Is Anxiety genetic? (A brief guide)
In this guide, we will discuss and answer the question “Is Anxiety Genetic?”.
Is anxiety genetic?
There is an ongoing debate around the question “Is anxiety genetic?” and to try to answer this question, researchers have concluded that anxiety is genetic but there are also influential environmental factors.
Meaning, you could develop anxiety but it won’t necessarily be running in your family as a general rule.
Many mental health conditions have been associated or linked through genetic inheritance or the likelihood of developing certain mental health illnesses if we have a first-degree relative that has developed the condition, as it is the case of schizophrenia.
However, there is much we still don’t understand when establishing the link between genetic traits and anxiety disorders.
Additionally, there is still no consensus about what causes anxiety but each anxiety disorder tends to have risk factors associated with certain life experiences.
For example, the National Institute of Mental Health says someone is more likely to develop an anxiety disorder if they have had a perceived traumatic experience or if you have a medical condition such as thyroid disorder.
In regards to this matter, I think we are biologically predisposed to develop an anxiety disorder, however, if the environmental triggers or factors are not associated or have a severe impact in our lives then we won’t necessarily develop an anxiety disorder.
Perhaps it is true that genetics has something to do with triggering anxiety but it can lay “dormant” until the appropriate conditions trigger the development of the disorder.
Millions around the world suffer from anxiety and it is thought to be one of the most common mental health conditions for people to seek psychological treatment and I always get the same question every time, “Is anxiety genetic?”.
This is when we start wondering, are we predisposed to being anxious? Are our genes responsible? Or is it nature vs nurture? among other related questions.
Here we attempt to answer some of them according to the latest scientific research on the matter.
Anxiety as part of life
Experiencing anxiety from time to time is considered normal, however, if you feel anxiety is persistent, uncontrollable, it is overwhelming and is affecting your normal functioning then we can be talking about an anxiety disorder.
Anxiety disorders are considered serious medical conditions such as having heart disease, hypertension or diabetes.
Anxiety disorders have their own category within the latest version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) and they all have in common an excessive and persistent fear or worry.
The current classification includes Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD), panic disorder, agoraphobia, Social Anxiety Disorder (SAD), separation anxiety, selective mutism in children, Specific phobias, substance-induced anxiety disorder and Anxiety disorder due to another medical condition.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 1 in 13 people globally suffer from anxiety, classed as the most common mental disorders.
Nature vs Nurture: scientific approaches
Through decades of research about the link between genetics and anxiety, researchers have tried to come up with scientific evidence of the existence of this link.
For instance, research from 2002 titled “Are there anxious genes?” has revealed that there is an association on how variations in gene expression can be correlated with anxiety phenotypes.
This study suggests that there is a highly significant association between phobias, panic disorder, and duplication at chromosomal region 15q24-26.
Another study, followed approximately 3.000 Norwegian twins for over a decade to see how mental disorders develop over time, focussing specifically on social anxiety disorder and avoidant personality disorder.
Initially, under 4% of participants had social anxiety in their twenties and another 10% had some of the symptoms but didn’t meet the full diagnostic criteria.
Later on when interview participants in their thirties, two-thirds of the individuals that had social anxiety diagnosed in their twenties no longer met the diagnostic criteria years later.
In addition, they expected for anxiety to be a more stable trait, however, it appears to fluctuate for the individuals.
In addition, they acknowledge how personality traits are influenced by genetics and predispose people to develop the disorder, such as introversion and low emotional stability.
Having both traits increases the chance of developing social anxiety.
The fluctuation seems to be caused by how certain events that affect someone in their twenties have little effect when they get older.
It is suggested that the environment has the strongest effect short term, and the impact of those experiences tends to pass, finding that genetic risks were persistent and are contributing to the stability while the environment contributes to making changes.
Anxiety and hereditary brain chemistry
Our brains are very complex organs and many researchers throughout the years have tried to unravel the mysteries associated with how it works and how the combination of genes/environment affects our behavior.
We know that our neurons are responsible for transmitting information through electric impulses over gaps between themselves called synapses.
They use neurochemicals called neurotransmitters to pass the signals from one neuron to the other and up until this point researchers have identified over 100 of them.
With this in mind, medications have been developed to treat the symptoms but we know little from the specific underlying causes that contribute to developing mental illnesses.
However, a recent study implementing MRI scanning techniques in a population of almost 400 rhesus monkeys attempted to shed some light on the neurological pathways involved in anxiety.
