Are you born with anxiety or do you get it?

Anxiety is a common mental health condition that affects millions of people worldwide. Some people seem to be more prone to anxiety than others. This leads to the question – are some people simply born with an anxious disposition or is anxiety something you develop over time?

Quick Answers

There is no simple answer, as both genetics and environment play a role. However, research suggests:

  • Genetics account for around 30-40% of someone’s likelihood to have an anxiety disorder.
  • Environmental factors like childhood experiences and trauma also impact anxiety risk.
  • Anxiety is likely caused by a combination of biological vulnerability and life experiences.

So in short – no, no one is “born” with an anxiety disorder. But some people may have a genetic predisposition to anxiety that makes them more susceptible when environmental triggers are present.

The Role of Genetics

Genetics and family history appear to play a significant role in determining anxiety risk. Research shows:

  • You’re up to 5 times more likely to have anxiety if a close relative has an anxiety disorder.
  • Identical twins have higher shared rates of anxiety disorders than non-identical twins.
  • Certain gene variants may increase susceptibility to anxiety.

According to estimates based on twin studies, genetics account for around 30-40% of variance in anxiety disorder occurrence.[1] However, that doesn’t mean anxiety is directly inherited. Rather, some people inherit a biological vulnerability that makes them more prone to anxiety.

The Brain’s Role

Genetic differences can impact the brain areas and neurotransmitters involved in processing emotions and responding to stress. Key factors include:[2]

  • The limbic system – involved in emotion and fear response.
  • The prefrontal cortex – regulates emotions and decision making.
  • The autonomic nervous system – controls bodily reactions to stress.
  • Neurotransmitters like serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine – influence mood.

Genetic effects on these systems make some individuals’ brains more reactive to perceived threats, predisposing them to anxiety disorders.

Impact of Environment

However, genetics aren’t the full picture. Environmental influences also play a major role in anxiety development. Researchers estimate environmental factors account for around 60% of variance in anxiety disorder occurrence.[1] Key environmental risk factors include:

Early Life Experiences

  • Trauma – Experiencing abuse, loss, or other trauma in childhood is linked to higher anxiety risk later in life.[3]
  • Parenting style – Overprotective or harsh parenting can make children more prone to anxiety disorders.[4]
  • Insecure attachment – Anxiety is more likely when infants don’t form secure attachments with caregivers.[5]

Later Experiences

  • Stress – Ongoing stressors like work pressures or financial strain can trigger anxiety.
  • Trauma – Stressful events like a relationship breakup, illness, or accident can lead to anxiety.
  • Substance abuse – Drug and alcohol abuse are strongly linked to increased anxiety.

Life experiences like these can alter the brain’s structure and function, making anxiety disorders more likely, even without a specific genetic vulnerability.[2]

Interplay Between Genetics and Environment

In most cases, anxiety disorder development involves a complex interplay between genetic vulnerability and environmental experiences. For example:

  • A child inheriting anxiety-prone genes may show excessive shyness and fear of strangers.
  • Overprotective parenting exacerbates this, further increasing anxiety levels.
  • Bullying at school triggers social anxiety disorder.

Here, genetic susceptibility sets the stage for an anxiety disorder, which is then catalyzed by environmental factors.

Gene-Environment Correlations

Additionally, there can be gene-environment correlations where genetic factors influence the specific environmental experiences people have.[1] For example:

  • A shy child with an anxious temperament is more likely to be bullied.
  • A parent with anxiety genes parent is more likely to model anxious behaviors.

So in many cases, genetic and environmental influences are intrinsically interconnected.

At What Age Can Anxiety Develop?

Anxiety disorders can emerge across all life stages, but often begin in childhood, adolescence or early adulthood.[6]

During Childhood

Many anxiety disorders first appear in childhood. Separation anxiety and phobias, for example, typically emerge between the ages of 5-9 years.[6] Extreme shyness around strangers may also indicate early childhood anxiety.

During Adolescence

The peak period for anxiety disorder onset is during the teenage years.[6] Social anxiety, panic disorder, generalized anxiety disorder and agoraphobia often develop during adolescence.

During Adulthood

While less common, anxiety disorders can also appear during adulthood. Stressful life events and trauma are often triggers. For example, a person may develop PTSD after a traumatic event or panic disorder after a health scare.

Can You Develop Anxiety Later in Life?

Yes, it’s possible for anxiety disorders to emerge later in adulthood, even if there were no symptoms earlier in life. Potential reasons include:[7]

  • Accumulated life stress – Pressures can build up over decades, eventually triggering anxiety.
  • Trauma or loss – Painful life events can lead to anxiety at any age.
  • Medical conditions – Some illnesses and medications cause anxiety symptoms.
  • Substance abuse – Alcohol and drug problems often precede late onset anxiety.
  • Major life changes – Events like retirement, empty nesting, or widowhood can trigger anxiety.

