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Depression and Anxiety: Are They Hereditary?

Medically Reviewed by Jennifer Casarella, MD on July 26, 2020

Genetics may play a role in how likely you are to get depression or anxiety. But they’re not the whole story.

If someone in your family has either or both of these conditions, you’re more likely to, as well. But it doesn’t mean you definitely will. And you can have depression or an anxiety disorder even if no one else in your family does.

The most important thing is that you get treatment for any mental health condition, whether it runs in your family or not. If you do have relatives with anxiety, depression, or both, you’ll want to know the signs to watch for, what to do if you start to have them, and what you can do to lower your risk.

What the Research Shows

Doctors see signs that anxiety and depression are partly hereditary from studies of twins. Identical twins have the same set of genes, while fraternal twins share only half of their genes. They’re more likely to both have anxiety or depression, compared to fraternal twins. This suggests that these conditions may be linked to certain genes, which makes them hereditary.

But no single gene has been found that causes depression or anxiety. So it’s hard to explain how either of these conditions are passed down through genes. Combinations of different genes from your parents may affect whether you’re likely to get anxiety or depression. But doctors don’t know which exact groups of genes cause these conditions.

Keep in mind that most medical conditions aren’t only driven by genetics. Your environment, lifestyle, and personal experiences are also important. Families often share those things, which can make it hard to tell what role genetics play. There may be some mix of genetic risk and other things in a person’s daily life.

If Anxiety or Depression Runs in Your Family

Age may be a clue about whether your family might have a genetic link to anxiety or depression. If one of these conditions shows up in someone before the age of 20, their family members are more likely to, as well. In most cases, the younger the person is when they get anxiety or depression, the more likely it is to be hereditary.

Anxiety and depression can still be genetic if they show up in your older family members. But often, new conditions in people that are over the age of 20 are linked to painful or stressful life events.

You’re more likely to inherit a tendency for anxiety or depression if a close family member has it, instead of a more distant relative. If you have a twin, parent, or sibling who has anxiety or depression, you’re more likely to get it because you’re closely related to them.

Warning Signs

Everyone should know the symptoms of anxiety and depression, especially if these conditions run in your family. If you know what to look out for, you’ll be able to spot these conditions early on and get help sooner.

Everyone feels down or worried now and then. That’s normal. When it becomes a condition, it’s more than that.

People with depression usually feel hopeless. Other signs are lack of energy, crankiness or anger, sudden weight changes, loss of interest in hobbies, strong feelings of guilt, careless behavior, and problems focusing. These symptoms need to last for at least 2 weeks for a depression diagnosis.

Anxiety disorders have many similar symptoms to depression. You may have a loss of energy and lack of focus with both conditions. People with anxiety also commonly get very nervous, panic, have a faster heart rate, breathe rapidly, find it hard to sleep at night, have stomach problems, or notice that they avoid things that cause them to be anxious.

Tell Your Doctor

If anxiety or depression runs in your family, it’s important to let your doctor know -- just as you would with any physical condition.

There’s no way to totally prevent depression and anxiety, but there are ways to lower your stress and take care of yourself. Those habits are good for everyone, and if you know anxiety and depression run in your family, there are things you can do to help stop it from getting worse.

Tips to Avoid Depression and Anxiety

If you’re at risk for depression or anxiety, you’ll want to do everything you can to prevent them, just as you would with any other serious medical condition:

Consider starting counseling proactively. Finding a therapist before there’s a problem can help you learn skills to manage situations that could trigger anxiety or depression. Tell them about your family’s history of these or other conditions. If you want a referral, ask your doctor.

Brush up on key nutrients. A healthy diet can help support your body and brain. Make sure you’re getting enough of these nutrients:

  • Omega-3 fatty acids. They’re in some fish (such as salmon, tuna, and sardines), flaxseed, and pumpkin seeds. These fats are needed for brain health.
  • B vitamins. People with low B vitamin levels are more likely to develop depression. Foods that contain B vitamins include green vegetables, beans, lentils, whole grains, seeds, nuts, fruits, meat, eggs, and other animal products.
  • Vitamin D. Low levels of vitamin D are linked to depression, but it’s not clear if they actually cause it. Your body makes vitamin D if you get some time in the sun, or you can get it from fortified foods or supplements.

Limit added sugars. Foods that naturally have sugar in them, like fruit, will keep your body’s energy at a more constant level.

A simple way to get good nutrition is to include a lot of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and enough lean protein and healthy fats in your diet, while eating less food that’s highly processed or high in saturated fats. Think of the traditional Mediterranean diet as an example. If you’re not sure that your food habits are on track, check with your doctor or a registered dietitian.

Make exercise a habit. Research shows it can help with mild to moderate depression. And it’s a great way to release stress, boost your mood and energy level, and take care of your physical health.

Get enough sleep. Anxiety and depression can make it hard to get the right amount of quality sleep. Most people need 7-8 hours per night.

Step back and breathe deeply if you find yourself becoming anxious while doing something. You might also want to start meditation or other practices that build mindfulness, which helps you stay grounded in the here and now, instead of in depressed or anxious thoughts.

Take breaks from daily tasks. This can help you keep a positive mindset.

Avoid or cut back on alcohol and caffeine. This may help prevent panic attacks.

Prioritize healthy relationships. The people in your life can make a big difference in how you feel and can help support and encourage you.

WebMD Medical Reference

Sources

SOURCES:

Stanford Medicine: “Major Depression and Genetics.”

Journal of Korean Medical Science: “The Genetic Basis of Panic Disorder.”

Anxiety and Depression Association of America: “Older Adults,” “Tips to Manage Anxiety and Stress.”

Help Guide: “Depression Symptoms and Warning Signs.”

Mayo Clinic: “Anxiety disorders,” “Serotonin Syndrome,” “Depression and anxiety: Exercise eases symptoms,” “Omega-3 in fish: How eating fish helps your heart,”  “Meditation: A simple, fast way to reduce stress.”

Harvard Medical School: “Sleep and mental health.”

Neuropsychiatry: “Depression and Vitamin D Deficiency: Causality, Assessment, and Clinical Practice Implications.”

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