Researchers building upon previous findings on how the extender amygdala (EAc), including the central nucleus of the amygdala (Ce) and bed nucleus of the stria terminalis (BST), is associated with trait-like variations in anxious temperament.
They examined the relationship between the central nucleus of the amygdala and the bed nucleus of the stria terminalis functional connectivity and anxious temperament in a large multigenerational family pedigree of rhesus monkeys, and their results demonstrate that this functional connectivity is heritable and significantly accounted for the variance in anxious temperament and the development of anxiety disorders later in life.
But how did they conclude the rhesus monkeys were indeed displaying anxious behaviors?
Well, they assessed each young primate’s anxiety level by exposing them to a human intruder and observed their behavior as well as measuring cortisol levels (stress hormone).
The most anxious monkeys displayed behaviors such as moving around less and making fewer vocalizations.
As they hypothesized, monkeys that had higher levels of anxiety had increased activity in the central nucleus of the amygdala and bed nucleus of the stria terminalis.
Research has focused on investigating if certain personality traits or temperamental characteristics have an association with a genetic inheritance of such characteristics and the risk of developing an anxiety disorder.
According to Therapist Jor-El Caraballo from talkspace.com, behavioral inhibition is one example.
He says that “The belief is that anxiety-motivated behavior often manifests as avoidance, stress, and withdrawal in unfamiliar situations and with unfamiliar people.”
And this is actually related to research that suggests that children who demonstrate this kind of behavior are at a higher risk of developing anxiety disorders.
Researchers again suggest there is a strong genetic predisposition that tends to get “triggered” or exacerbated when exposed to certain situations or environmental factors.
Learning theory and the role of reinforcement
Theorists and researchers have suggested that social learning theory is closely related to the development of anxiety disorders.
And they indicate there are mainly four ways in which this can be explained:
- The exposure to traumatic events, learning through an association of stimulus that evoke fear and anxiety. For instance, if you are a dog person but one day you get bitten by a dog then this will generate a learned response to fear dogs next time you see one.
- Modeling or the ability to learn from watching other’s experiences and reactions can also contribute to learning those fear and anxiety responses.
- Through avoidance, the fear and anxiety responses can be averted and this can cause an association between the avoidant behavior and reduced levels of anxiety which is known as negative reinforcement.
With this in mind, we can see the pattern that scientists and researchers see when investigating the reason why a person can develop an anxiety disorder and this, in the end, is the basic theory for some of the current therapies available to treat anxiety.
Why is this blog about “Is anxiety genetic” important?
There is still ongoing research and debate on whether anxiety is genetic or is actually a result of environmental factors and being exposed to certain life events.
However, we have discussed the latest findings of how anxiety can be inherited and with the sufficient output from environmental stimuli someone can be at a higher risk of developing an anxiety disorder.
However, more research is needed on this subject.
Subsequently, we believe that a mix or combination of risk factors make an individual more vulnerable to developing an anxiety disorder and this seems to be true also for other mental disorders.
Please feel free to comment in the comments section below!
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Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about “Is anxiety genetic?”
Is anxiety hereditary or learned behavior?
Anxiety seems to have a hereditary component as some studies have suggested.
Brain neurochemistry and functioning seem to be inherited, but researchers also acknowledge how experience and environment can potentially be contributors to developing the disorder.
Does anxiety run in families?
Some researchers suggest that anxiety disorders do run in families and that they have a biological basis, like diabetes, allergies and other disorders.
However, it seems that anxiety disorders may develop when there is an interaction between risk factors such as genetics, brain neurochemistry, personality traits, and experience/life events.
Are you born with anxiety or do you develop it?
Research suggests there is a genetic component associated with anxiety that can make people more prone to developing an anxiety disorder if the environmental conditions and personality traits are also in the mix.
So, apparently genetics alone won’t be sufficient to be at risk of developing an anxiety disorder.
Can anxiety be passed down?
It has been suggested that parents can pass down the risk of developing mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety.
Their offspring can inherit over-active brain circuits making them more prone to develop anxiety and depressive disorders.
What are the 6 types of anxiety disorders?
According to the previous DSM-4 version, there were 6 types of anxiety disorder that included Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder.
However, the new DSM-5 removed OCD and established the classification of anxiety disorders as follows:
– Separation anxiety disorder
– Specific phobias
– Selective mutism in children
– Substance/medication-induced anxiety disorder
– Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD)
– Panic Disorder
– Social Anxiety Disorder (SAD)
– Anxiety disorder due to another medical condition
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