Know Your Health: Is Anxiety Genetic?

By LunaDNA Contributing Writer 

Many people experience anxiety during their lifetime. However, anxiety is not normal if it takes over your life. A genetic predisposition for anxiety can trigger an over-the-top response to a low-key event. There are many risk factors for anxiety disorders including genetics, personality, brain chemistry, and external influences.  

Learn more about anxiety, including:   

  • What is Anxiety? 
  • Types of Anxiety Disorders 
  • Symptoms of Anxiety 
  • What Causes Anxiety? 
  • Is Anxiety Genetic? 
  • Is Anxiety Hereditary? 
  • Anxiety Diagnosis 

Generalized Anxiety Disorder 

Generalized anxiety disorder is a chronic condition characterized by incessant and excessive worrying. A person with this disorder expects the worst, even when there is no plausible reason to do so. Feeling anxious for no reason is a common sentiment for those with this condition.  

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, generalized anxiety disorder sometimes runs in families. It’s unknown why some family members have it while others do not. The specific cause is unknown, but it is suspected that it’s a combination of family history, biological factors, and stressful life experiences.  

Symptoms may include: 

  • worrying too much  
  • feeling nervous 
  • feeling restless 
  • difficulty concentrating 
  • being easily startled 
  • having insomnia 
  • feeling exhausted 
  • feeling irritable 
  • sweating  
  • feeling light-headed  
  • feeling out of breath  
  • difficulty swallowing  
  • trembling  
  • having to go to the bathroom frequently 
  • having headaches  
  • having stomach aches 

Treatment by a doctor may include therapy and/or medication. 

Panic Disorder & Panic Attacks 

Panic attacks are recurring sudden attacks of terror that often come with debilitating physical symptoms. The episodes can last minutes or hours. A trigger may bring on the attacks, but often they arise for seemingly no reason. Symptoms include accelerated heart rate, trembling or shaking, having trouble breathing, sweating, feeling out of control, or feeling doomed. Because panic attacks are traumatic, some people with this disorder constantly worry when the next attack will occur and avoid places or situations. This can lead to another anxiety disorder called agoraphobia, which is the fear and avoidance of certain places or situations that might make you feel helpless or embarrassed. 

If left untreated, panic attacks can turn into a panic disorder. This occurs when a panic attack is followed up with a month or more of intense and constant worrying about the next panic attack and the fallout from it. However, not everyone that has panic attacks has a panic disorder. Treatment by a doctor for both conditions may include therapy and/or medication. 

Social Anxiety Disorder 

People with social anxiety disorder fear being in social or performance situations in which they might be judged negatively or be embarrassed. While it’s normal to get stage fright, people with this disorder tend to avoid public situations and human contact.  

Symptoms include blushing, accelerated heartbeat, sweating, trembling, nausea, lightheadedness, trouble breathing, and muscle tension. A typical response to this anxiety disorder is to avoid social situations whenever possible. Treatment by a doctor may include therapy and/or medication. 

Symptoms of Anxiety 

Although there are various types of anxiety disorders, many signs and symptoms of the types are similar including:  

  • accelerated heart rate 
  • hyperventilation 
  • sweating 
  • shaking 
  • sense of doom or panic 
  • nervousness 
  • restlessness 
  • tension 
  • tiredness 
  • difficulty concentrating 
  • insomnia 
  • gastrointestinal issues 
  • inability to stop worrying  
  • having trouble controlling urge to avoid trigger events 

Is Anxiety Genetic? 

Several parts of the brain play a role in fear and anxiety, so its genetic connections are complex. Through continued research, collecting data, and by learning more about how the brain functions in particular anxiety disorders, researchers can help create better treatments.  

Anxiety can be triggered by certain external events, and people with certain predispositions may be wired to react anxiously. It is possible that both genetic and environmental factors contribute to an anxiety disorder.  

While the link between genetics and anxiety is still unclear, it has been shown that anxiety disorders run in families. Genetically-linked brain disorders are complex, and more research needs to be done to truly understand whether or not anxiety is hereditary. 

Anxiety Diagnosis  

Diagnosing anxiety can be complex, so it is important to see a doctor or psychiatrist to get properly evaluated. A doctor may start with a physical exam to see if there is an underlying condition causing the anxiety. Laboratory testing of blood and urine samples may also be needed to rule out other possible causes. The doctor will look at medical history and ask questions to determine the proper diagnosis. If you experience some or all of the symptoms of anxiety, consult your physician. 

Treatments for Anxiety 

Treatments for anxiety vary largely based on the type of anxiety, root cause, and each individual’s situation and symptoms. A doctor decides how to treat patients based on what they need to function better in daily life. Two primary avenues of treatment are most common: recommended therapy to relieve stress and the use of anti-anxiety medication. Depending on the severity of an individual’s anxiety, a physician may recommend both therapy and medication as the best treatment.  

The field of pharmacogenomics, the study of how gene’s affect drug response, is making great strides in identifying which medications and dosages work better based on a patient’s genetic makeup. However, more research is needed to understand exactly how genetics plays a role in anxiety disorders and brain chemistry. As research continues, meaningful scientific breakthroughs will lead to better prevention and treatment of anxiety disorders. 

If you’d like to help researchers better understand anxiety and other genetic disorders, take the LunaDNA mental wellness survey. The more people who come together to contribute health data for the greater good, the quicker and more efficient research will scale, and improve the quality of life for us all.  

Click here to get started.