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Can anxiety be genetic? Everything you need to know

Can anxiety be genetic? Everything you need to know

If your family members struggle with anxiety, you might be wondering about the chances you’ll experience the same issues. Or maybe you have an anxiety disorder and are worried about passing it on to your children. 

And yes, anxiety does have a genetic component. But exactly what role do your genes play? We’ll look at the influence of genetics on anxiety and what research says about the genetic risk associated with 5 major types of anxiety disorders.

Nature vs. nurture

In psychology, the nature vs. nurture debate centers around the comparative influences of genetics—“nature”—and environment—“nurture.” In other words, to what extent are your family’s genes responsible for who you are as compared to environmental influences. 

Anxiety is a perfect example of this debate. Psychologists and researchers continue to study the genetic basis for anxiety, as well as the role upbringing and environment play in its development.

Though new information continues to emerge in support of each proposition, it’s clear that the person you are today is a combination of both your genetics and your experience.

If you have a family history of mental health conditions, it’s only natural to wonder how genetics contribute to anxiety. The reality is that your genes are just one element to look at when evaluating what puts you at risk for mental health disorders.

The influence of genetics on mental health

As research has demonstrated, genetics do play a role in mental health. That being said, your family history and genes are just one of a combination of factors that influence the development of mental health disorders.

In order to find the chances that a trait, like anxiety, is due to genetics rather than environment, researchers use a metric called heritability. It’s the statistical probability that a trait results from your genes rather than your environment and upbringing. 

In general, this kind of study looks at the rates of occurrence in families and compares them to the general population. The specific type of analysis used to isolate heritability is called a twin study or adoption study.

In these studies, researchers use identical or fraternal twins to examine the genetic influence on traits or disorders. For instance, if twins are raised in separate environments, and only one has a particular trait or disorder, then environment may play a more significant role than genetics. 

When twin studies are performed across large groups, they offer insight into the genetic component of a disease or trait.   

Still, it’s important to remember that there are many factors that may put you at risk for anxiety and other mental health conditions. While genetics certainly play a part, so do things like your upbringing, environment, personality, mental habits, and life experiences.

What to do if anxiety runs in your family 

So you think you might have anxious genes. You may be wondering what that means for your mental health, and we’ve got some suggestions to help you better understand and frame that discussion.  

But let’s start by answering a couple of common questions. What does it mean for a disorder to be hereditary? And what constitutes a genetic predisposition to that disorder?

When a medical condition is “hereditary,” it means that it is or can be genetically transmitted from parents to their children. Many disorders are hereditary or genetic to some degree. If members of your family have a history of a hereditary condition, then you have a genetic predisposition to it. 

So is anxiety hereditary? The short answer is yes—genes do play a role in anxiety. But so do a lot of other factors.

It’s important to remember that many factors can put you at risk for anxiety and other mental health conditions. While genetics are part of the discussion, so are things like upbringing, environment, personality, mental habits, and life experiences.

Even if anxiety disorders run in your family, it doesn’t mean that all members of your family will have clinical anxiety. The same is true if you’re concerned about passing an anxiety disorder to your child or children.

Still, a genetic predisposition to anxiety does deserve attention. One way to empower yourself is to learn the warning signs and watch for them if you’re concerned about the possibility. Arming yourself with that kind of information enables you to take the best possible care of yourself and other members of your family.

What causes anxiety?

It’s difficult to pinpoint the exact cause of anxiety and anxiety disorders. Rather than having a single cause, anxiety is more likely attributable to a number of factors. 

Plus, the experience of anxiety can be caused by anything from how we’re wired as humans to the aftermath of trauma or loss, and even certain medical conditions, like hypertension. Over time, the effects of anxiety on your body can be harmful and lead to stress-related illnesses.

When it comes to clinical anxiety, several possibilities put you at greater risk. Here’s the condensed version of those factors for anxiety disorders.

