Is anxiety genetic?

by admin on April 27, 2013

Many of my counselling clients who come to me for anxiety treatment, ask if anxiety is genetic.  That line of questioning usually leads to stories about many relatives who have all kinds of anxiety.  So what’s the answer to the question about whether or not there’s a genetic pre-disposition to anxiety disorders including panic attacks and agoraphobia? Without wanting to sound like a lawyer (Attorney), I have to say that the answer is yes. And no.

Sorry, but the data are not in on a firm answer one way or another. Just because you and a couple of your cousins have episodes of out-of-the-blue panic, or just because you have high levels of anxiety, doesn’t mean that you have inherited those responses.

Many of the people who come to me with anxiety problems have extended families filled with exciting, excitable, interesting and vivacious people with all sorts of anxiety problems. Then again, just as many clients who have worrying levels of fear of public speaking or more general anxiety, come from families who look like they invented the term ‘calm‘ then added ‘cool‘ and ‘collected‘ to it.

In other words, my own empirical data don’t support the idea of a strong genetic pre-disposition either way. As someone who is scrupulous about research methods, I’m most certainly not suggesting that my random observations constitute proper research methods. I’m always cross when I come across someone making pronouncements based on their unmonitored observations with no control groups. What I am saying is that for more than twenty years, my clients have been fairly evenly spread across the spectrum of people who come from families where everyone is anxious to those families where they’re alone in their anxious response to life.

The Anxiety Gene

As many of you know, either through your own experience, or as the friend of someone who experiences them, panic attacks occur at random and usually out-of-the-blue. Of course if a person experiences great panic in a particular setting, a cinema (movie theater) or in an elevator, then there may well be some predictability about the way s/he’ll respond next time they’re in an elevator (lift) or they’re invited to the movies.

Either way, whether unexpected or anticipated, panic episodes can really destroy a person’s confidence about moving freely in the world.  Early this century, scientists at the Centre for Medical and Molecular Biology in Barcelona discovered a genetic basis for most panic attacks. According to an article in irishhealth.com “Scientists found that a small region on chromosome 15 was duplicated in 90% of affected family members. The duplicated region, known as DUP25, contains more than 60 genes, of which only 23 have so far been identified.”

According to the scientists, DUP25 appears to increase the risk of anxiety disorders. They are now trying to identify exactly which genes are responsible. This could lead to the development of drugs that suppress those genes, however this may take a number of years.

Besides, I’m not at all sure that drugs which suppress genes are necessarily the best route to take. By all means, I understand how upsetting and sometimes devastating panic attacks and anxiety disorder can be. But there are many highly successful strategies you can use if anxiety and panic attacks are part of what makes you the wonderful person you are. It’s a bit like the world in the film Gattaca isn’t it? So called perfect human beings via genetic engineering.

If you want to read more, the New Scientist website is a great place to start.  Alternatively, I thoroughly recommend that you read articles published by The Anxiety Disorders Association of America – you’ll find them easily in any search engine. Dr Reid Wilson on anxieties.com is another wonderful source of information and advice about how to tell if your symptoms are anxiety and how to conquer those inappropriate emotional reactions.

For now, may I suggest that whether you have a strong genetic disposition to anxiety or not, the main name of the game is this: you can conquer anxiety so that it becomes a natural motivating factor in your life, not a black leaden mass which smothers your joy. As you’ll read in my other articles on this site, your attitude to your anxiety is the key to the extent to which it has an impact on how you live your life. Indeed, my counseling Practice and my e-program Calming Words are based on finding solutions to your anxiety and panic attacks rather than trying to work out why you have them.


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