If you have anxiety, you may be wondering if other people in your family have anxiety, as well. Unfortunately, the causes of anxiety are complicated, and genetics are only part of the puzzle. Everything from your genetics, to your trauma, to your other lived experiences can trigger anxiety even if no one else in your family has it. While this may not be the expected answer, it is hopefully good news for people who have anxiety and worry about passing it on to their children. If you wonder if anxiety is hereditary, rest assured that your genes are only a part of the picture.
What does it mean for something to be hereditary?
The Oxford Dictionary describes the word hereditary as being determined by genetic factors, and therefore able to be passed on from parents to their descendants. This means that something that is hereditary, or genetic, that one or both of your biological parents have, can be passed down to you.
Genes are a part of our DNA. This means that they cannot be changed with medications or treatments. However, whether or not a gene becomes activated can change. If you inherited anxiety, many factors, not just your inheritance, will decide how much of a problem it will be. These factors can include how stressful your life is, any trauma you have faced, the number of things on your plate, and many more variables.
Can you inherit anxiety?
The short answer is yes. Recent studies show that there are six or more individual genes that can influence anxiety. That being said, we have known that you can inherit anxiety for many years– even before we understood how DNA or genes worked. A study from 2017 showed that if you have a close relative with anxiety, your chance of developing it is 2 to 6 times higher than if you don’t. It’s even worse if you have an identical twin with anxiety; this is because you share the same genetics.
The good news is that even if you did inherit anxiety from a family member, the genes that come with a risk for developing anxiety can be turned on or off based on triggers in the environment. Anxiety is complicated, and it’s likely that it depends on a pattern of inheritance and activated genes.
Researchers are still working to figure out exactly which genes are causing anxiety. Although there are a number of different possibilities, many genes that we have discovered cause anxiety in some people but not in others. The more we research, the more likely it is that we will have a better understanding of how and why genes react to anxiety.
Is anxiety hereditary for everyone in a family?
Not necessarily. With the exception of identical twins, each person in your family has a slightly different combination of genes. Because we believe anxiety is tied to a pattern of genes instead of just a single one, this variation can make a huge difference.
Additionally, the environment plays a role in whether or not you develop anxiety. For example, if you are one of the 8.7% of people in the US who suffer from PTSD, you are far more likely to develop anxiety as well. This is because PTSD and anxiety share many features and symptoms. Other things that can cause anxiety other than your genes include familial or spousal abuse, having a disrupted family, grief, facing a prolonged stressful situation, and even being bullied.
It is possible that people who carry a genetic risk for anxiety are more likely to develop it, especially if they experience environmental stressors.
Will family members develop similar types of anxiety?
This is trickier. Some disorders are more “heritable” than others, like panic disorder or social anxiety. But even then, it’s not identical. Your sibling’s agoraphobia doesn’t mean you’ll develop it, even if you’re more prone to anxiety generally.
A similar example is a family where everyone has a good ear. Some people may pick up piano, or sing, or play guitar, but no two people play the same instrument the same way. Anxiety in the family is similar.
Additionally, even if two identical twins are predisposed to anxiety, one may get bullied in school while the other doesn’t. This can also influence anxiety to develop differently.
Finally, learned behavior can play a role in anxiety developing similarly. If your parent is afraid of spiders, for example, and you grow up watching them scream or run away any time there is a spider around, you are more likely to develop a fear of spiders because you learned at a young age that they are something to be feared. This can go for any specific things or circumstances as well, like crowds, elevators, and more.
Is anxiety hereditary for your children?
About 30% of anxiety risk is hereditary. This means that, unfortunately, you do have the potential to pass anxiety to your children, but it’s just that– a potential.
That is, 70% of anxiety risk is purely influenced by outside factors. You can give your kids the best chance of not developing an anxiety disorder by doing the following:
1. Foster open communication
- Create a safe and supportive environment where your children feel comfortable discussing their worries and fears.
- Listen attentively without judgment, validate their feelings, and help them understand that anxiety is a normal emotion.
- Encourage them to express themselves through talking, writing, or creative outlets.
2. Model healthy coping mechanisms
- Children learn by observing their parents. Demonstrate how you manage your own stress and anxiety in healthy ways.
- Talk about your coping strategies, such as exercise, relaxation techniques, or seeking professional help when needed.
- Avoid negative self-talk or catastrophizing in front of your children.
3. Promote self-esteem and confidence
- Encourage your children to try new things and take on challenges within their capabilities.
- Praise their efforts and accomplishments, focusing on their strengths and growth.
- Help them develop problem-solving skills and a sense of self-efficacy.
- Avoid overprotection or doing everything for them, as this can limit their opportunities to build resilience.
4. Establish routines and structure
- Create predictable daily routines, including regular mealtimes, bedtimes, and homework schedules.
- Provide clear expectations and boundaries, which can help children feel secure and in control.
- Minimize exposure to stressful or chaotic environments.
5. Encourage healthy habits
- Prioritize regular physical activity, which can help release tension and improve mood.
- Ensure your children get adequate sleep, as fatigue can exacerbate anxiety.
- Promote a balanced diet with plenty of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.
- Limit screen time and encourage activities that promote social interaction and relaxation.
6. Teach relaxation techniques
- Introduce simple relaxation techniques such as deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, or guided imagery.
- Practice these techniques together regularly to help your children develop these skills.
- Consider incorporating mindfulness exercises or yoga into your family routine.
7. Seek professional help, if needed
- If you notice significant signs of anxiety in your children, don’t hesitate to consult a mental health professional.
- Early intervention can be key to preventing the development of more severe anxiety disorders.
- A therapist can provide guidance and support, teaching your children effective coping strategies and helping them manage their anxiety.
A final note
While genes can play a role in anxiety, it’s important to remember that it’s not your destiny. Wondering if anxiety is hereditary is normal, especially if you yourself have anxiety already.
Seeking help for yourself and promoting healthy habits for your children can make a world of difference. If you suspect that you or a loved one might be navigating anxiety, seeking professional help can make all the difference.
If you or someone you know is struggling with anxiety, don’t hesitate to reach out for professional help. At Modern Era Counseling, our team of therapists specializes in treating anxiety disorders, using evidence-based approaches to help you regain control over your emotions and live a more fulfilling life.
Give us a call at (704) 800-4436, or shoot us an email today to get matched with a therapist who can provide personalized guidance and support on your journey to overcoming anxiety.