Here's How You Could Have Inherited Your Anxiety

Illustrated by Tyler Spangler.
Having anxiety can make us feel out of control and totally alone. However, research suggests that we may not need to look much further than our own family trees to find other people dealing with the same issues, because we could have inherited a lot of those anxious tendencies.

In the study, published online this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers mildly stressed out 592 young rhesus monkeys by having an experimenter intrude into their space without making eye contact. Then, each subject underwent positron emission tomography brain scans (PET), which monitor metabolism in specific mood-related brain areas. The researchers also monitored the monkeys' behavioral responses to the situation.

The monkeys also underwent another kind of brain scan that allowed researchers to look at the anatomy of each brain and compare it to the rest of their family tree.

Results showed that the monkeys that reacted more strongly to the anxiety-producing situation — by freezing up or becoming less communicative — were also more likely to show overactive metabolism in those brain scans, indicating that the circuit was working overtime. Those anxious monkeys often inherited this type of brain function from their ancestors.

The researchers also found that certain variations in those anxiety-related brain structures could be inherited, but it was this specific overactive brain metabolism that lead to more anxious behavior, rather than the structures themselves. The study authors concluded that variations in metabolism in these areas "regulate, initiate, and enact anxiety-related behavior that, when passed down from parent to child, likely result in early-life anxiety."

Yes, these were monkeys in the study, but we humans can also show this anxious temperament as kids, and this research suggests that the way those brain circuits are working may make a huge difference. It's important to note that this isn't necessarily a measure of our overall anxiety. Instead, a temperament is more of an approach to the world that includes the way we react to new or frightening situations. Although having an anxious temperament predisposes us to develop more serious anxiety disorders later, it doesn't seal our fate.

Overall, family history accounts for about 35% of the likelihood that we'll develop an anxiety disorder — that's in addition to environmental factors, like the way your parents interacted with you. So, you can blame your family (and their genes) for a bit of your anxiety, even if you're more human than monkey.
Advertisement

More from Mind

An after-work drink has long been the cure for a bad day, this you know. But new research points to exactly why that glass of rosé works so well — and so...
As a Kansas City native, there are few things I love more than our local theme park, Worlds of Fun. Seriously, it's my absolute favorite. I get season ...
Your birth control is supposed to bring you peace of mind, but could it be affecting your mental health in a negative way? A large new study suggests a ...
(Paid Content) Taking short breaks during the workday can bring your sanity back to earth. Of course, they have a calming effect, but did you know breaks ...
As told to Amelia Harnish I never imagined I’d be a person who left college the same day I arrived. For me, venturing off to school had high stakes. ...
No one goes through life trying to be a horrible person. But sometimes, it's a challenge to go that extra mile (or even just a few steps) out of your way...
Living with anxiety can feel like a constant battle. You have to stay alert to catch anxiety creeping up on you, and it can turn into an all-day fight to ...
(Paid Content) Moods are fickle things. You can be going about your day in a happy, productive, and calm manner, and boom — everything changes. And ...
We explore the unconscious messages a voice can give off and why snap judgments can be harmful, even if they're innocent
It's not always easy to predict how much you're going to drink when you go out — or how drunk you'll actually get. And according to a new study, your ...
This story was originally published on May 19, 2016. A few years ago, I called my dad for one of our weekly chats — but he wasn’t happy to hear from me...
As much as it sucks, anxiety doesn’t have to be a bad thing. Without a little bit of it, you wouldn’t make sure to show up on time to that job interview or...
This story was originally published on May 19, 2016. I am six years old, in the first grade girls’ bathroom with my friend. We are washing our hands. ...
This story was originally published on Jul. 19, 2016. Several months ago, a woman I’m very close to checked herself into a hospital because she’d been ...