Is anxiety hereditary or learned behavior? Nature or nurture?
When I was in my mid-20’s, something as innocent as leaving home to go grocery shopping would cause enough anxiety that I would think of every reason NOT to go and if I was able to gather myself together enough to go out, it would take quite a bit of effort and a lot of distractions like sunglasses and noise-isolating earphones to help me feel a little more at ease outside of the comforts of home.
Over many years of personal development work, I learned that a lot of challenging life experiences have sensitized my nervous system toward anxious tendencies.
Also, it was in my 40’s when I was having a conversation with my father when he happen to mention, “I should go grocery shopping, but just the idea of going outside is exhausting and I’d rather just stay home.”
In that moment, I found myself completely speechless to realize: My father and I had this tendency for anxiety in common (and goodness knows what else) and I HAD ABSOLUTELY NO IDEA.
While there was a bit of a language barrier between us (my parents are immigrants to Canada from Japan, and there are times when my Japanese and their English are not exactly adequate to have more indepth discussions), we chatted a little more about other everyday things and situations that caused us both to feel anxious.
The particularly interesting thing for me is this: From my clients, it’s not uncommon for me to hear, “Anxiety is something that runs in my family. So I just need to figure out a better way to deal with it.”
In my case, I’ve always thought of my immediate family as individuals who are sensitive folks, which I have believed to be true of me, also. But it never crossed my mind to think, “My parents/family members are anxious people.”
It turns out they are both sensitive and people with a tendency for anxiety. And through my own better understanding of myself, as well as my training and experience working with clients as a psychotherapist, I believe these anxious tendencies I share with them were mostly learned, not primarily because we have a specific ‘stress gene’ that’s been inherited.
In many families, it can be true that the tendency to react in many situations with stress and anxiety are noticeable and present through generations. In fact, this might also be true for you and your family.
Specifically with my family and I, my belief is that much of the tendency toward anxiety comes from not having learned more productive ways of managing our sensitivity and emotions, and therefore, defaulting to learned and habituated ways of reacting to uncomfortable or difficult situations by worrying and getting anxious.
So the answer is perhaps not as clearly satisfying as “Yes, it is genetic” or “Yes, it is environmental”. It appears the most accurate answer is: It’s both genetic and environmental.
But if we have learned ways of reacting anxiously in seemingly stressful situation, then it is possible that we can consciously learn to live less anxiously, also.
Those who may not experience anxiety on a regular basis, or who do not possess generalized anxiety, have learned ways to identify, cope and regulate difficult emotions.
Identifying and resolving these behavioral habits at the root of our stress and anxiety is crucial to not experiencing the heightened feelings of anxiety on a regular basis, and well… generally being able to feel more at ease.
It’s possible to manage anxiety and stress by modifying behaviours
Feeling of anxiety or intense stress is manageable, especially combined with the right knowledge and consistency (developing new habits). Additionally, professional assistance and support can be helpful to gain specific feedback on your individual situation.
Learning that it’s possible for things to be different may be encouraging news for anybody who has been coping over time with intense stress and anxiety.
For me being able to learn that my anxiety was manageable was valuable to taking the steps to make it happen. While it may be different for you, my specific recipe was a combination of personal psychotherapy, identifying, deploying and practicing new ways of managing my emotions, and on-going mind and body self-care.
It’s also helpful to think about it this way: Even if we are ‘hard-wired’ for certain traits, it’s not that our genes and genetic tendencies are turned on all the time. In fact, genes are activated and deactivated based on reactions to our environment and how we may behave.
If, as Dr. John Krystal of Yale School of Medicine and editor of Biological Psychiatry is correct when he says, “Genetics is not destiny,” then even certain ‘hard-wired’ aspects of who we are can be influenced by intentionally cultivated behaviors and habits.
But there are also other studies and research which suggests that a tendency for anxiety is not purely a genetic predisposition.
Take, for instance, a recent study involving twins which concluded that a set of twins may typically have very different and individually specific results when it comes to mental health conditions.
A more recent research study has discovered that the factor for the different results is due to the fact that environment and habits significantly influence gene expression, which also results in influencing the different medical and mental health results.
So instead of believing that genes trigger psychological and medical health issues that are inevitable and uncontrollable, it is critical to also understand that environment and habits play a very pivotal function.
These findings suggests that anxiety is not brought on purely and only by a hereditary predisposition, since our behaviors can identify gene expression, not just the other way around.
This ‘either genetic or environmental’ approach to thinking about our experiences with anxiety can not only be inaccurate and limited, it can also potentially be problematic.
