Anxiety and Genetic Predisposition Myth

Written by Jim Folk
Medically reviewed by Marilyn Folk, BScN.
Last updated May 17, 2021

genetic predisposition anxiety disorder myth

Anxiety Disorder Myth #2: Anxiety Disorder Is Caused By A Genetic Predisposition

Another common belief is that anxiety disorder and its symptoms are caused by a genetic predisposition.

This theory became popular because researchers noticed that if one person in the family experienced anxiety disorder, there was a one in four chance that another person in the family would, as well.

This observation led to the conclusion that anxiety disorder must be genetically linked.

Is this conclusion accurate?

It’s well established that anxiety disorders run in families.[1] But is the reason genetic or something else?

Even though the study of genetics is well underway, we’re still in its infancy with a great deal yet to learn.

For instance, it was previously thought that genes determined many aspects of our lives and that our destinies were “hard-wired” to the genes we inherited.

But that’s not what researchers found. It was discovered that behavior and environment played a major role in how genes expressed.[2]

This discovery led to the study of epigenetics – the study of changes in organisms caused by modification of gene expression rather than alteration of the genetic code itself.

Even after years of genetic research, as of yet, there is still no “anxiety gene” or “set of anxiety genes.” Likely, they will never be found, such as researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder (CU Boulder) recently concluded about depression.

The enormous study, published in the American Journal Of Psychiatry, found that after investigating candidate genes for depression, the 18 candidate genes most commonly referred to in previous research were no more influential than genes picked out at random.[3]

The team concluded that early theories about “depression candidate genes” were wrong.

"This study confirms that efforts to find a single gene or handful of genes which determine depression are doomed to fail.” said first study author Richard Border, who is a researcher and graduate student in CU Boulder's Institute for Behavioral Genetics.

Regarding finding candidate genes for depression, senior study author Dr. Matthew C. Keller said:

"There's just nothing there. I hope this is the final nail in the coffin for those kind[s] of studies."

As it turns out, Dr. Keller’s words were prophetic. Several studies in the last few years have confirmed that genes have little if anything to do with medical and mental health outcomes.[4]

Furthermore, research this year (Feb 2021), published in the Journal of Affective Disorders, has confirmed that genes don’t predict mental illness.[5]

David Curtis, who conducted the research, wrote:

“The results obtained from this study are completely negative.”

“No gene is formally statistically significant after correction for multiple testing, and even those which are ranked highest and lowest do not include any which could be regarded as being biologically plausible candidates.”

“The distribution of results is exactly as one would expect by chance.”

Curtis further concludes:

“It seems unlikely that depression genetics research will implicate specific genes having a substantial impact on the risk of developing psychiatric illness severe enough to merit referral to a specialist...”

Other recent studies have arrived at similar conclusions.

Based on the latest research, it’s safe to conclude genes have little if anything to do with mental illness.

Sadly, despite the latest research, the genetic predisposition for anxiety disorder theory persists. It's not uncommon to find references to it on many medical and mental health websites even though the theory has recently been disproven.

If genes don’t cause mental illness, what does?

We know that our environment and behavior have significant influence over gene expression,[6] which accounts for identical twins having vastly different medical and mental health outcomes.

Rather than genes causing medical and mental health destinies, environment and behavior play the major role.

For instance, experiencing early life trauma, poverty, cross-generational transmission, abandonment, and so on are well-established factors in the development of anxiety disorder.[7][8]

We regularly see these factors when working with anxious clients.

These factors are also the reason why research has not only shown that talk therapy is an effective treatment for anxiety disorder,[9][10] talk therapy is the Gold Standard” treatment because of its effectiveness.[11]

Research has also shown that mind/body interventions can change our DNA and that talk therapy changes the brain.

Since anxiety disorder is caused by learned unhealthy behavior, which can be changed and the reason behavioral therapy is so effective, anxiety disorder can be successfully overcome with the right information, therapy, and support.[12]

How can this myth hamper recovery?

Our ability to overcome anxiety disorder could be undermined if we believe our behavior is at the mercy of our genes.

This perception can make us victims of anxiety disorder rather than empowering us to make healthy change.

As we state in our materials, anxiety is a physiological, psychological, and emotional state that occurs when we behave apprehensively.

Therefore, anxiety is a result of a certain style of behavior and not caused by genes. Dealing with the true cause of anxiety disorder – unhealthy apprehensive behavior that is motivated by unhealthy underlying factors – addresses the anxiety disorder problem.

