There is a bit of controversy in answering the question, “Is anxiety genetic?” Depending on who is writing or speaking, the answer may be yes to both speculations regarding whether anxiety is inherited or learned.
Studies show the tendency to develop anxiety under certain circumstances may be greater in some people than others. But does that indicate a genetic basis? With the apparent proneness of anxiety sufferers to have relatives with anxiety, the likely answer would have to be yes.
Some professionals have estimated that those who do inherit a predisposition to be anxious may have a 30-40 percent chance of becoming anxious due solely to that genetic basis.
However, the answer to “is anxiety genetic” must also consider the learning aspect. People who experience anxiety and have relatives who also are anxious may simply have watched these relatives act in anxious ways and learned those kinds of responses. This would be even more likely if they were in close relationship with those relatives at an early age.
Research has shown a strong tendency for children to learn things they see adults doing. And if those adults are important to the children, the tendency is even stronger. So, learning plays a large part in developing anxiety.
Strength of Genetic Basis
Investigations designed to answer the question, “Is anxiety genetic?”, have shown some interesting results.
Research has shown those with a genetic tendency to develop anxiety start early to show symptoms. If a person develops anxiety before the age of twenty, chances are very high that he or she has relatives with the same disorder. One study published in the Journal of Anxiety Disorders emphasized this possibility by saying some anxiety traits related to panic disorder may show up as early as eight years old.
Other researchers have stated people who have a twin with panic disorder to have a much greater chance of developing the disorder also. If they simply have a sibling or parent with the disorder, they still have a larger chance of developing panic, too.
Social anxiety disorder, another type of anxiety, has been shown to have some genetic influence, too. With a first-degree relative, mother or father or sibling, who has social anxiety disorder, you are two to three times more likely to develop it yourself. The likelihood of inheriting social anxiety disorder has been placed at 30-40%. This suggests a little over one-third of your underlying causes of social anxiety, if you develop it, may be inherited.
There has not been a specific gene discovered to be the one linked to social anxiety disorder. But agoraphobia and panic disorder are a different story. Both of these anxiety disorders appear to have a specific chromosomal foundation.
Very recent research has suggested the possibility of seven new genes being connected to obsessive-compulsive disorder, panic disorder, as well as social anxiety disorder. More research is needed to make this connection clear.
Is Anxiety Genetic in Some Circumstances?
Some research has suggested anxiety may be genetic in certain circumstances. Some of this research has looked at families and not just individuals. This seems to strengthen the findings.
In 2008, a study of people from twelve families who survived a massive earthquake in Armenia in 1988 showed that 41% of the symptoms of Post-traumatic Stress Disorder were likely due to genetics. This study also suggested 61% of depressive symptoms and 66% of anxiety symptoms in these families to be due to genetics.
This study was unique in that it followed entire families for a significant period of time and investigated their susceptibility to anxiety symptoms. This longitudinal basis and the numbers of individuals studied strengthened the results.
A study in 2009 at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine showed a possible genetic link among insomnia, anxiety, and depression.
Another study from 2003 from the National Institute of Mental Health showed a genetic abnormality may account for feelings of anxiety and aggression in some people. This particular gene is involved in the transport of serotonin around the brain. Parents pass on either a long or short form of this gene. People with one or two short versions tend to show more anxiety symptoms.
Question Still Not Answered
Even with the above research findings, the question, “Is anxiety genetic?”, still isn’t answered. At least, not fully.
There is research evidence showing there isn’t any one gene responsible for a person developing anxiety symptoms or not. A combination of genes may be implicated. Research continues in this direction.
Yet another strong possibility for research into the genetic basis of anxiety is investigating the possibility that environmental influences, i.e. learning, may serve to turn on or turn off the genes involved in anxiety. Some of the genes under consideration in this research direction may play a part in more mental disorders than just anxiety.
Thus, the environmental factors in a person’s life may determine which mental disorder is brought on by these genes. In such a case, the person’s predisposition (genetics) may only be turned on, so to speak, by stressful circumstances. And those circumstances determine which direction the genes take the person.
In determining any genetic influence on an individual’s current symptoms, the possibly far off ancestor who started the influence has to be considered. Did that ancestor have a genetic trait he or she inherited from a yet farther back ancestor? Or did a traumatic event in that ancestor’s life start the anxiety symptoms?
Also, did that far off ancestor show those symptoms to his or her offspring, who learned them and passed on behavior through learning in successive generations? There is no way to know.
The question, “Is anxiety genetic?”, will likely never be answered to everyone’s satisfaction. It’s similar to the chicken and egg question. You can find adherents to both sides, and they will have strong evidence to back up their opinion.
A certainty does exist. Anxiety can be treated, and in some cases, cured. This is the best answer to this difficult question. The origin of anxiety, while important, is not the final answer.
The Link Between Genetics and Anxiety. http://www.everydayhealth.com/news/is-anxiety-hereditary/
What Are the Genetic Causes of Social Anxiety Disorder? https://www.verywell.com/what-are-the-genetic-causes-of-social-anxiety-disorder-3024457
Seven New Genes Linked To Anxiety Disorders. http://www.iflscience.com/health-and-medicine/seven-new-genes-linked-anxiety-disorders/
Mystery Gene Reveals New Mechanism for Anxiety Disorders. http://www.uchospitals.edu/news/2012/20120515-anxiety-disorders.html
Anxiety About Certain Things Can Be Hereditary. https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2013/12/anxiety-about-certain-things-can-be-hereditary/282383/