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Don't Worry, Be Happy: Is Anxiety Genetic?

Don't Worry, Be Happy: Is Anxiety Genetic?

Anxiety can take a serious toll on your health

Kathryn Williams | Divine Caroline

January 05, 2010

It’s 7 a.m. on Saturday morning and your phone starts ringing. Who could it be but your mom stressing about the latest doomsday email forward in her inbox? You roll your eyes and thank the good heavens you’re not a worrywart like your mother … until three days later when you find yourself losing sleep over what you’d do if that new computer virus did wipe out your hard drive.

Can a predisposition to worry be inherited? Scientists say yes. Genetics could help explain why many people are predisposed to anxiety and why worrying is more natural than we think.

It’s in the Genes
The nature versus nurture debate is nothing new, but since the mapping of the human genome (as well as the genomes of our furry lab friends), scientists are increasingly finding that some personality traits are encoded in our DNA. Studies in the past ten years have identified genetic profiles associated with common anxiety disorders, like Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD), Social Anxiety Disorder (SAD), Panic Disorder (PD), and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). There’s not one specific gene that causes anxiety, but combinations of genes seem to be at play.

In late 2007, Yale researchers published a study identifying a gene variation associated with chronic worry and over-thinking (what they call “rumination”). Last year, a team at Massachusetts General Hospital found a gene variation associated with SAD. Findings like these would explain why children of a parent with SAD are two to three times more likely to have the disorder; children of a parent with panic disorder are up to eight times more likely to exhibit PD.

Other Factors
This doesn’t mean Mother Nature has won the great debate. Scientists agree that genes aren’t the only things at work when it comes to worry. Environmental factors and trauma can also greatly affect a person’s ability to process anxiety and fear. Some of these include low levels of maternal care, childhood trauma, fear conditioning, brain injury, and even strep infections. Genes and the environment are working together. A new study by Swedish and German researchers in Psychological Science shows that participants with specific versions of two genes were more likely to develop fear of external stimuli and less able to overcome that fear, potentially leading to increased anxiety.

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