Discover how your genes can influence your likelihood of experiencing anxiety.

10 minute read

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What is anxiety?

You’ve probably noticed that some people are more likely to experience  anxiety in a particular situation than others. Anxiety is a normal response to stress as part of how we react to our daily experiences. It is defined as a future-oriented mood that triggers preparation for possible negative events . However, for some people, anxiety can be overwhelming and could escalate into an experience that directly impacts health. 

Now more than ever, people are experiencing anxiety around the world due to the uncertainty and effects caused by COVID-19. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), the pandemic triggered a 25% increase in anxiety between 2020 and 2021, leading up to 246 million individual cases of anxiety disorders globally

People develop anxiety differently, either based on personality or genetics. Scientists have associated anxiety to in-born factors and traits. As outlined in our Personal DNA Report on personality traits, genes can affect personality traits such as neuroticism and extraversion, which are related to disorder traits such as anxiety. Here however, we will look beyond these traits and focus on specific genes that may increase or reduce the risk of anxiety.

These genes play a major role in the process of developing anxiety. Anxiety begins by an external stress such as concern about a potential loss of a loved one or finances. Depending on the genetic composition of an individual, the brain processes these stressors differently. To some, the outcome of this process may be constant fear and restlessness (anxiety symptoms), while for others it may be normal or even motivation. 

The genetics of anxiety

While the heritability of anxiety is well known, scientists are still trying to determine the exact factors and processes involved. According to recent studies;

  • First degree relatives of individuals with anxiety disorders are 4-6 times more likely to experience anxiety, e.g. father and son .

  • If an identical twin experiences anxiety, the other twin is 30-50% more likely to suffer from anxiety than other siblings

These findings suggest that anxiety is in-part heritable. Scientists have also identified genes involved in controlling the processes that cause or prevent anxiety. This means that if you inherit genes with altered functions, you are more likely to experience anxiety. 

Which genes are linked to a reduced risk of anxiety?

Rs9340799 (ESR1 Gene)

The ESR1 gene and estrogen control several hormones and procedures, including how the brain processes emotional and behavioural impulses. Studies have confirmed that changes in estrogen in the body may affect the development of anxiety. Estrogen imbalance may cause an imbalance in progesterone. Both affect the level of serotonin, which is a chemical involved in mood and cognitive control. On the other hand, estrogen stability may have a positive effect. Estrogen, which is controlled by this gene, is more abundant in women than men . In turn, changes in the functioning of this gene means women are more likely to be impacted than men. Variant rs9340799 has been associated with reduced anxiety symptoms


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Which genes are linked to an increased susceptibility to anxiety?

Rs7528604 (PDE4B Gene)

This gene is deeply involved in brain development and related disorders, and is therefore involved in processes that control emotional and social behaviour. Studies found that mouse models with an adjusted PDE4B gene were more susceptible to stress, especially from the environment .


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Other genes associated with an increased risk of anxiety

Scientists have recently identified new genes that are significantly involved in anxiety experience. However, due to the early stages of these studies, they have not yet identified the statistical extent to which the genes may increase your risk of experiencing anxiety. We will keep you updated as the studies about these highlighted genes progress. 

Rs3807866 (TMEM106B Gene)

TMEM106B gene is mostly commonly found in European populations and controls the formation of molecules involved in switching signals to and from the brain. Due to this function, studies have determined that this gene is important in controlling the development or removal of signals from the brain that may cause anxiety . The variant causes an increase in anxiety with the A allele associated with the most effect.

Rs56226325 (MAD1L1 Gene)

This variant may cause increased risk of anxiety with the C allele most associated with this effect. The fully functional MAD1L1 gene ensures proper formation of other genes and molecules involved in processes such as control of emotions and behaviour by the brain [6]. Variants in this gene therefore affect these processes. 

Rs4603973 (SATB1 Gene)

SATB1 antisense (SATB1-AS1) is an altered form of the SATB1 gene and prevents its full functions. A fully functioning SATB1 is found on chromosome 3 and controls how hormones that respond to and manage stress are released in the body. Without this full function, the body becomes more susceptible to anxiety. A variant of the gene, rs4603973 has been particularly associated with increased anxiety, with its G allele having the most effect

Rs6557168 (ESR1 Gene)

Another variant that may cause increased risk of anxiety, but the statistics are yet to be established, is rs6557168, with the C allele most associated with this effect .

What Other Factors May Cause Anxiety Symptoms?

Even with resilient genes we may still experience anxiety due to environmental factors such as family, the culture in which we grew up and  childhood experiences. Childhood trauma has been specifically known to cause anxiety symptoms later in life. Other causes include situational experiences such as social perception of oneself or by others, and racial and gender bias against an individual

How Can I Manage Anxiety?

Seeking therapy such as talking therapy and cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) may help you understand yourself more and help you to manage and respond to your thoughts better. Secondly, engaging in positive lifestyle and behaviour, getting exercise and limiting consumption of harmful substances may help manage anxiety outcomes. Seeking prescribed medication from your physician can also help with some symptoms of anxiety

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