A young mother is sitting in my office, tearfully wondering aloud, “Is it my fault that my daughter worries so much? My father, myself, and now she all seem to share the same symptoms. Did I pass on my anxiety to her? Does my family have faulty DNA?”
As a psychotherapist, I hear similar concerns regularly, and it’s natural for parents to stress over the impact of their genes on their children. The short answer to my client’s question: Yes, to some degree, anxiety can be passed down through generations. However, as with many things brain-related, the full picture is more complex.
Parents need not lose sleep worrying if they’ve doomed their kids to a lifetime of similar woes, though. Much can be done to offset the influence of one’s genetic code.
Clarifying the Terms: What Is Anxiety?
What we commonly refer to as “anxiety” is actually an umbrella term for several related but distinct disorders; generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, and obsessive-compulsive disorder, amongst others. It’s also a complex combination of body sensations, physiological changes, and thoughts that can be experienced or displayed very differently from person to person.
As a result, studying the specifics of anxiety can get complicated. In addition, overlap exists between the symptoms of anxiety disorders and other disorders, including depression and addiction.
The Nature vs. Nurture Debate
There’s currently no way to put an exact number on the extent to which genes contribute to anxiety. Scientists in the field use the term “heritability,” which does not provide a specific percentage of genetic influence but accounts for the amount of variation in a trait. Every trait exists on a spectrum, and the heritability estimate tells us how well the trait’s variation is accounted for by genes. The higher a trait’s heritability estimate (on a scale from 0 to 1), the more impact genes have on it.
With a trait like eye color, scientists can easily and directly predict whether a person will end up with baby blues, greens or browns because eye color is not at all affected by a person’s environment (leaving it with a heritability close to 1). It’s not so straightforward for anxiety, where we need to look at the interaction between one’s genetic code and everything happening externally. Geneticists call this the diathesis-stress model (while that’s a mouthful of a term, it simply means that both environment and genetics contribute to a symptom or behavior).
Everyone is born with a particular predisposition to developing a mental condition, but there’s no way to determine exactly the number and intensity of environmental factors that will trigger the actual condition to occur. One could have a minimal predisposition and an extremely stressful set of life circumstances, prompting the disorder to manifest. On the other hand, in a lower-stress environment, even someone with a strong predisposition might never develop symptoms.
Research Roundup: Studies on Genes’ Contributions to Anxiety
A variety of studies in recent years suggest that our genes do contribute in some way to the development of anxiety disorders. A few are highlighted below:
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● Twin studies: In order to whittle down the contribution of genes to anxiety, researchers often focus on studying identical twins (who have the same DNA) and fraternal twins (who share about 50% of their DNA). While it remains tricky to control for the fact that most twins grow up together, researchers have determined a heritability of about 31% for generalized anxiety disorder and 43% for panic disorder. (Remember, this accounts for only the variability of the trait and isn’t a direct percentage. That said, because both of those heritability numbers are on the lower side, it indicates that both disorders are largely influenced by the environment or random chance).
● A 2018 study published in the Journal of Neuroscience focused less on genes and instead examined the brain structures involved in anxiety and how they are linked. This study, completed with rhesus monkeys, determined that connections in the amygdala are heritable. These connections are correlated with “early-life anxious temperament,” which is the presence of anxiety symptoms and behaviors in childhood. Displaying an anxious temperament in childhood appears to significantly increase the likelihood of an anxiety disorder as an adult (about half of children with such temperaments develop one). Excitingly, this study may yield new advances in strategies to cope with and manage anxiety (by addressing those brain pathways in adult patients) and may also provide insight into preventing or reducing childhood anxiety before it can continue into adulthood.
Manage Your Lifestyle, Manage Your Anxiety
Angst about anxiety, while understandable, is not the answer. We may not have the power to change our genes, but that does not mean we are doomed to constant lifelong anxiety. Doctors and mental health professionals recommend that anxiety sufferers not ignore the importance of lifestyle changes to manage anxiety.
While it’s not always possible to entirely remove the world’s stressors, simple and sustainable routines can be instilled to keep panic at a minimum. Children are keen observers and benefit both from having anxiety management strategies modeled for them as well as being directly demonstrated.
Concerned parents have plenty of options to design a supportive environment; Brillia’s five pillars serve as an excellent reference. For both children and adults with anxiety, regular and adequate sleep and a healthy diet are strongly encouraged. Even young children can be taught deep breathing or mindfulness techniques to give anxious thoughts less power, and movement or gentle exercise can defuse muscle tension.
School-aged and older children can be encouraged to talk through their worries with their parents or caregivers. They should be reminded that their emotions are valid but don’t have to run their lives. Everyone is capable of drawing upon their five senses to self-soothe and ground themselves when their nerves are frayed.
So, to all the parents out there: Fear not. Even if your child doesn’t appear to have won the genetic lottery, there are far more factors beyond genes that have an influence, and many of these factors can be managed or corrected for. We aren’t just stuck with the cards we’re dealt; there is much more that is within our control. Focus your energy on creating a life for your children in which they feel heard, loved and supported, and instill healthy habits to combat distress when it arises. Your kids will thank you for it!
What is Heritability? Genetics Home Reference National Institute of Health
Genetics of Eye Color David Duffy, QIMR Berghofer Medical Research Institute, Brisbane, Queensland, Australia Published online: March 2015
American Psychological Association
APA Dictionary of Psychology
Am J Psychiatry. 2001 Oct;158(10):1568-78.
5. A review and meta-analysis of the genetic epidemiology of anxiety disorders. Hettema JM1, Neale MC, Kendler KS.
7. Functional Connectivity within the Primate Extended Amygdala Is Heritable and Associated with Early-Life Anxious Temperament
8. Andrew S. Fox, Jonathan A. Oler, Rasmus M. Birn, Alexander J. Shackman, Andrew L. Alexander and Ned H. Kalin
9. Journal of Neuroscience 29 August 2018, 38 (35) 7611-7621
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