Is Anxiety Genetic?

One writer and mom shares her hopes and fears about how her own mental health struggles could be impacting her daughter. Plus, experts weigh in on the nature vs. nurture debate.

When my two-year-old daughter Lucia Antonia has a tantrum, she curls her fist, her cheeks turn bright red, and she lets out a heart-stopping scream. This worries me.

Her external reaction is the manifestation of how I often feel internally, thanks to my anxiety-related panic attacks; so terrified of not having control over certain things that I just lose it. I worry my daughter is picking up on my nervous, anxious energy and will grow up to be like me in this way. If that's the case, does this mean anxiety is genetic? Could she have inherited my anxiety?

"Mental health issues do track in families," says Marra Ackerman, M.D., clinical associate professor, department of psychiatry at NYU Grossman School of Medicine. "However, family history is only one predictor of the risk of developing an anxiety disorder." The exact level of inheritable risk is difficult to measure because of the innumerable compounding factors within any parent-child relationship. For example, experts have found that what's called "insecure attachment" can develop when caregivers are not consistently available and responsive to meet a child's basic needs — the most obvious cases are during abuse or neglect, explains Dr. Ackerman. "These children are at highest risk to develop anxiety disorders and struggles with interpersonal relationships."

Nature vs. nurture is an age-old debate as to what elements make someone who they are. It compares genes and heredity factors such as physical appearance and personality characteristics (nature) versus environmental variables such as childhood experience, social relationships, and cultural exposure (nurture). Essentially, nature and nurture go hand in hand, and one doesn't supersede the other.

However, "it has been suggested that environment or 'nurture' is the major route by which anxiety is transmitted from parent to offspring," says Allison B. Deutch, M.D., clinical assistant professor of psychiatry at NYU Grossman School of Medicine. But there's a silver lining: "This is actually quite positive because environments are modifiable, and anything modifiable is an opportunity for intervention."

I've been nervous for as long as I can remember — ever since I was a child. I always felt scared about the unknown and feared the worst would happen. I didn't like not having control, and I still don't. When I was younger, this feeling led me to scratch myself. I scratched until I bled, and I now have marks that cover my body from head to toe. I'm fully recovered from this destructive habit, yet my scars are a constant reminder of all the harm I was doing to myself. I still suffer from anxiety, which has now, no doubt, been made much worse by the pandemic. To that end, I have good days and bad days.

It's inevitable that I'm going to get angry and lose my temper in front of my child. I don't think it's reasonable to be happy and full of sunshine all the time, even for my daughter's sake. Still, I worry about how my misgivings could impact her even on a subconscious level — can I spread my anxiety to her? "Children do learn from [parent's] coping styles, but that's not to say you can never express your anxiety or negative emotion [in front of them]," says Dr. Ackerman. "In fact, it's critical for children's emotional development that they learn about a full range of emotions and understand it's normal to feel anxious, sad, happy, angry, etc."

While I know my daughter's mental health isn't fated solely because of my own, the truth is that research has found that "children born to parents with anxiety are approximately four to six times more likely to develop an anxiety disorder compared to children who are born to parents without anxiety," says Dr. Deutch. "Despite their heritability, anxiety disorders are not monogenetic, meaning they are not caused by a single gene mutation. Instead, the intergenerational transmission of anxiety disorders appears to be driven by a complex interplay between genetic, environmental, and psychosocial factors."

I find myself wanting to do whatever is in my power to keep Lucia calm. She's a feisty baby who acts out when she can't "resolve" something — whether she's putting together a puzzle or playing a memory game. I try my best to encourage her and soothe her nerves, and while a part of me wants to quell how much I let my anxiety show, hiding it from her could do more harm than good, says Dr. Deutch. (

Parenting is extremely challenging and when children show signs of anxiety, it can feel very personal, so it's not surprising that the impulse for many parents is to try and shield their child from negative emotions, she says. But by doing so, "you may be inadvertently promoting avoidance and perhaps even convey the message that emotions are something to ignore," she explains. Anxiety is part of the normal range of human emotion, and showing your child how you can express anxiety and move past it can actually create opportunities to empower kids and help them to grow. That said, a chaotic or uncontrollable display of emotion can also be detrimental and feel scary and overwhelming for children. "So, if you're suffering from anxiety, the best thing you can do for you and your child is to seek treatment," she adds.

My anxiety is a part of who I am, and it may be a part of my daughter as well — time will tell. For now, I'm finding my own silver lining: When my daughter has seen me break down in tears (which has been more times than I care to admit in these past few months), she responds by giving me a hug and a kiss. Hopefully, this is nurture taking its course.

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