While there are practical evidence which disproves that hereditary predisposition is not the only ways individuals can develop high stress and anxiety, there are still those who persistently hold the belief that these experiences are purely based in genetic expression.
One specific practical example to consider is that, every single one of us has experiences of stress and anxiety from time to time.
The way our central nervous system alerts us to possible risk and danger is how stress and anxiety can be expressed.
This is a survival mechanism rooted deeply in the brain in a region called the amygdala. These kinds of reactions from the autonomous nervous system is not genetically disposed.
However, if an overstimulated and too frequent stress response ends up becoming more persistent, generalized anxiety due to the brain’s neuroplastic adaptation can occur over time.
It is possible that there may be a genetic component to the response itself that may get activated which I suspect might be linked to the intensity and duration of those consciously felt experiences.
In other words, in general, persistent stress-inducing environmental factors can trigger anxiety responses. But based on the individual, their personality, relational history, ability to self-regulate and other factors including genetics, the severity and for how long an individual may experience generalized anxiety will likely be impacted.
With all this said, the valuable piece in this discussion is that being able to determine that there are environmental and learned behavioural aspects of heightened stress and anxiety, then it is possible to change habitual behaviours and other forms of self-regulation to have a better sense of control of the reactions to do with stress and anxiety.
When it comes to problematic and intrusive anxiety, there are many individuals who have learned to manage and feel better through dealing with the behavioral and habitual components at the root of how and at what intensity an individual experiences stress and anxiety.
But does this address the observations and family tendencies where stress and anxiety appear to run in families? Just like much-cherished recipes and family secrets are passed down by repeated relational and environmental experiences, it is now believed that individuals can learn other behaviours and tendencies unconsciously over time, especially during the the developmental period between birth and early 20’s.
How can the belief that anxiety is caused strictly by hereditary or genetic factors obstruct dealing with anxiety more effectively?
The belief that stress and anxiety is only due to genetic predisposition positions the possibly of managing anxiety effectively outside of our control.
Should an individual believe that genes are the only factor causing and impacting the struggle which can result from persistent stress and anxiety, then it can feel as though nothing can be done about it.
This can certainly be disempowering. Beliefs that we are completely powerless to our genetics and that there is no possibility for things to be different from living in a consistent state of stress, can also be demoralizing.
From both my personal and professional experience, it is my belief that stress and anxiety are physiological, psychological, and emotional reactions that occurs in reaction to an externalized situation or event that may be perceived by the body’s internal system as either dangerous or threatening.
Generalized and a consistent experience of anxiety is predicated by persistent and consistent triggering of the ‘fight or flight’ response in the central nervous system, and the brain habituating itself to be scanning for perceived dangers more often, which may be intensified by genetics and also, learned behaviours over time.
It is possible to start dealing with the changeable aspects of our reactions to stress and anxiety and it is possible that with time and intentional engagement, how you experience these responses can change.
The way I often describe it is: “It’s possible to turn the volume waaaaaaaaay down.”
Each of us possesses the ability to not experience stress and anxiety in ways that are intrusive and that feel unmanageable. Especially when combined with knowledge and information relevant to you, support, and effort.
It’s not necessary for anyone to be completely overwhelmed by feelings of anxiety and stress.
It’s because of this belief that I started this website to provide as many resources as possible, so that anyone looking to change their experiences of anxiety and stress can begin to know what’s available.
What’s a good place to start dealing with my anxiety and stress?
Firstly, if your feelings of anxiety and stress is intense to the point that it is significantly interfering in your life (i.e.: not able to attend work and/or school and extreme difficulty with managing responsibilities), please consult a trusted medical, healthcare and/or mental health professional who can help you better understand or diagnose your specific situation or condition.
If, however, you have been experiencing a lower grade, yet still impactful, level of stress and anxiety, it can be helpful to know that things can be different.
And if, up to this point, you have held the belief that your stress and anxiety is triggered by something outside of your control that you can never influence or ‘correct’, what may result is a feeling of helplessness and potentially even depression.
If an individual feels they have no hope, this frame of mind can produce the really result they fear and dread, which produces more anxiety and anxiety.
As I’ve mentioned earlier, persistent anxiety is something I’ve experienced over time and I have dedicated a lot of my personal and professional attention to understanding how to not have it be an intrusive presence in my life.
So where to start? Getting useful information, tips, and support can be helpful in successfully dealing with anxiety. Browse through this website and if something catches your attention, I would encourage you to learn more about it and see if it is something you feel can be a fit and benefit to you.
While creating your own ‘recipe’ for dealing with stress and anxiety might involve one or even a number of self-practices based on helpful methods you might find, working with a trusted therapist, coach or counsellor can also provide some additional support for lasting changes.
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