Are social anxiety and depression hereditary? My family is wonderful, loving and supportive, full of funny and smart people, – but completely cuckoo. I still have a few decades to go in order to issue a serious challenge to the older generation for the title of head honcho of social anxiety and depression, – and have sadly observed the struggle of my little cousin who was recently diagnosed with depression.
Thankfully, she has been getting great help, showing how much we have learned about mental disorders in the last three decades.
Our daughter Hilda wasn’t that old when we picked up on her first symptoms of anxiety, which we wrote about in Children and social phobia? – Hilda goes to a swimming class. We’re so proud of how far she has come in overcoming her natural shyness and anxiety.
Yes, based on personal experience, social anxiety and depression seem to be hereditary, but what do the people in the white coats says?
“Anxiety is multidimensional, with causal roots in evolutionary, psychophysiological, cognitive, and behavioural mechanisms; and, phenomenology, it is fundamentally subjective: the angst of anxiety is constructed qualia, and this is one of its most important defining qualities.” (Corr, 2011)
What? Hmmm….basically that was geek speak for anxiety having a lot of different causes, part being DNA and part being learned thoughts and behaviors, and the way each and everyone interprets what happens to him or her. (Ever wonder if they get paid per lengthy word?)
So how much is DNA and how much is learned?
Mom, dad, anxiety and I
DNA seems to matter quite a bit in explaining the causes of anxiety. Li and his pals Sundquist and Sundquist (2008 ) have been diving regularly into Sweden’s pretty amazing collection of health records studying whether anxiety disorders are clustered in certain families (like mine, except Swedish).
They first studied anxiety in children and their parents. They found that the risk for men and women with mothers and/or fathers affected by anxiety was significantly higher compared to men and women whose mothers and/or fathers didn’t have anxiety. Risk of anxiety was slightly higher if your mother had anxiety than if it was your father, but the highest risk was found in the youngest age group and among those with both parents struggling with anxiety. Their conclusion was that the risk increase was so high that genes had to be likely to contribute, possibly modified by environmental factors.
My sister/brother, et tu?
Then Li and the Sundquists (2011) took on siblings, digging through the same pile of health records (all the way back to 1932) and discovered that siblings of people with anxiety leading to hospitalization were more likely to have anxiety themselves.
Gender seemed to matter, once again. Men had more sibling risk with agoraphobia and social phobia while women had more risk with panic disorder, generalized anxiety disorders, mixed anxiety disorder and depressive disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder.
The scientists wondered whether this might be due to environmental or genetic factors and looked specifically at siblings with greater age difference. Family circumstances can change and subsequently the shared family environment can change. They found no connection between sibling risk and how close in age the siblings were, making them believe that the risk of anxiety is more related to genes than environmental/behavioral factors.
Plus the risk didn’t decrease with age.
Also, family risk seems to be prevalent when it comes to depression, with possible effects spanning three generations, from grandparent to parent to child. Just like anxiety, the cause of transmission between parent and child is pretty complex; partly genetics, partly physical, partly behavioral and partly environmental. (Sander & McCarty, 2005)
No giving up!
Yes, social anxiety and depression are definitely hereditary, – which can be quite a drag, and some might even say: “it’s in my genes, so why bother” (heck…even I do that in my darkest hours.) But what if my family had a history of heart disease? Would I just accept that my children would quite possibly die of heart failure and keep feeding them sugar while they played video games all day, or would I urge them to watch their diet and keep exercising?
You see, I often look at my little girl and marvel at how far she has come in tackling her anxiety, and sometimes I even admit that I have made quite some progress myself.
The thing is to face it. Not ignore it. Deal with it.
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