When you successfully address the cause of anxiety disorder, you eliminate the anxiety disorder problem and its symptoms.

All of us have the ability to overcome anxiety disorder when we access the right information, help, and support, and when we do the required work.

How can this myth make things worse?

Anxiety is caused by apprehensive behavior. If you believe your anxiety is caused by your DNA, which is outside of your control, you might also conclude there is nothing you can do about it.

The implications of that realization could make you feel more anxious, and even depressed.

If you believe you have no hope, this mindset can produce the very outcome you dread – trapped in an anxious life with no hope of ever escaping it – which can create more anxiety and depression.

But if you believe there is a lot you can do to overcome issues with anxiety, that realization alone can bring hope and encouragement, both of which can alleviate a great deal of anxiety and hopelessness.

Anxiety isn’t about something that’s “gone wrong” in the brain that you can’t correct. Anxiety is about unhealthy behavior we can change.

All of us at anxietycentre.com have experienced anxiety disorder and know how out of control it can seem. But we’ve also overcome it and know it can be successfully overcome with the right information, help, and support.

Working with an experienced anxiety disorder therapist is the most effective way to overcome anxiety disorder and its symptoms.

No one needs to suffer needlessly!

The combination of good self-help information and working with an experienced anxiety disorder therapist, coach, or counselor is the most effective way to address anxiety and its many symptoms. Until the core causes of anxiety are addressed – which we call the underlying factors of anxiety – a struggle with anxiety unwellness can return again and again. Dealing with the underlying factors of anxiety is the best way to address problematic anxiety.

Additional Resources

Return to our Anxiety Myths page.

anxietycentre.com: Information, support, and therapy for anxiety disorder and its symptoms, including Anxiety and Genetic Predisposition.

References

1. Telman, Liesbeth, et al. "What are the odds of anxiety disorders running in families? A family study of anxiety disorders in mothers, fathers, and siblings of children with anxiety disorders." European Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, Nov. 2017, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5945734/

2. Tyson, Frederick, et al. "Environmental Influences on Epigenetic Regulation." Environmental Health Perspectives, Dec. 2005, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1314949/

3. Border, Richard, et al. "No Support for Historical Candidate Gene or Candidate Gene-by-Interaction Hypotheses for Major Depression Across Multiple Large Samples." The American Journal of Psychiatry, 8 Mar 2019, https://ajp.psychiatryonline.org/doi/10.1176/appi.ajp.2018.18070881

4. Allison Bench. “Alberta study shows DNA may not actually be good predictor of disease, health.” Global News, 18 Dec 2019, https://globalnews.ca/news/6313646/genetic-disease-risks-university-of-alberta-study/

5. Curtis, David, et al. “Analysis of 50,000 exome-sequenced UK Biobank subjects fails to identify genes influencing probability of developing a mood disorder resulting in psychiatric referral.” Journal of Affective Disorders, 15 Feb 2021, https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S016503272033114

6. Lobo, Ingrid. "Environmental Influences on Gene Expression." Nature Education, 2008, https://www.nature.com/scitable/topicpage/environmental-influences-on-gene-expression-536

7. Lebowitz, Eli, et al. "Cross-generational influences on childhood anxiety disorders: pathways and mechanisms." Journal of Neural Transmission, May 2016, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5007197/

8. Meghan Crosby Budinger, Tess K. Drazdowski, Golda S. Ginsburg. Anxiety-Promoting Parenting Behaviors: A Comparison of Anxious Parents with and without Social Anxiety Disorder. Child Psychiatry & Human Development, 2012; DOI: 10.1007/s10578-012-0335-9

9. Hofmann, Stefan G., et al. “The Efficacy of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy: A Review of Meta-Analyses.” Cognitive Therapy and Research, U.S. National Library of Medicine, 1 Oct. 2012, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3584580/.

10. Driessen, Ellen, et al. "Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Mood Disorders: Efficacy, Moderators and Mediators." Psychiatry Clinics of North America, Sep. 2010, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2933381/

11. Leichsenring, Falk. “Is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy the Gold Standard for Psychotherapy?” JAMA, American Medical Association, 10 Oct. 2017, jamanetwork.com/journals/jama/article-abstract/2654783.

12. DISCLAIMER: Because each body is somewhat chemically unique, and because each person will have a unique mix of symptoms and underlying factors, recovery results may vary. Variances can occur for many reasons, including due to the severity of the condition, the ability of the person to apply the recovery concepts, and the commitment to making behavioral change.