So while less common, anxiety disorders can certainly develop later in life due to accumulated stress and emotional trauma over the decades.

Can You Be Born with an Anxious Temperament?

Babies aren’t born literally experiencing anxiety. However, some infants are born with temperaments that make them prone to developing full-blown anxiety disorders later in life.[8]

Signs of an anxious temperament in babies include:[8]

  • Excessive crying and difficulty soothing
  • Disturbed sleep patterns
  • Exaggerated startle responses
  • Fear of strangers
  • Aversion to new situations

These inborn traits likely reflect genetic vulnerability in areas like the brain’s fear response system. This can predispose babies to shy, inhibited behavior as toddlers and anxiety disorders in childhood.[8]

Turning Temperament into Disorder

However, having an anxious temperament alone isn’t enough to cause clinical anxiety. Environmental factors like family relationships, trauma, and stress also determine if a child’s innate anxiety escalates into a diagnosable disorder.[8]

So in summary – babies can be born with nervous, high-strung temperaments that make anxiety more likely, but they aren’t born experiencing true anxiety disorders.

Can Anxiety Be Passed from Parents to Children?

As anxiety has a partial genetic basis, it does sometimes run in families:[9]

  • Children with one anxious parent are 2-3 times more likely to have anxiety.
  • With two anxious parents, children’s risk increases to over 5 times higher.

In some families, anxiety can pass from generation to generation. Possible mechanisms include:[9]

  • Genetic inheritance – Vulnerable genes linked to anxious brain traits are passed on.
  • Behavior modeling – Anxious parents unconsciously model fearful behaviors.
  • Poor coping skills – Anxious parents may fail to teach children good coping methods.

However, even in high risk families, anxiety can skip generations or only affect some children. Good parenting skills and low-stress environments can also offset inherited risk factors in children.

Nature and Nurture Interact

So parental anxiety alone doesn’t guarantee children will have anxiety. The development of anxiety disorders in offspring involves complex interplay between genetic factors, family environments, individual temperaments and life experiences.

Can You Develop Anxiety Without Genetic Risk Factors?

Yes, people can develop anxiety even without direct genetic ties to the condition. While family history increases risk, it’s not absolutely necessary.

Powerful environmental influences like childhood adversity, trauma, major stress, and substance abuse can trigger anxiety disorders even without genetic susceptibility.[10] PTSD, for example, can arise after severe trauma even without other risk factors.

However, genetic risks likely still play an indirect role. For example, trauma and adversity early in life can epigenetically influence gene expression later on, essentially creating a genetic vulnerability.

So in summary – anxiety disorders can certainly arise even in people with minimal genetic susceptibility, when environmental triggers are powerful enough.

Can You Be Born with an Anxious Brain?

Again, no one is literally “born anxious” in the clinical sense. However, some people may be born with brains that are wired to be more prone to anxiety.[11]

Signs of an innate anxious brain include:

  • A hyperactive amygdala and heightened fear response
  • Over-activity in emotion processing areas of the limbic system
  • Under-activity in the prefrontal cortex, the brain’s emotional control center
  • Imbalanced neurotransmitters like serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine

These types of brain patterns are often present from early infancy and likely have a genetic basis.[11] They make some babies and children shy, fretful and easily frightened – early markers of an anxious disposition.

However, while this nervous brain wiring predisposes people to anxiety disorders, it alone doesn’t inevitably cause them. Childhood experiences, stress levels, and learned coping skills all interact with biology to determine if anxiety develops fully.

Nature Meets Nurture

So in summary – yes, some people are probably born with anxious brains. But these nervous tendencies only create disorder when combined with a lifetime of environmental influences that shape personality and mental health.


Anxiety disorders are not purely genetically predetermined at birth, but neither are they entirely environmental in origin. The development of anxiety involves interplay between vulnerability genes, aspects of brain structure and function, difficult childhood experiences, trauma and ongoing life stress.

Some babies may be born with temperaments and biological traits that predispose them to anxiety, but require negative life circumstances to trigger full disorder onset. Conversely, others with low inherited risk can develop anxiety after severe adversity, trauma or substance abuse overrides their resilience.

While genetics play an important role, they don’t rigidly define someone’s destiny. With therapy, healthy coping skills, strong social support and lifestyle changes, even those at high genetic risk can overcome anxiety or reduce its impact on their lives.

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