November 9, 2021

Is Anxiety Hereditary? 

by | Nov 9, 2021 | Anxiety

Generalized anxiety disorder is the most diagnosed mental health condition in the United States. Experts have been trying to determine and narrow the primary causes of anxiety. Do our emotional struggles come from our childhood, our adult experiences, or our genetics? While we’re still trying to understand this better, it’s likely a combination of all three. 

Anxiety is at least partially hereditary. Family genetic factors overlap with our experiences growing up, our current life stressors, and our own natural ways of coping. 

To better understand this, it helps to have a broader look at what anxiety really is, and how many factors can influence it. 

What is Anxiety?

Most people experience anxiety as an uncomfortable sensation in the body. They may feel discomfort in the stomach, a quickening pulse, and a dry mouth. 

They may also experience worried thoughts to the point of obsession. These sensations are triggered by a release of chemicals in the body, such as adrenaline. 

Having occasional anxiety is normal. Common scenarios that lead to this might include a job interview, a first date, or an important doctor’s appointment.

This human experience of anxiety likely relates to our natural evolution. Those ancestors who were more aware of danger were more likely to survive and pass on such traits to offspring. Eventually, this type of anxiety became a shared trait. 

For early humans, the most threatening situations were usually a matter of immediate life and death. Unfortunately, our instincts don’t always recognize the difference between uncomfortable situations, like a job interview, and dangerous situations, like the risk of falling off a cliff. 

So, we get a similar surge of anxiety-invoking chemicals either way. 

Start Your Mental Health Education.

Get instant access to free videos, and be the first to know about live classes and events.

Anxiety Disorders

While we all experience anxiety from time to time, there are those who experience it much more often. When anxiety is excessive, it’s sometimes diagnosed as a disorder. 

Nearly 20% of the population is assigned some type of anxiety diagnosis each year, and there are likely more who go undiagnosed.

While all anxiety disorders have overlapping symptoms, they can present in different ways. Common examples include:

  • General anxiety disorder (GAD). This involves frequent worries that continue to cycle. Worsening GAD may make someone feel as if they now fear nearly everything. They may often imagine catastrophic circumstances. 
  • Social anxiety. This common disorder involves fears related to social situations, and how one will be perceived by others. It often leads to avoidance of such situations. 
  • Specific phobias. Following the pandemic, many people have developed specific phobias, such as driving a car in busy areas. Other common examples include an extreme fear of heights, dogs, or crowds.
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). You may not think of PTSD as an anxiety disorder, but it typically involves severe anxiety when it comes to reminders of past trauma or everyday situations that feel out of control. 
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Likewise, OCD may seem unrelated to anxiety. However, these obsessive behaviors are intended to alleviate anxieties about unlikely scenarios (such as a dripping sink leading to widespread flooding). 

With so many people experiencing anxiety, it’s no wonder we want to know the cause of it. Next, it’s helpful to understand the general concept of how behavioral traits are passed on. 

Nature Versus Nurture

You may have heard the term nature versus nurture. This refers to the idea that our behavioral traits may be influenced primarily by our genetic factors, or determined more so by how we were raised. 

In other words, do you have anxiety because it runs in the family, or because Grandma Jones always warned you to watch your back?

Many scientists now believe that family and environmental factors have the most influence on our development. 

Even if there is a genetic influence present, the way we’re raised and nurtured has a greater influence on how we later behave.

For example, children who grow up with a parent suffering from a chronic mental illness are more likely to have similar symptoms themselves. 

This doesn’t mean that the children can’t overcome these problems, however it does make them more vulnerable. 

Genetic research focused specifically on anxiety has shown similar results. 

For example, around 30% of the time, general anxiety disorder is connected to genetics.

This means that in other cases, there may be an environmental cause. Someone’s way of coping may also make them more prone to anxiety. In many situations, these factors overlap. 

Social anxiety disorder may also partially relate to genetics. One study found that identical twins were more likely to experience this condition compared to non-identical twins, suggesting a genetic factor. 

