Everyone experiences anxiety at certain times in his or her life. Each person is affected by anxiety at different times, for different reasons, and at different intensities. Most people experience normal levels of anxiety, meaning they are anxious when appropriate, but their overall anxiety does not negatively impact their lives. However, there are some whose anxiety does affect their day-to-day lives more intensely than others. These people likely have a diagnosable anxiety disorder.
Is Anxiety Hereditary?
Anxiety disorders are common among most populations. It can sometimes be confusing to understand why one person has such high anxiety while the people around him or her do not seem to struggle with anxiety at all. It can be difficult to understand why some people are more affected than others, but there are factors that make people predisposed to higher levels of anxiety. The strongest contributing factor to the onset of anxiety is family history.
There are several different ways that anxiety can run in families. One of the strongest components is genetics. Most people with chronic or severe anxiety have direct family members (siblings, parents, or grandparents) who also suffer from anxiety. The anxiety disorders that tend to have a genetic component are:
- Generalized anxiety disorder
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder
- Panic disorder
Genetics is not the only contributing factor that causes anxiety to run in families. It is also important to consider the impact that modeling anxious behavior has on a person. People who have anxiety running in their families are often taught anxious habits through modeling. Parents and grandparents can model anxious behavior, which causes a child to pick up on anxious habits. For example, if a parent is constantly checking and re-checking things, acting out when something upsetting happens, or struggles to handle his or her emotions, the child that is exposed to these behaviors are likely to pick up the same habits.
A parent may also teach a child anxious habits without even realizing that he or she is priming the child to be an anxious person. Teaching a child to not trust others, compulsively check for things, or strive for perfection are all ways to heighten risk of anxiety. Of course, the parents may not realize they are instilling anxious behavior into their child, but that is what they will teach the younger generation when it is their only understanding of survival and success.
The environment in which a person is brought up plays a key role in the development of anxiety. The way a person develops relies heavily on the influence of the parent or guardian and the environment to which he or she is exposed. For example, anxious or over-attentive parents who satisfy a child’s needs instead of teaching a child to be self-sufficient will likely produce an anxious adult. If a child is brought up in a sheltered environment in which he or she does not develop a sense of confidence or autonomy for accomplishing goals, chores and tasks, he or she will struggle to understand how to effectively function later on in life. Such struggle and confusion regarding how the outside world works can result in anxiety.
Anxiety is also prevalent in cases in which there was abuse or chaos within the home. If a child is brought up in an unstable or chaotic environment he or she is likely to develop anxiety. With the chaos and instability there is a lack of security, which puts a child in distress when feeling vulnerable. This deep discomfort that is created at such a young age becomes deeply engrained in a person, resulting in anxiety in adulthood. Furthermore, abuse of any sort will severely affect the way in which a person sees himself or herself and the world. Often abusive adults learn the behavior from their parents or guardians, and continue to pass the abusive habits through generations. If a child is exposed to abuse or trauma it will cause him or her to live in a constant state of fear, which results in the development of anxiety.
It Does Not Always Run in Families
Research supports that anxiety can run in families and anxious disorders can be passed through generations. However, it is important to note that a genetic or hereditary component does not need to be present for the development of an anxiety disorder. It is possible for a person to develop anxiety without any predisposing factors. Some anxiety disorders that do not have a hereditary component are:
- Posttraumatic Stress Disorder- an anxiety disorder that develops in reaction to a traumatic event or history of abuse.
- Adjustment Disorder- an anxiety disorder that develops in reaction to adjusting to new life circumstances, such as a move, career change, or relationship issues
- Specific Phobias- intense or obsessive fears to things that others may not seem as threatening (crowds, small spaces, certain animals, heights, etc.)
- Social Phobia (social anxiety)- an extreme discomfort in social situations
These anxiety disorders are typically developed in reaction to something negative in an individual’s life. They serve as examples of how anxiety can be developed without family influence. An anxiety disorder can develop as a result of other like circumstances, including:
- Poor stress management skills
- History of abuse or trauma
- Grief and loss
- Major life transition or existential crisis
- Being teased or bullied as a child
- Low self-esteem or poor self-image
To conclude, the answer to whether anxiety runs in families is: it depends. Each person’s life circumstances are different, and many different things cause anxiety. Family, heredity and genetics all play a major role in a person’s chances of developing an anxiety disorder. If a person has a parent or grandparent that suffered from anxiety or a related disorder the chances are greater that he or she will suffer from anxiety than a person who does not have a similar history. While a family history of anxiety is not the definitive factor to the onset of anxiety, it does increase the likelihood of a person suffering from anxiety.