- ]]]]Anxiety is partially genetic — if one of your family members has an anxiety disorder, it’s more likely that you will, too.
- However, your life experiences — including family upbringing and any stressful or traumatic events — will also play a major role in determining whether you develop anxiety.
Anxiety disorders are the most common type of mental illness. In a ]]\given year, 19% of Americansymgvg experience an anxiety disorder, according to the National Association on Mental Illness (NAMI).
Among the most common are:
- Phobias, which affect 8.7% of Americans.
- Social anxiety disorder, which affects 6.8% of Americans.
- Generalized anxiety disorder, which affects 3.1% of Americans.
Scientists have long debated the importance of nature versus nurture in terms of human development and illness. We now know that genetics play a significant role in the development of anxiety. Particularly, researchers have found that genes on chromosome 9 are associated with anxiety.
But your experiences within your environment — including family upbringing and major life events — are also important factors. Here’s what you need to know about how genes and life experiences contribute to anxiety.
Is anxiety genetic?
You’re more likely to develop an anxiety disorder if another member of your family also has an anxiety disorder.
Research has indicated that anxiety disorders have a heritability rate of 26% for lifetime occurrence. This heritability rate means that 26% of the variability in whether or not people develop anxiety is caused by genetics.
So, about one-quarter of your risk for developing anxiety is genetic. That means other factors, such as traumatic experiences or physical illnesses, can have a larger impact. And your family can still contribute to anxiety in ways other than genetics.
“Family provides both the genes and the environment. It might be genes or it may be because a family member modeled a very anxious way of being in the world — or often a combination of both,” says Elena Touroni, PsyD, a psychologist and clinical director of My Online Therapy. “It can be difficult to disentangle genes and environment.”
One 2018 study found that children with anxiety disorders were three times more likely than children without disorders to have at least one parent with an anxiety disorder. The connection was particularly strong for social anxiety.
The study authors suggest that in addition to genetic risk, parents “model” behavior that increases the risk of their child developing social anxiety. For example, a parent who avoids social events might unintentionally teach their child to do the same.
However, adults who were raised by parents with anxiety can mitigate their risk of developing an anxiety disorder by learning how to manage anxiety with effective stress-management techniques. If you’re a parent with anxiety, the earlier you teach your kid about this, the better.
“The best thing you can do is be aware of the fact that there is a higher chance that you might be prone to anxiety yourself,” Touroni says. “Make a conscious effort to learn techniques to calm the mind, such as mindfulness. Also, having psychological therapy will help you better understand the anxieties of the people in your family, and therefore what they have left you vulnerable to as a result.”
A combination of genetics and life events mainly cause anxiety
You don’t need to have a family member with an anxiety disorder in order to develop anxiety. A stressful or traumatic event, for example, can increase the risk of developing an anxiety disorder.
“The main underlying core belief of any anxiety disorder is an exaggerated sense of vulnerability in the world — of yourself or the people you care about,” Touroni says. “Fundamentally, it’s about understanding whether your experiences led you to develop a belief that the world is a dangerous place.”
In particular, child sexual abuse and family violence may lead to an increased risk for anxiety. Moreover, having three or more adverse childhood experiences — these are somewhat traumatic events for children, ranging from divorced parents to abuse — is associated with a higher likelihood of developing anxiety.
Different childhood experiences — at home, school and elsewhere — can help explain why some family members might develop anxiety while others don’t.
For example, a 2018 study followed 49,524 twins for 25 years. The researchers found that as twins aged and their environments became more different, the influence of heritability on their chance of developing anxiety decreased. In short: even though the twins shared genetics, their risk factors for anxiety were affected more by their environment than their genes.
In the end, there’s no concrete set of factors that can predict if you wil]l develop anxiety, or not.
“Mental illness is very different to physical illness. We can’t always find a concrete link because there are a lot of variables,” Touroni says. “Our mental wellbeing is influenced by so many different factors, and because of that, it’s difficult to isolate genetic loading from environmental influence.”