By Linda K. Laffey, MFT

We know more about anxiety today than ever before.  Researchers have diligently striven to make progress in many scientific and psychological fields alike.  Yet, there’s still so much to learn.  For example, scientific studies have helped identify many of the causes and triggers for anxiety disorders.

Professionals continue to research one question related to the link between anxiety and genetics:  Is anxiety a genetic disorder?

Common External Causes of Anxiety

Everyone gets nervous, tense or edgy at times.  It is an inevitable part of the human condition.  Anxiety disorders, however, are diagnosable conditions well beyond normal nervousness.  Across the wide spectrum of anxiety disorders—panic disorders, social anxiety, PTSD, OCD, etc.—the following factors can play a role:

  • Situational stress related to personal relationships, school, work, finances, emotional trauma, health problems, etc.
  • Use of recreational or illicit drugs.
  • Side effects of medication.
  • Medical illness symptoms.

This seemingly brief list contains multitudes.  There are many nuances at play.  Anxiety increases when any of these triggers double up or overlap.

But what happens when external factors blend with “internal” factors?

Genetic vs. Hereditary

Before any discussion of genetic health issues can happen, it is essential to clarify what that does not mean.  A condition can be genetic without being hereditary.  Parents pass hereditary illnesses to their children and descendants.

“Genetic,” on the other hand, refers to a change in an organism’s genome. In these cases, the biological change predisposes a person to disease. Whether or not they present with that condition depends on countless external factors.

We can inherit traits like eye color, for example.  When it comes to many medical conditions, our genes do not fully determine our outcomes—and that is good news.

Anxiety as a Genetic Disorder

Researchers are hard at work on this subject.  In the meantime, we can depend on plenty of scientific-based information.

For example, anxiety disorders are not passed down from generation to generation as a hereditary trait.  Even when we can directly trace anxiety symptoms through our family tree, there are so many factors to consider.

One major player is the cultural tendencies of a family.  What some consider as “passing down” turn out to be behaviors, patterns, and perceptions that have the power to foster anxiety disorders.

Therefore, regardless of your genome, you may be at a higher risk for anxiety.  When combining cultural factors with a genetic predisposition, the risk becomes even greater.

Real-Life Example

Many children present with an anxious temperament.  The causes may fall into the external list above, e.g. a child may come from a high-stress home.

At the same time, the anxious child may have inherited a tendency towards such behavior.  Thirdly, we have the family dynamics mentioned above. Maybe an older sibling bullies the younger child and/or picks on them.

None of these factors alone create an anxiety disorder diagnosis, and yet, the child is certainly at a higher risk.

As researchers discover more, perhaps anxiety-related genes will be isolated.  In the meantime, it remains crucial for health care practitioners to understand and address external factors and inherited tendencies alike as major risk factors.

When to Seek Help

Understandably, some may find comfort in genetic causes.  We can relieve guilt by recognizing that we didn’t do anything “wrong” to cause a condition. Also, a genetic cause may be easier to treat with a targeted medication. That said, lots more work must be done before this is standard practice.

What we definitely know now is that anxiety is increasingly common and can be triggered by identifiable factors.  We also know a lot about addressing these disorders, and therapy looms large in that realm.  The causes of anxiety may vary, but seeking help remains an important first step.

 Take the first step…

If you struggle with anxiety, and you’re ready to begin resolving those issues, I would like to help.

Please contact me via phone or email so we can discuss how we might work together to achieve your therapeutic goals as quickly and effectively as possible.

I look forward to hearing from you.

Linda K. Laffey, MFT