  • Other mental health conditions
  • Family history of anxiety disorders or other mental illness
  • Chemical imbalances
  • Personality
  • Persistent stress or worry
  • Upbringing and childhood experiences
  • Difficult life experiences, especially trauma
  • Drug and alcohol abuse

Let’s look at each of these factors a little more closely. First of all, having other mental health issues, especially depression, dramatically increases the chances you’ll have an anxiety disorder. As we’ve seen, genetics and family history can make it more likely that you’ll develop the same disorder as your parents or other family members. 

Brain chemistry is also involved since some people have anxiety due to a chemical imbalance in the brain. Personality also factors in, and those prone to worrying are at greater risk for developing anxiety disorders. 

Upbringing and early childhood experiences can play a significant part in the development of anxiety. Difficult life experiences, especially if they’re traumatizing, also increase the likelihood of anxiety disorders. Finally, drug and alcohol abuse makes it more likely that you’ll suffer from anxiety.

Is anxiety disorder genetic?

There are 5 major anxiety disorders, each with its own set of symptoms and genetic heritability. Depending on the particular disorder, the symptoms and heritability vary. 

Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD)

People with generalized anxiety disorder worry to an excessive degree about a range of things. These anxious feelings may be so consuming that they make it extremely difficult to function. 

Here are the most common symptoms of GAD.

  • Feeling restless, edgy, or wound-up 
  • Ongoing, intrusive worry that’s exaggerated compared to the object of concern
  • Becoming irritated easily
  • Trouble staying focused or difficulty concentrating
  • Your mind going blank
  • Catastrophizing about events or circumstances
  • Indecision or paralysis when it comes to decision making 
  • Not being able to stop worrying or put down a particular concern
  • Inability to relax due to worry

Generalized anxiety disorder has a heritability of 30%.

Social anxiety disorder

Those with social anxiety disorder, otherwise known as social phobia, have extreme worry or fear that’s triggered by social situations or performance.

These are the most common symptoms of social anxiety disorder.

  • Fear of situations where you’ll be judged by others
  • Worry that social interactions will leave you feeling embarrassed 
  • Extreme discomfort and fear when interacting with people, especially strangers
  • Persistent anxiety when you think about an upcoming event 
  • Fear that others will notice how uncomfortable you are, especially if you experience physical symptoms like blushing or sweating in social situations
  • Avoiding social interactions because of fear or worry
  • Analyzing social events or situations after the fact with a focus on what went wrong

The heritability of social anxiety disorder has been estimated as high as 27- 76% and as low as 12%. 

Panic disorder 

People who suffer from panic disorder experience sudden and often unpredictable attacks of extreme fear. These episodes may happen once in a while or very frequently. 

While some have a clear sense of what sets off a panic attack, others aren’t sure what triggers the anxiety. Some are so debilitated by panic disorder that leaving the house becomes impossible.

Here are some common symptoms of panic disorder.

  • Fast, pounding heartbeat, rapid heart rate, or heart palpitations 
  • Sweating and flushing
  • Difficulty breathing or feeling like you can’t breathe
  • Breathing too much, or hyperventilation
  • Feelings of dread or impending doom
  • Trembling and shakiness
  • Feeling out of control

The heritability of panic disorders is as high as 28 44%.

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

PTSD is a disorder where people struggle to recover after a direct experience with a terrifying event or situation. It can also happen after having witnessed such an event or situation.

Those who have experienced trauma, such as an accident, war and combat, a natural disaster, and rape or sexual abuse, may develop post-traumatic stress disorder following the experience—though it’s not inevitable.  

These are some of the most common PTSD symptoms.

  • Intrusive memories of or thoughts about the trauma
  • Extreme distress when something reminds you of the trauma
  • Flashbacks, where you re-experience the trauma as if it were happening again
  • Nightmares
  • Being easily irritated or angered
  • Physical pain, nausea, sweating, shaking, or trembling
  • Feeling hyper-alert and on-edge
  • Numbness and avoidance of feelings

Because the precipitating experiences that lead to PTSD can vary so widely, it’s challenging to pinpoint heritability. Still, researchers have demonstrated that people with other mental health disorders have a greater likelihood of developing PTSD following trauma. 

