One of the longest-standing debates in psychology is the nature versus nurture debate. Are we the way we are because of nature, and we were simply born that way? Are we the way we are because of nurture, and our relationships and environments shaped us?
Today, it’s largely agreed that most of our mental health is a combination of both nature and nurture. The extent to which it’s one or the other, however, is still uncertain.
Tamoha Saha on Tedx delivered an intriguing speech regarding the genetics of mental illness:
Anxiety is the most common mental disorder in the United States, affecting 19% of the population. Experiencing anxiety is a normal part of every person’s life. When we’re experiencing a difficult situation or doing something we find intimidating, anxiety is a healthy response. Someone with an anxiety disorder will experience these feelings of anxiety without obvious triggers and often for prolonged periods. The question then is: are anxiety disorders genetic?
Is Anxiety Inherited Genetically?
The simple answer to this question is yes. However, it’s not a case of the cause being either nature or nurture. Multiple studies have shown that anxiety is genetically based. Studies also show that genetics is only one component, with heritability being 26–31%. However, whether anxiety is genetic is a nuanced question.
There are different types of anxiety disorders. Common anxiety disorders include generalized anxiety disorder, social anxiety disorder, panic disorder, and specific phobias. Is social anxiety genetic more so than panic disorder or others? It’s not clear at this point exactly which are more influenced by genetics than others.
The genetic influence on these disorders vary, but they have all been proven to have a genetic influence. A 2016 study found, for example, that variations on a certain gene relate strongest to social anxiety disorder while variants in other genes were related to panic disorder. They also found that some genes related to multiple anxiety disorders.
Research supports that anxiety disorders are genetically inherited. But as we can see, even the nature side of the debate has many different elements that play into it. The genes specified above are only a few that have been linked to anxiety disorders. The variety of different genes identified also shows us that there is not a single genetic cause but likely an interplay of various genes.
What Other Factors Impacts Anxiety?
There are certain medical conditions that have been linked to an increase in feelings of anxiety. Not being physically well may cause anxiety on an emotional level, but these conditions specifically spike anxiety due to the physical nature of the medical condition. Among others, these include diabetes, asthma, thyroid problems, and heart disease. Abusing alcohol and certain drugs can also cause an increase in anxiety.
Although we’ve seen that anxiety is genetically inherited, genetics are not the only way in which anxiety can be passed down in families. This is a large part of why the question, “Is anxiety genetic?” is difficult to answer and research.
Anxiety can be genetic or learned, and often an interplay of both. When children see their parents or guardians model certain traits and behaviors, it can often become that child’s learned behavior. Similarly, families can instill certain beliefs that can contribute to developing anxiety disorders.
When a parent has a social anxiety disorder, for example, they are likely to model traits and behaviors such as fear of and avoidance of social situations, expecting negative judgment from people, worrying about humiliating themselves, and shaking, sweating, and tensing their muscles when they’re around others.
Children will see these and may adopt them too.
Stressful life events
Responding to stressful life events with anxiety is normal. Big events and prolonged stressful events can lead to this normal response changing into a disorder. Big events can be things like losing a loved one, injury, divorce, or natural disasters.
Prolonged daily stressful events such as work stress, financial concern, or illness can also lead to developing an anxiety disorder – especially because prolonged exposure to stress can cause a change in your brain chemistry.
Covid has been a very relevant example of how stressful life events can increase anxiety. We’re now starting to see initial studies on the mental health impact of Covid. One of these studies, published in October 2021, showed a global increase of 25% in anxiety disorders between January 2020 and January 2021.
Experiencing childhood trauma predisposes people to develop anxiety disorders. Childhood trauma is often seen as only violence, physical or sexual abuse, or severe neglect, but trauma can be more subtle too. More subtle trauma, such as being humiliated, not having emotions validated, or being insulted, can be as damaging as the more overt types of trauma.
Childhood trauma can cause someone to feel unsafe in the world and see it as a scary and unpredictable place. It can also change the structure of the brain, such as enlarging your amygdala. The amygdala helps to detect and respond to threats, and when it’s enlarged, it can cause an over-detecting of threats. These could all increase anxiety.
Is It Possible To Treat Anxiety If It Is Genetic?
Yes. Anxiety disorders are genetic, but just because they’re genetic does not mean they are something you need to live with your entire life. Left untreated, anxiety disorders often become worse. It's imperative to find the right help as soon as you can.
Anxiety disorders are commonly treated through face-to-face therapy, online therapy, and sometimes medication. Therapy further helps us understand the root of our anxiety and which elements may be genetic or environmental.
Cognitive behavioral therapy is a particularly effective way to treat anxiety disorders and focuses on the link between thought patterns and behavior. It’s a goal-oriented type of therapy and often shows more immediate results than other forms of talk therapy.
Online therapy is especially well suited for someone who has an anxiety disorder, specifically social anxiety or agoraphobia. It allows you to do therapy in a way that makes you feel most comfortable and the accessibility of it allows you to talk to a therapist daily to share your struggles.
Anxiety is a natural and healthy response to dangerous or stressful situations. When you have or have had an anxiety disorder, these natural anxiety responses may be more difficult to manage. This is also why the accessibility of online therapy is so well-suited to anxiety disorders. Access to online counseling as soon as you feel anxiety coming back can help mitigate the potential of it becoming harmful again.
So are we the way we are because of nature, and we were simply born that way, or are we the way we are because of nurture, and our relationships and environments shaped us? We are the way we are and as anxious as we are because of both.
Genetics is not the predominant determinant of developing an anxiety disorder. If you have a family history of anxiety, you will not necessarily develop an anxiety disorder, but you may be more predisposed to it. Not having a family history of anxiety also doesn’t mean that you can’t develop an anxiety disorder.
If you or someone you know is struggling with anxiety, help is available and accessible. The sooner anxiety is treated, the easier it is to treat. If you’d like to give online therapy a try, we at DoMental are here to help.