Many of the things that make you who you are come from your parents. Your looks, your physical gifts, and even parts of your personality are passed down genetically from one generation to the next. This often leads people to wonder if anxiety disorders can also be inherited from parents.
While there is truth that genetics can play a part in any anxiety disorders you experience throughout your life, it is far from the sole determinant. 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. That 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 singular 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 their 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 color 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 generalized 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.
Research Behind Inherited Anxiety
The recent studies in anxiety research examined which genes are present in family members that experience similar mental health conditions. Twins are a common subject since they share much of the same genetic makeup, and whether both or only one of them experiences anxiety offers insight into the potential genetic causes behind that anxiety.
Some of the notable studies linking genes to certain anxiety disorders include:
- A 2002 study found a link between the characteristics of chromosomes (the threads that hold all your individual genes together) and panic disorder .
- A 2006 study identified that children of parents with an anxiety disorder were over 2 times more likely to have an anxiety disorder as well.
- In 2015, doctors discovered that the RBFOX1 gene, linked to other health conditions, is also linked to generalized anxiety disorder.
- Another study in 2016 showed the NPSR1 gene correlates with panic disorder in women, and a variety of other anxiety disorders for both sexes.
In all, studies prior to 2017 have discovered genes linking genes to generalized anxiety disorder, post traumatic stress disorder, panic disorder, social anxiety, agoraphobia, and other phobias. These studies have consistently found a correlation between family members who carry certain genes and their chance of having anxiety.
But here’s the catch. As they say in STEM, “correlation is not causation.” There is no proof that these genes specifically cause anxiety. Rather, they appear to simply be yet another contributing factor.
Another important consideration for research about genetics and anxiety is that it is a relatively new field since the technology to study it was only recently developed. Many studies have not yet been confirmed with follow-up studies, and other studies have produced opposing results. Existing research has given us essential insights into how heredity anxiety can move through generations, but the research is not yet conclusive.
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:
- Thyroid-Stimulating Hormone
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-being.
A brain without anxiety will have a proper balance of all of these neurotransmitters and hormones, causing a person to feel worried in stressful or frightening situations, but making them content the remainder of the time.
Any imbalances in brain chemistry can cause anxiety or other mental health conditions, and many of these imbalances are tied to genetic markers.
However, *stress, life experiences, and anxiety treatments can also alter the chemistry of your brain.* Genetics may predispose you to have an excess of a stress hormone or a deficiency in serotonin, but these levels could also change naturally throughout your life.
Why Genetics Does Not Explain Anxiety
We have 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:
- Your parents have an anxiety disorder, but the genes were not passed on.
- A sibling experiences post traumatic stress disorder after a car accident, and no one in your family carries genes linked to anxiety.
- You inherit an anxiety-causing gene, but you never experience stress or trauma that leads to symptoms of anxiety.
- You have a gene linked to anxiety, and after moving to a new city and starting a new job, you start experiencing panic disorder.
- 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.
Determining the cause of your anxiety can be 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 experiences, and solutions if they have them, can help you and any therapists or psychiatrists you work with create a more effective treatment plan for managing your own anxiety.
Yet your family history will almost never be the sole cause of your anxiety and to really understand the cause of a phobia, disorder, or generalized anxiety, it is always helpful to consider the entire picture of your health and life experiences.
Remember – solutions like talk therapy, exercise, and other mental health treatments 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.
Is Inherited Anxiety Different from Anxiety Caused by Other Factors?
An inherited health concern can sound alarming. After all, genetic features like your eye color and the shape of your ear lobes are permanent. Several inherited physical health conditions are untreatable.
Anxiety is different.
Inherited or not, anxiety is easily treatable. Your brain is highly adaptable, and even if it is predisposed to have a hormone imbalance or high brain activity in areas that cause worry, it is entirely possible to change the way your brain works 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. All anxiety can be treated and many people are able to cure their anxiety entirely.