Twin studies have shown that PTSD has a heritability of 30%.

Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)

OCD is characterized by repetitive thinking (obsession) and repetitive behavior (compulsion). For the most part, people with obsessive-compulsive disorder have both obsessions and compulsions, though it’s possible to have one in the absence of the other.

Symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder are generally broken down into obsessions and compulsions. Here are some common examples of each.

  • Obsessions
  • Fear of contamination
  • Inability to tolerate uncertainty
  • Needing physical order to feel safe
  • Intrusive thoughts about losing control and hurting yourself or others
  • Unwanted thoughts about sex and violence, among other things
  • Compulsions:
  • Washing
  • Cleaning
  • Checking
  • Counting
  • Ordering and arranging
  • Hoarding

Research shows that OCD has a heritability of 29%.

Anxiety disorder diagnosis

Anxiety disorders are diagnosed by mental health and medical professionals. When you talk with someone about your anxiety, they’ll likely ask you to describe the experiences you’ve been having, including your physical symptoms, as well as your thoughts and feelings. 

You may also be asked to fill out a self-reported diagnostic test that can be used to help your healthcare professional confirm an anxiety diagnosis. 

If you’re experiencing ongoing anxiety that makes it difficult to live your life and perform basic daily tasks, you may be suffering from a clinical disorder. While the anxiety symptoms we listed can help you frame your experience, we encourage you to see a mental health or medical professional for an official diagnosis and guidance on the most appropriate treatment. 

Treatment

We understand how overwhelming it can be to have anxiety, but there’s good news. Anxiety disorders are the single most common class of mental health disorders, which means you’re not alone. 

What’s more, anxiety disorders tend to respond well to treatment. There are 3 main approaches to treatment, and they’re usually most effective when appropriately combined.

Therapy

Therapy can be a helpful approach if you’re struggling with anxiety. Psychotherapy can give you tools that help you understand and process feelings. Specific types of therapy can also be used to provide a safe container to address past trauma or difficult childhood experiences. 

One type of therapy with the best-documented efficacy in reducing anxiety is cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). This type of therapy teaches you new ways to think and act when you encounter anxiety. CBT can help you shift your perspective on and reaction to anxious feelings. 

There are other forms of effective therapy, and one of the most important factors for success in therapy is “goodness of fit” with your therapist. 

Prescription medication

Prescription medications interact with chemicals in your brain to calm some of its automatic responses to stress. Anti-anxiety meds like benzodiazepines may be useful in the short-term to help treat symptoms. But these medications have a high potential for abuse and addiction and don’t help address the causes or issues underlying your anxiety.

A safer long-term medication strategy often involves a type of antidepressant medication called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). These meds are an effective and non-habit-forming way to help people with anxiety. Some brand-name examples of these meds are Prozac, Lexapro, Zoloft, Celexa, and Paxil.

If you’d like to talk to a medical professional about trying SSRIs, telehealth services make it easy and straightforward to get anxiety treatment online.

Lifestyle changes

Finally, there is a range of behavioral and lifestyle changes to reduce your anxiety. These changes are most beneficial when combined with therapy and medication, where appropriate.

These lifestyle changes can help you with anxiety.

  • Exercise
  • Ample rest
  • A balanced diet
  • Meditation, mindfulness, yoga, or other calming practices
  • Cognitive techniques to shift the way you relate to anxiety
  • Opening up to safe people

Anxiety can be overwhelming. But the right treatment or combination of treatments can help you overcome it. Talk to a medical professional who can work with your individual needs to find the right solution. 

Takeaway

  • Many factors contribute to the development of anxiety.
  • Genetics and family history play a role in the development of anxiety disorders.
  • Just because family members have issues with anxiety doesn’t mean that you will.
  • Having an anxiety disorder yourself doesn’t necessarily mean your kids will have one.