Anxiety is one of the most prevalent mental health disorders in the UK – affecting around 30% of people.
It starts on average at the age of 11, and according to the Mental Health Foundation, affects at least 3.3% of children and young people.
While there are a number of factors that can increase a person’s risk of developing anxiety, one long-standing debate is the genetic vs. environmental influence.
It is known that anxiety runs in families, so could it be possible that anxious parents genetically pass on their anxious tendencies to their children?
A recent study published in the American Journal of Psychiatry looked into this further.
Researchers compared levels of anxiety in families of identical twins with those of non-identical twins.
In total, 385 identical and 486 non-identical families took part in the survey (also known as the Swedish Twin and Offspring Study).
For a genetic link to be confirmed, there would need to be a greater likelihood of anxiety among the cousins whose parents were identical twins compared to the cousins whose parents were non-identical twins.
During the study, the parents were given a personality questionnaire. They had to rate their agreement with certain statements, such as “I often worry about little things which others see as unimportant.”
The children, meanwhile, were asked by researches to rank statements such as “I worry quite a lot”.
Both parents and children also rated their own levels of negative thinking.
Overall, the results showed that genetic factors were not the main cause.
There did however appear to be some non-genetic influences, such as how parents respond to certain situations.
For example, if a parent gets panicky and screams whenever they see a spider, their children are very likely to grow up adopting the same fearful attitude towards spiders.
Ultimately the study showed that anxiety is not defined by the direction in which it is travelling (i.e. parent to child). After all, anxious children can cause their parents to feel anxious as well as the other way round.
However, it is well-known that anxiety runs in families, so what this study serves to highlight is that it can be helpful for parents to better control their anxiety around their children to prevent anxious habits from being passed on.