Anxiety disorders — like generalized anxiety, panic disorder, and OCD — can all run in families. Disorders that run in families are sometimes called “hereditary” disorders.
Experts don’t know exactly what causes anxiety. But your genes, environment, and life experiences all seem to play a role. Parenting style and family dynamics matter, too.
If you have anxiety, one of the best things you can do for yourself and your family members is to get treatment.
If you have anxiety, it’s likely others in your family also have it. But the causes of anxiety are complicated, and genetics are only part of the puzzle. It turns out that environment and life experiences also affect the chances of developing anxiety. That can be good news for people who struggle with anxiety and wonder about passing anxiety down to their children.
When a disease is hereditary, it means you can be born with a chance of developing it. That chance was given to you by your biological mother, father, or both. Sometimes this means your mother or father had the disease. Sometimes they might have had genes for it but never actually got sick.
Genes are part of DNA. They’re inside every single cell in the body and can’t be changed with medication or treatments. But whether or not a gene becomes activated can change.
When you inherit a disease like anxiety, a variety of factors — like how stressful your life is — will decide if it’s going to be a problem.
There’s clear research showing that anxiety is influenced by genetics. In fact, experts noticed a family connection for anxiety even before they understood how DNA or genes worked.
If you have a close relative with anxiety, your chance of developing it’s about 2 to 6 times higher than if you don’t. Your risk is even higher if you have an identical twin with anxiety (because you share the same genetics) — even if they grew up in a different household than you.
These days, science shows that certain genes come with a risk for developing anxiety and genes can be turned on or off based on triggers in the environment. A complicated illness like anxiety probably depends on a pattern of inherited and activated genes.
Scientists are working to figure out exactly which genes cause anxiety. They’ve identified a number of different possibilities. Many of the genes they’ve found cause anxiety in some people but not in others. In the future, science will have a better understanding of why that is.
No. For one thing, each person in your family (except identical twins) has a slightly different combination of genes. Since anxiety seems to be tied to a pattern of genes instead of just a single one, this variation can make a big difference.
Plus, each person’s environment plays a role in whether or not they have anxiety. Facing a stressful situation — like trauma, abuse, or a disrupted family — can trigger anxiety. And it’s possible to develop anxiety even if you don’t inherit the genes for it.
People who already carry a genetic risk for anxiety are probably more likely to develop it when they experience environmental stresses. For folks who don’t have the risk or don’t face significant stress, anxiety just might never be a problem.
In short, genetics and environment each play a role in determining who will have anxiety, but they don’t explain everything. It still isn’t completely possible to say why some people have anxiety and others don’t.
Anxiety comes in many different forms, like generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), panic disorder, phobias, and so on. Different family members might show very different types of anxiety.
As people get older, the types of things they’re anxious about change. For example, young children may be afraid to leave their parents to go to school. Teens might worry about grades or relationships. Adults may worry about jobs and money, and older folks can worry about health or falling. One reason anxiety looks different in different family members is because it changes over time.
As mentioned above, in addition to genetics, the environment you live in affects whether or not you will have anxiety. For example, scientific research shows that experiencing a childhood trauma — like abuse or a disrupted family — makes you more likely to develop anxiety later. The timing of life stress can also be important. Teenagers seem to be particularly sensitive to interpersonal stresses, like rejection or bullying.
The new field of epigenetics takes the powerful connection between genetics and environment one step further. Research in this area shows that stress during pregnancy — or even before pregnancy — can affect whether or not a child develops anxiety later. Scientists believe this happens because some genes can be programmed to turn on or off even before they’re passed down from parent to child.
Anxiety can also be learned. Children learn how to handle situations by watching how the adults around them behave. If their parents often respond to events with anxiety, children may learn to model that behavior. For scientists studying anxiety, this pattern can be very difficult to separate from genetics.
Parenting style may also affect anxiety in children in teens, sometimes with lifelong consequences. We’re still learning about this connection, but so far there’s evidence that anxiety may be linked to:
Authoritarian parenting: This is a strict way of parenting where communication is a one-way street. Parents set rules, and the child is expected to obey without question. These parents might be seen as harsh, demanding, and critical.
Overprotective parenting: Overprotective parents go above and beyond to protect their children from harm, frustration, and sadness — to the point where it gets in the way of developing good life skills and self-confidence.
Uninvolved/neglectful parenting: Uninvolved parents have a hard time responding to their child’s needs, either emotionally or physically.
Authoritative parenting, on the other hand, may protect children and teens from anxiety. Authoritative parents set clear boundaries and can be strict. But they also take time to see things from the child’s point of view and are loving and nurturing. Others may see them as firm but supportive.
Not necessarily. Statistics show that children born to anxious parents have a higher chance of going on to have anxiety, but it’s still just a chance. Plenty of children with anxious parents don’t develop anxiety.
If you have anxiety and are concerned about passing it to your children, the most important thing you can do is get treatment for your own anxiety.
Then, educate yourself. Anxiety can take a variety of forms, from specific phobias to generalized anxiety and eating disorders. Signs of anxiety can look different in children and teens. Watch for things like:
Trouble coping with stress
Unhealthy eating habits
Avoidance of social situations
You’ll be in a good position to find treatment early if your child runs into trouble.
Children can be successfully treated for anxiety, and they can learn tools for handling anxiety if it becomes a problem again in the future.
The first step in getting help for anxiety is talking to your healthcare provider. Anxiety is extremely common, and chances are your provider gets asked about it all the time.
Many different treatments are available for anxiety, and there’s excellent scientific support for many of them. For most people, medications or therapy, or a combination of both, are most likely to be effective. The most common medications are selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRI) or serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRI) medications, which help to improve the levels of certain chemicals in the brain. Cognitive behavioral therapy teaches different techniques to help manage anxious thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.
Anxiety is genetic, but that doesn’t mean you will definitely have it or pass it to your children. Predicting whether or not someone will develop anxiety is complex. It’s clear that your life circumstances play a role. Because of this, science can’t always predict who is most at risk. The most important thing you can do is watch for anxiety symptoms and treat them if they come up.
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