Is anxiety a genetic disorder?

There's evidence to suggest that genetics may play a role when it comes to anxiety. However, this isn’t the only explanation.

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Anxiety is a common mental health condition that affects millions of people all over the world. It can cause distressing feelings of worry, fear and unease. Many people wonder about the origins and causes of anxiety, and whether it’s a genetic disorder passed down through generations.

Here, we'll explore the relationship between genetics and anxiety, including:

  • Whether it’s hereditary
  • Whether it runs in families
  • If it’s something that you’re born with or something that develops over time

By understanding the role that genes may play in anxiety disorders, we can gain a valuable insight into this complex condition and how it affects individuals and families.

Is anxiety genetic?

The question surrounding whether anxiety is hereditary has been the focus of lots of research over the years. The current consensus suggests that anxiety arises from a combination of genetic and environmental factors.

While genes aren’t the only factor involved, research suggests that genetics do play a role in making someone more prone to developing an anxiety disorder. This review, published in 2017, in Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience, found that several anxiety disorders, like social anxiety disorder, panic disorder and generalised anxiety disorder (GAD), are all linked to specific genes. If a close family member, such as a parent or a sibling has an anxiety disorder, this has been shown to increase the chances of you developing one as well.

However, it’s important to understand that environmental influences can also significantly contribute to anxiety. Many people with anxiety disorders have no family history of the condition, which rules out a purely genetic cause.

This interplay between genetic predisposition and environmental factors is crucial in understanding how anxiety develops.

Are you born with anxiety or is it developed?

People who have close family members who struggle with anxiety, are thought to be more genetically prone to developing the condition at some point.

However, it’s important to recognise that anxiety isn’t solely predetermined at birth. Environmental influences, such as traumatic experiences, chronic stress, or challenging life circumstances can play a significant role in triggering anxiety or making existing anxiety worse.

The following environmental factors can all lead to someone developing anxiety, even if the person doesn’t have any family history of this mental health condition:

  • Experiencing abuse or neglect, especially if this happened at a young age
  • Struggling with other mental health conditions, such as depression
  • Struggling with serious, chronic or life-threatening physical health conditions, such as cancer
  • Certain medications can lead to anxiety as a side effect
  • Current events and challenges in your life that may be stressful, such as bereavement, divorce, job loss or money worries
  • Drug or alcohol abuse
  • A diet that’s too high in sugar and/or caffeine

While some people may be born with a genetic susceptibility to anxiety, the development of anxiety is likely down to a combination of genetic factors and external factors.

Can anxiety run in the family?

Anxiety disorders can run in families, suggesting a familial or genetic component. You’re more likely to struggle with anxiety if a close relative also struggles with it. In addition, the presence of anxiety disorders among relatives can indicate a shared genetic vulnerability to the condition.

However, it’s important to note that having a family member with anxiety doesn’t guarantee that you’ll develop the condition, as there are other factors at play. Also, it’s unclear whether anxiety that runs in families is due to a genetic component, or whether it’s because younger members of the family have been exposed to anxiety symptoms and behaviours from a young age. In these cases, the younger family member may adopt some of these behaviours and show signs of anxiety.

Therefore, while anxiety can run in families, it’s not completely determined by genetics; learned behaviours and shared experiences may cause family members to exhibit some of the symptoms of anxiety.

A combination of factors

In conclusion, anxiety is a complex mental health condition that’s likely to be influenced by a combination of genetic and environmental factors. While anxiety isn’t just down to genetics, there's evidence to show that genetics can play a role in making someone more susceptible to developing anxiety. Anxiety can run in families, demonstrating a genetic link and increased risk among close relatives.

However, genetics isn’t the only determining factor, as environmental influences and life experiences can also have a significant impact on someone developing anxiety.

Treatment for anxiety

Acknowledging the fact that there are lots of different potential causes for anxiety, can help us to develop a thorough approach to diagnosis, treatment and support. Whether your anxiety is influenced by genetics, the environment, or a combination of both, the impact it has on your wellbeing is significant. Regardless of where your anxiety came from, the most important step is to get the help you need.

At Priory, we can provide expert anxiety treatment, including evidence-based therapy, helping you to address your symptoms and return to the fulfilling life you deserve. We can also give you access to helpful resources and techniques, including tips for how to calm your anxiety. You don’t have to struggle with anxiety; we can help you get back on track.

Page clinically reviewed by Dr Natasha Bijlani (FRCPsych, MBBS), Consultant Psychiatrist based at Priory Hospital Roehampton London

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