Children whose parents had the disorder were also more likely to experience it, however, this could be due to environmental factors rather than genes.

Non-Genetic Factors

Many other areas can influence our level of anxiety, regardless of our parentage. These include: 

  • Daily stressors
  • Physical health
  • Use of coping skills (positive or negative)
  • Overlapping psychological conditions, such as depression
  • Dangerous situations, such as an abusive setting
  • Past trauma
  • Frequent avoidance versus facing phobias

This last factor, avoidance, is key when it comes to coping with and reversing anxiety. Changing avoidance patterns, along with thinking about our fears differently, can make the biggest difference. 

Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is a commonly used treatment to help people with anxiety. In this therapy, people learn to interact with their thoughts and fears in a different way. They may also systematically face their fears. 

For example, if someone has a severe fear of heights, they may choose to slowly address this fear. They might begin by simply standing on a step stool, and work their way up to visiting the roof of a building. 

Over time, their automatic reaction changes during these activities. Their brain learns that heights are not automatically dangerous, and that the risk can be well managed. 

However, the reverse is true as well. If someone constantly becomes tense at just the thought of heights, and then avoids them at all costs, the fear will be reinforced and potentially worsen over time. 

This basic concept is the same regardless of the type of anxiety someone experiences. There is always some fear present with such a disorder—even if it’s simply a fear of a memory itself. CBT therapies help people think of these scenarios differently, and face them when appropriate. 

Brain Plasticity

This process works because our brains have plasticity, meaning our brains can change over time. We sometimes see this in people who’ve had brain damage or strokes. 

Even those who have lost part of their brain to an accident can relearn things they’ve lost, such as speech or the ability to remember things. Other parts of the brain can adapt to make up for what’s missing. 

If that’s possible in such an extreme circumstance, think of what your brain could do without this type of damage. Your brain can learn to adjust to nearly any situation, and you can overcome even the most set-in anxiety traits. 

Even when people have multiple strikes against them, they can learn to cope differently. In one major study, researchers looked at anxiety levels among women from deprived communities. 

The study found that even though women lived in challenging circumstances, those with a sense of purpose along with positive coping skills had significantly lower levels of anxiety.

Coping Skills

If you suffer from anxiety, even if it’s due to your genetics, you can change your experience. Here are some strategies that are shown to help. 

Mindfulness

Mindfulness is an ancient practice that involves slowing down, and simply being mentally present in the moment. Many mind-body practices, such as yoga or tai chi, include mindfulness. 

You can also practice on your own, by simply taking a few minutes each day to become aware of your surroundings. The more you practice, the more your brain will learn to respond differently to stressors. 

CBT Therapy

As mentioned above, CBT therapies are among the most effective treatments for anxiety. You can learn such techniques from an experienced therapist, while also practicing them on your own. Rather than accepting your fears, try to challenge them. 

Even if the worst were to happen in a situation, could you still cope with it? In many cases, you’ve already survived more difficult things. 

Facing Discomfort

If it’s safe, you can practice exposure on your own. For example, if you have developed a fear of driving, start back at it slowly. 

Ask a friend to ride with you, or take a slow drive around the block. The more you practice, the easier it will become.

While it’s not always appropriate to face all fears, many worries are out of proportion to actual risk. If you believe this is the case, find ways to slowly face what you’re avoiding, or get professional help to work through your triggers.  

Natural Alternatives

Many people find natural alternatives to be helpful. For example, essential oils can provide stress relief and promote relaxation. Lavender in particular may help with stress, anxiety, and sleep. 

Other natural methods include acupuncture, float spas, or yoga. Any activity that promotes a sense of serenity and peace may help you begin to react better to stress.

Relaxation

If you tend to get stressed and anxious occasionally, but it’s not an ongoing problem, you may simply need a vacation. Try to take time off from your responsibilities. 

If this isn’t possible, at least take shorter breaks. This might involve a weekend every couple of months, or an afternoon every Sunday. 

