Introduction to Inherited Anxiety

Micah Abraham, BSc

Written by

Micah Abraham, BSc

Last updated October 10, 2020

Introduction to Inherited Anxiety

Though not every person with an anxiety disorder considers their disorder the result of genetics, there are some that do, and with good reason. While it is entirely possible that your anxiety disorder is the result of a traumatic experience in your lifetime, the frequency of people with anxiety disorders also having a parent or parents with some form of anxiety disorder is too high to discount.

This article will examine the facts and theories behind inherited anxiety.

Can You Blame Your Parents For Your Anxiety?

It's important to note that not everyone with parents that have anxiety develop anxiety, and not all of those that have a predisposition to anxiety develop it either. What's fascinating is that even if anxiety is genetic, you can still "train" your way out of it. You don't have to experience anxiety just because your parents "gave" it to you.

Still, when it comes to whether or not anxiety is inherited, studies say that for many varieties of anxiety, it probably is. Having parents who have anxiety disorders greatly increases the odds of a child who also has an anxiety disorder. Even if the anxiety disorder itself has not been encoded into the genes, your particular set of inherited genes may have played a role in predisposing you to anxiety.

Evolutionary psychologists have theorized that some anxiety disorders, such as obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are actually the result of genetic mutations designed to give humans an advantage.

OCD, PTSD and the Evolutionary Advantages of Anxiety

In the case of OCD, it is believed that a tendency towards cleanliness and hyper awareness of the order (or disorder) of immediate surroundings may have become encoded into the genes in order to increase the lifespan of humans and allow for more reproduction due to the connection between good sanitation and health, as well as that between self-awareness and an improved capability for self-defense. It has further been discovered that a genetic mutation of the body's serotonin transporter gene (the gene that controls when and how much happiness is felt) is common in people with OCD, and may be a contributing (and inheritable) factor to the condition.

Similarly, PTSD is thought to be a possible evolutionary mutation. Though it may be hard to imagine why debilitating flashbacks and persistent stress could be an advantage, evolutionary theorists believe that PTSD could have evolved to protect humans from threats, triggering the fight or flight response at the slightest hint of remembered danger and causing the person to go into a super-powered mode of high blood pressure, adrenaline coursing through their veins and extra glucogens or sugar energy rushing to power their muscles. This would have ensured safety from even the slightest potential threat.

However, what's even more likely is that these anxiety disorders are actually misfirings of the evolutionary advantages. For example, with OCD, keeping order and clean can be valuable, but obsessive compulsive disorder may occur when that value has gone too far.

Also, it's important to note that though it is entirely possible that children may experience a predisposition to anxiety from the genes they inherit from their parents, just as they inherit a certain height and eye color, it is also common for children to receive anxiety disorders from their parents through other means: namely, via learned behavior. The next section will focus on the difference between inherited and learned behavior.

Learned vs. Inherited Behaviors

Learned and inherited behaviors can be hard to tell apart. For example, how do you know if your skillful dancing ability is the result of the body you inherited genetically, or a result of the fact that your parents put you in dance classes every year since you were the age of two?

The only way to really be sure, apart from genetic testing of both you and your parents, is if you have an identical twin that didn't go through the same upbringing as you. Since that's extremely rare, there's no way to know with any certainty whether predisposition or learning changed the way you feel and act. Remember, if your parents have anxiety, chances are they acted anxious around you. That, in turn, means that you could have picked up your anxiety from them. Children are very susceptible to the emotions of their parents.

Even if you managed to escape inheriting an anxiety disorder from one of your parents, just as you might escape inheriting bowleggedness or a unibrow, growing up with a parent who has some type of anxiety disorder will often have a lasting effect upon the behavior of a child (and later, adult). Children's brains are malleable, and are literally formed by what they learn at a young age. Oftentimes, this means they are formed by behavior they learn from their parents.

Ultimately, this means that your anxiety disorder could be neither learned nor inherited, one or the other, or even a combination of the two. The next section will discuss the implications of genetically inheriting a predisposition towards anxiety, within either your dominant or recessive genes.

Dominant vs. Recessive Genes

While your dominant genes can't help but affect you, you may also have received recessive genes from your parents that would have predisposed you towards anxiety had they been dominant.

Recessive genes are the reason why two brown eyes people may have a green-eyed baby: one of the brown-eyed people had a green-eyed parent or grandparent and carried the recessive gene for green eyes which showed up as dominant again in the baby.

They are also the reason why, even if neither of your parents necessarily had an anxiety disorder, one of them may have carried a recessive gene that you received as a dominant gene which predisposed you to anxiety.

If you received the gene as a recessive gene and not as a dominant gene, you may pass on a predisposition towards anxiety that you don't even have yourself to your offspring. Fortunately, anxiety disorders are both manageable and treatable, and (as discussed above) may even have some advantages along with their disadvantages.

Talk To Your Parents

If either one or both of your parents had to deal with anxiety (and are continuing to do so), it is safe to assume that they have probably developed some good coping strategies over the years and may be able to give you some suggestions in regards to the ways they have learned to deal with anxiety-causing situations.

On the other hand, they may be suffering from a disorder they have never even heard of, as anxiety disorders have actually only relatively recently been categorized as such. For this reason, if you have a parent who seems to exhibit symptoms of an anxiety disorder, it may be a good idea to talk to them about it: for once, you may have some advice that they need, instead of the other way around.

The good news is that all anxiety is treatable. Anxiety is actually one of the most treatable conditions out there. You simply need to make sure that you find a treatment that works for you.

Questions? Comments?

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Where can I go to learn more about Jacobson’s relaxation technique and other similar methods?

– Anonymous patient


You can ask your doctor for a referral to a psychologist or other mental health professional who uses relaxation techniques to help patients. Not all psychologists or other mental health professionals are knowledgeable about these techniques, though. Therapists often add their own “twist” to the technqiues. Training varies by the type of technique that they use. Some people also buy CDs and DVDs on progressive muscle relaxation and allow the audio to guide them through the process.

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