings if they have ever dealt with anxiety themselves. Knowing more about their history can help you (and me as your therapist) create a more effective treatment plan for eradication or management of anxiety.
Your family history will almost never be the sole cause of your anxiety and to really understand the cause of a phobia, disorder, or generalised anxiety, it is always helpful to consider the entire picture of your health and life experiences – this is why I place significant importance on a full history take with all clients.
Remember – help like therapy, exercise, movement and connection with a wider community are proven effective at reducing anxiety and changing brain chemistry to better cope with stress. If anxiety were strictly genetic, this would not be possible.
Anxiety is Treatable
Inherited or not, anxiety is treatable. Your brain and body are highly adaptable, and even if you are predisposed to have a hormone imbalance or high brain activity in areas that cause worry, loss of pleasure or panic it is entirely possible to change the way your brain and body work and reduce those symptoms of anxiety.
Genetics are only one possible cause of anxiety. They may be part of the reason you have a phobia or are more prone to panic attacks, but they are not definitive of your overall mental health.
You can be healed from Anxiety.