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

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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.

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 overthinking (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. 

To Test or Not to Test
Blood tests that identify biomarkers for certain genes related to anxiety disorders are on the horizon. One is currently being developed for panic disorder. However, the tests are likely to be expensive and not always necessary, as many anxiety disorders can be diagnosed with the DSM-IV (the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders—the mental health care professional’s bible). Not that a diagnosis necessarily needs to happen—everyday occurrences of worrying and anxiety are perfectly normal emotions, just like happiness and sadness. Doctors are also reluctant to use gene profiling to predict mental disorders. Just because your biology predisposes you for anxiety doesn’t mean you’re destined to become your hand-wringing mother. Genes are a blueprint, not fate. And the last thing you want is a self-fulfilling prophecy that will have you worrying about your susceptibility to worry.

Don’t Stress
Worrying is normal, but simple lifestyle choices can help you manage elevated levels of stress: exercise, eat healthy, stay away from caffeine and alcohol, get enough sleep, and try relaxation exercises. If your worry is chronic—particularly about things over which you have no control or that are in the past, like whether you should have invited your second cousin to your wedding four years ago—consider seeking professional help. Your anxiety may be a result of a medical condition, like a thyroid problem or hypoglycemia, or a side effect of medications you’re taking. If not, there are treatment options. Exposure therapy (repeated exposure to your source of anxiety in a safe and controlled environment), cognitive behavior therapy (identifying and challenging negative and irrational thought patterns), hypnotherapy, and physician-prescribed medications all have good track records in treating anxiety disorders.

While genetics can open doors for understanding why we are the way we are, DNA isn’t a crystal ball. It’s not inevitable that you’ll follow like Chicken Little in your mother’s anxious footsteps. But if you do, scientists might be able to explain why. At least that’s one less thing to worry about.

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