During this time, do whatever feels renewing to you. You might feel rejuvenated by staying at a fancy hotel, going camping, or getting a massage.

Hobbies

Along these lines, look for activities that don’t relate to work, parenting, or any other stressful situations in your life. Find things you enjoy just for the sake of fun.

For example, think about crafts, sports, food, or travel. Give your brain time off from everyday pressures. 

Exercise

Increasing your physical activity is a common way to manage stress, anxiety, and even depression symptoms. Any amount of movement is helpful, but weekly aerobic activity seems to be the most beneficial. 

Try to find an exercise that you look forward to, rather than dread, and you’re more likely to stick to it.

Medications

Some people find their anxiety gets better when taking antidepressants. However, certain types of medications, such as benzodiazepines, can make anxiety worse over time.

Be sure to research any medications you’re considering, and combine any prescribed drugs with natural coping skills. 

Improving a situation

Sometimes anxiety isn’t out of proportion. Many people have good reasons to feel stressed or fearful. Examples include: 

  • A job with unrealistic expectations
  • Dealing with frequent bullying, at home, work, or at school
  • Living with, or dating, an abusive partner
  • Living in a violent region or community
  • Experiencing any ongoing trauma, including any type of physical or emotional abuse

If any of these sound like your circumstances, then your anxiety may be appropriate. Your body may be working as intended, to alert you that you’re in an unsafe situation. 

If this is the case, talk to a supportive neutral party to get an outside perspective. Share the truth about what’s going on. Often the targets of abuse are living in confusion and fear, and can’t see their situation clearly. 

If necessary, get professional help from your local community, the police, or other authorities. Keep looking for help until you find the support you need.

If you’re able, consider making a change on your own. For example, it may be time to look for a new job or reconsider a stressful relationship. Start with small changes—over time this can make a big difference. 

Find a Purpose

In the study mentioned earlier on women from disadvantaged areas, one of the key protective factors was feeling a sense of purpose. If you already know your purpose, take time to reconnect with it. 

If you’re not sure, begin to explore. What things bring you the most satisfaction or joy in life? 

Many people find meaning through volunteering, their relationships, spirituality, being creative, or in a vocation they enjoy. Journal, talk to others, and investigate new ideas until you discover your own purpose. 

Overcoming Your Genes

It is true that anxiety partially relates to things you can’t control, like genetics. It may also be affected by your parent’s mental health during your childhood, your early environment, and your current situation. 

However, this doesn’t mean you have no control over it. By making changes in your life, or simply changing how you cope, you can decrease anxiety. 

Many people learn to overcome their anxiety diagnoses entirely. Seek help if you need it, and remember that you may have more power than you think. You can work towards a healthier, more enjoyable life. 

Start Your Mental Health Education:

Get instant access to free videos, and be the first to know about live classes and events.

Disclaimer: This information is not specific medical advice and does not replace information you receive from your healthcare provider. This is only a brief summary of general information. It does NOT include all information about conditions, illnesses, injuries, tests, procedures, treatments, therapies, discharge instructions or lifestyle choices that may apply to you. You must talk with your health care provider for complete information about your health and treatment options. This information should not be used to decide whether or not to accept your health care provider’s advice, instructions or recommendations. Only your health care provider has the knowledge and training to provide advice that is right for you.

You must talk with your health care provider for complete information about your health and treatment options. This information should not be used to decide whether or not to accept your health care provider’s advice, instructions or recommendations. Only your health care provider has the knowledge and training to provide advice that is right for you.

You May Also Like…

The Different Types of Stress

The Different Types of Stress

Stress is an inevitable part of life, but excess stress can take a serious toll on your physical and emotional well-being.  Research shows that 55% of Americans report feeling stressed during...

10 Types of Anxiety

10 Types of Anxiety

Do you feel anxious all the time? Do you struggle with panic attacks? Does it seem like you can’t stop the worry no matter how hard you try? You’re not alone. Research shows that over one-third of...