Is Anxiety Genetic?

woman laying down on sofa looking anxious and sad

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Anxiety refers to feelings of fear, worry, dread, nervousness, or foreboding. Everyone experiences these feelings from time to time, and it can be adaptive and helpful to experience anxiety. For example, if you might be in danger, your brain may cue you to seek safety by causing feelings of anxiety.

Some people may experience clinically significant anxiety symptoms. This can manifest as anxiety in specific, non-threatening situations, panic symptoms, or generalized feelings of worry that occur most or all of the time. When anxiety symptoms cause distress or impairment, they are considered clinically significant and may result in a diagnosis of an anxiety disorder.

What causes some people to develop clinically significant anxiety symptoms? Do genetics play a role? As with many mental health diagnoses, anxiety has a genetic component. However, a genetic predisposition does not guarantee that someone will develop an anxiety disorder. In addition, some people with anxiety disorders do not report a family history of anxiety.

What Does It Mean If a Disease Is Genetic?

Humans have between 20,000 and 25,000 genes that make up our DNA. Our DNA determines many things about us, from our eye color to how tall we will be. Genes can interact with the environment as well.

For example, if someone experiences a traumatic event, their genetic expression might shift to adapt to the trauma, and this shift is passed down genetically through a process called epigenetics.

Even without trauma, though, people can be genetically predisposed to mental health issues. Although research is still emerging surrounding the genetic influences on mental health, evidence shows that there are genetic predispositions to developing mental illness, including anxiety.

Is Anxiety Genetic?

Research around how genetics contribute to the development of anxiety disorders has progressed over the years.

Research on identical twins has provided some evidence that anxiety disorders have a genetic component. Additionally, genome studies have shown that some genes are common in individuals with anxiety disorders. However, the current literature focuses on limited sample sizes.

The existing studies indicate that there is likely a genetic component to anxiety, though more information is needed to understand which genes cause anxiety and how this interacts with environmental factors such as stress and trauma to cause someone to develop an anxiety disorder.

Will My Children Have Anxiety Too?

If you have anxiety, your biological children are at higher risk for developing an anxiety disorder than the general population. This is not a guarantee, as some people do not develop genetic conditions even if these conditions run in their family.

If your child exhibits anxiety symptoms, your experience can help you support them and understand their symptoms. Your child might benefit from therapy services to help them manage their symptoms, develop coping skills, and learn to communicate effectively and appropriately.

How Can I Know Who Will Inherit Anxiety?

Unfortunately, we do not know for certain who will develop anxiety based on their genetic predisposition, who will develop anxiety despite not having a family history, or who will not develop anxiety despite having a family history.

As research evolves and we learn more about the human genome, we might be better able to predict who will and will not inherit a predisposition to an anxiety disorder.

Adverse childhood experiences and other types of childhood trauma can increase someone’s risk for developing an anxiety disorder. Hormone levels can also contribute to anxiety.

If you have a family history of anxiety, be aware of the various types of anxiety and their symptoms. Be aware of your stress level and that of your family members. If you have children, let them know that they can come to you with stress or other concerns. Since early intervention can help prevent symptoms from worsening, this open communication can be very beneficial.

Will My Anxiety Be the Same as Other Family Members?

Anxiety can manifest in many ways. Generalized anxiety, social anxiety, specific phobias, and panic attacks can all occur as a result of anxiety. A small amount of anxiety is adaptive and can help keep a person safe and motivate them.

Although anxiety has a genetic component, each person experiences emotions differently. If one person experiences social anxiety, someone with similar genetics might develop generalized anxiety disorder or agoraphobia instead. Anxiety can also vary in severity depending on stress, lifestyle, and other factors.

Getting Anxiety Treatment

If you or a family member experiences anxiety symptoms that interfere with your life, help is available. Many people with anxiety disorders can benefit from therapy services, and cognitive behavioral therapy has been shown to be an effective treatment intervention for anxiety as well as panic disorder.

Some people who experience clinically significant anxiety symptoms benefit from medication for their symptoms. Antidepressants such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) or serotonin and norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs) are sometimes be used to treat anxiety. Some providers prescribe benzodiazepine medications for as-needed relief from intense anxiety symptoms.

All medication has the potential for risks or side effects. If you feel like medication would be appropriate for your anxiety symptoms, talk to your primary physician. They can answer questions you have about your diagnosis and various treatment options.

Although the genetics surrounding anxiety are still an emerging area of research, there are genetic tests that can help you determine which medication might be the best fit for you.

A Word From Verywell

Anxiety disorders can be debilitating and can interfere with many areas of life. Although anxiety can be adaptive and protective, it can be difficult to let go of anxious feelings when they are not helpful or needed.

Know that it is OK to seek help for anxiety, and many evidence-based treatment options exist for anxiety disorders. A professional can help you or your family members struggling with anxiety receive the treatment and support that will best meet their needs.

9 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Amy Marschall, PsyD
Dr. Amy Marschall is an autistic clinical psychologist with ADHD, working with children and adolescents who also identify with these neurotypes among others. She is certified in TF-CBT and telemental health.