As a therapist, I often work with many clients who live with anxiety. That should come as no surprise as anxiety disorders are among some of the most common mental health conditions, especially in the United States. Around 40 million people deal with an anxiety condition annually. One question that comes up from time to time is, “is my anxiety genetic?”
Is it Nature or Nurture?
In many circles, the question of whether anxiety is genetic or mostly environmental (nature vs. nature) comes up often. The nature versus nurture conversation is one that I’ve been exposed to since I was first exposed to psychology.
There are some who place a great deal of emphasis on biology. They believe that we are most often at the whims of our genetic coding. Others believe that life experiences and difficult circumstances are primarily responsible for our development of anxiety conditions. However, most of the research, and most providers will likely tell you, for most people developing an anxiety condition is a mixture of both nature and nature.
It’s not uncommon for me to have conversations with clients when I’m gathering family history where I believe that a client may have inherited some of the anxious traits of their parents. It’s relatively common, in fact!
However, that also has to take into account that most children live with their parents for many years, often witnessing and learning their parents’ ways of engaging with the world. This can often include what their parents find frightening or anxiety provoking. Anecdotally, it’s hard to decipher between whether nature or nature is in the driver’s seat. Research has, and continues to, make some ground in answering the question.
What Science Says About the Genetics of Anxiety
Twin studies on anxiety disorders demonstrate a genetic foundation for developing an anxiety condition. That is, there is some belief that anxiety conditions do run in families, suggesting relatively strong genetic relationships. Some research of Generalized Anxiety Disorder indicates a “moderate genetic risk” at 30%. 
However, the findings on specific gene-mapping have been less clear. This has led researchers to believe that there may be many different genes responsible for the development of anxiety conditions such as Generalized Anxiety Disorder or Panic Disorder (Villafuerte & Burmeister, 2003).  Gene-mapping is still a very new field of study in medicine, therefore the research community expects to have more valuable findings as more studies are conducted in the future.
The Power of Behavioral Inhibition
One significant finding in research states that there are some personality or temperamental characteristics that are more commonly genetically transferred or inherited through families.
One example is behavioral inhibition. The belief is that anxiety-motivated behavior often manifests as avoidance, stress, and withdrawal in unfamiliar situations and with unfamiliar people. Theorists state that for the 15-20% of the children who demonstrate this kind of behavior, they are at increased risk for anxiety disorders (Ollendick, Shortt, & Sander, 2008).  The research also indicates that those children with more extreme reactions in these unfamiliar situations may be at higher risk for a clinical diagnosis, suggesting a strong genetic predisposition being exacerbated by certain settings and environments.
Anxiety, Learning Theory and the Role of Environment
On the other hand, anxiety researchers also cite social learning theory as a significant contributor or nexus to the development of clinical anxiety conditions (Ollendick, Shortt, & Sander, 2008).  There are mainly four ways in which the development of anxiety is explained:
- That fear and anxiety can be learned through being exposed to some traumatic event and that event being connected to some previously neutral experience (eg. being bit by a dog after having neutral experiences with dogs before)
- People learn anxiety and fear through watching the reactions and experiences of those around them (modeling)
- Fear or anxiety may be exchanged just by talking about situations, objects or people
- Through avoidance, children may negative reinforce anxiety symptoms over time leading to the development of a clinically significant anxiety condition
As you can see here, the question of “is anxiety genetic?” is about as easy to answer as “What came first, the chicken or the egg?” Further research must be done in order to sufficiently answer the question definitively whether anxiety conditions are genetic or not. That being said, the most recent research on genetic mapping is promising for determining predisposition for certain health conditions.
More Research is Necessary
One flaw of the research out there is that it’s been difficult to gather large enough populations to adequately study and sample such a wide range of conditions. There are many disorders that fall under the umbrella term of anxiety conditions. In order to have a better understanding of the nature of these illnesses, many more people will need to participate in research. With this, hopefully we will be better able to accurately assess whether anxiety is genetic or not and identify the best strategies in treatment overall.
1. Gottschalk, M. G., & Domschke, K. (2017, June). Genetics of generalized anxiety disorder and related traits. Retrieved April 02, 2018, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5573560/
2. Villafuerte, S., & Burmeister, M. (2003). Untangling genetic networks of panic, phobia, fear and anxiety. Genome Biology, 4(8), 224. doi:10.1186/gb-2003-4-8-224
3. Sander, J. B. (2008). Internalizing Disorders in Children and Adolescents. In T. H. Ollendick & A. L. Shortt (Authors), Psychopathology: Foundations for a contemporary understanding (pp. 375-383). New York: Routledge., 4.