Is Anxiety Genetic or Learned? Deep Dive Into Where Anxiety Comes From

Is Anxiety Genetic or Learned? Deep Dive Into Where Anxiety Comes From

"It’s not so straightforward for anxiety, where we need to look at the interaction between one’s genetic code and everything happening externally."

Is Anxiety Genetic or Learned?


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.

What Causes Anxiety?

Anxiety can be caused by a combination of various factors, and it often involves biological, environmental, and psychological elements. Some common causes and contributing factors to anxiety include:

  • Genetics: As I discuss in this article, a family history of anxiety or other mental health disorders may increase an individual's susceptibility to anxiety.
  • Brain chemistry: Biochemical imbalances in neurotransmitters, the brain's chemical messengers, can influence mood and contribute to anxiety. Factors like serotonin and dopamine levels play a role.1
  • Personality and temperament: Certain personality traits, such as perfectionism, excessive worrying, or a tendency to be sensitive to stress, may contribute to anxiety.
  • Environmental stressors: Stressful life events, trauma, or chronic stress may trigger anxiety. This could include work pressures, relationship problems, financial difficulties, or major life changes.
  • Medical conditions: Underlying health issues, such as chronic illnesses, hormonal imbalances, or other medical conditions, can be associated with anxiety symptoms.
  • Substance abuse: The use of drugs, alcohol, or certain medications can lead to anxiety or exacerbate existing anxiety disorders.
  • Trauma: Exposure to traumatic events, such as physical or emotional abuse, accidents, serious illnesses, loss, or natural disasters, can contribute to the development of anxiety disorders.
  • Personality disorders: Conditions like obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), panic disorder, or generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) can be linked to anxiety.
  • Caffeine and diet: Excessive consumption of stimulants like caffeine, sugar, as well as poor diet and nutritional imbalances, may contribute to anxiety symptoms.
  • Neurological factors: Abnormalities in brain structure or function may contribute to anxiety disorders. Conditions like epilepsy or other neurological disorders can be associated with anxiety.2

It's important to note that individuals may experience anxiety for different reasons, and the causes can vary from person to person. It’s also common for multiple factors to contribute to the development and persistence of anxiety disorders. Working with a trained therapist is the best way to uncover the root cause of your anxiety.

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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.3 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).4 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).5

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:

  • 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.6 (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.7 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.

What are Symptoms of Anxiety Disorders?

Anxiety disorder symptoms vary person to person, but they may include some combination of the following:

  • Excessive worrying
  • Rumination
  • A persistent sense of dread or impending doom
  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Sweating
  • Feeling trapped
  • Nervousness
  • Irritability
  • Constant fatigue
  • Difficulty paying attention
  • Hyperventilating
  • Shortness of breath
  • Weakness
  • Muscle aches or tightness
  • Trembling
  • Trouble sleeping

How to Lessen Anxiety Symptoms

You don’t have to begrudgingly accept that you’re an anxious person just because you’re struggling with the symptoms or anxiety runs in your family. 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 anxiety at a minimum. Children are keen observers and benefit both from having anxiety management strategies modeled for them as well as being directly demonstrated. Here are some ways to get started:

Healthy lifestyle changes

Concerned parents have plenty of options to design a supportive environment for their child and for themselves and Brillia’s five pillars serve as an excellent reference. For both children and adults with anxiety, regular and adequate sleep and a healthy diet help to set a foundation for whole-body health. The effects of poor sleep and poor nutrition have both been shown to mimic anxiety symptoms and exacerbate existing anxiety. 

Limiting screen time is another step you can take for you and your child to minimize anxiety, irritability, and even poor self-esteem provoked by social media and excessive screen time. 

And relaxation techniques cannot be stressed enough, even in young children, as deep breathing and mindfulness have been proven to give anxious thoughts less power, defuse muscle attention, and change our brain’s response to stress.


Talking to a therapist or counselor is another way to reduce anxiety. A therapist can help validate your emotions or your child’s and show you how to deal with them more constructively. A therapist can also help you uncover the root causes of your anxiety and share self-soothing techniques to deal with anxiety and stress head-on.


If you make these lifestyle changes and find that you or your child still need support, consider trying Brillia. Brillia is a non-prescription homeopathic medication that consists of antibodies to the S100B protein, an important regulator of interneuronal communication, which essentially means it helps your brain cells communicate more effectively with one another. By targeting this protein, Brillia gently and impactfully reduces symptoms like anxiety, irritability, restlessness, and impulsivity while normalizing other monoamines (serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine) in the brain. The result is more calmness and clarity without harsh chemicals or harmful side effects. Choose between Brillia for Children for kids and teens ages 5-18 and Brillia for Adults

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!

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References: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7
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