Is Anxiety Sensitivity Genetic or Environmental?

To answer that question, researchers at King’s College, London, and the University of London, studied over 1,300 twins, using data from a longitudinal study. The twins were between the ages of 12 and 19 years old at the beginning of the study. The participants were instructed to answer questionnaires at four different points in time, at the onset of the study (Wave 1), eight months after the initial contact (Wave 2), and again 25 months after the second wave (Wave 3). The researchers assessed the anxiety sensitivity of the participants at Wave 1 and Wave 2 using the Child Anxiety Sensitivity Index (CASI) and at Wave 3, using the Anxiety Sensitivity Index, as the subjects were over 18 years of age at that time.

The team looked at both environmental and genetic constructs of sensitivity to anxiety beginning in early adolescence and continuing through adulthood. They realized that the genetic factors present at Wave 1 directly influenced the continuity of anxiety over Wave 2 and Wave 3. Additionally, emerging genetic influences at Wave 2 had an impact on symptoms present in Wave 3. The team noticed that environmental influences that were unique to each twin also developed at each wave. This led them to discover two key findings. “First, the moderate phenotypic correlations between variables at each time point suggests that anxiety sensitivity is relatively stable over time,” said the researchers. “Second, continuity of anxiety sensitivity was largely due to stable genetic influences.”

Their findings have significant implications. “First, in line with other studies, we found substantial phenotypic stability of anxiety sensitivity,” said the researchers. “This makes it a good candidate to focus on intervention studies on the prevention of disorders such as anxiety and depression.” They added, “Given the involvement of anxiety sensitivity in disorders such as anxiety and depression and the recent evidence suggesting the importance of it in the maintenance of anxiety symptoms, it is important to understand the developmental architecture of this cognitive bias.”

Zavos, H. M. S., Gregory, A. M., & Eley, T. C. (2011, August 15). Longitudinal Genetic Analysis of Anxiety Sensitivity. Developmental Psychology. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0024996

© Copyright 2011 by By Noah Rubinstein, LMFT, LMHC, therapist in Olympia, Washington. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Nikki G

    Nikki G

    August 20th, 2011 at 6:39 PM

    Personally I think that most of us emulate the things that we see when we are growing up. Therefore if we saw a lot of anxiety in the home when we were young then generally that is how we are going to handle things in our won lives when we get older. Some will rebel against that but for the most part I think that you will find that most of us just hang on to the roles that we know.

  • amy


    August 21st, 2011 at 9:52 AM

    going the opposite direction- think that it is definitely a genetic thing- you are what you are

  • Bethany Todd

    Bethany Todd

    August 21st, 2011 at 4:52 PM

    “…,continuity of anxiety sensitivity was largely due to stable genetic influences.”

    So no matter where you go in your life or how your environment changes, there’s your anxiety. Basically this is saying that you can’t run from yourself. That’s a very good reason to get help dealing with it!

  • A.J.


    August 21st, 2011 at 5:47 PM

    Genetics, definitely. That makes sense to me. Both my mother and grandmother suffered from anxiety issues all their lives. We all lived together and I assumed that was normal behavior.

    When I was in my teens, I thought having a girlfriend would make me less anxious. It didn’t.

    When I went to college, I thought the move away from home would make me less anxious. It didn’t.

    When I graduated, I thought finding a good job would make me less anxious. It didn’t.

    When I was financially secure and living in a beautiful home, I thought that would make me less anxious. It didn’t.

    Okay, maybe a wife and family’s what I needed. Guess what? It wasn’t. Because everywhere I turned, there I was, same old me.

    The only thing that helped me was me eventually getting help and facing up to my anxiety issues. It only took me twenty two years LOL.

    Don’t wait like I did. Anxiety can be helped immensely if you just take that first step of helping yourself by making that call to the doctor or therapist.

  • Brock


    August 21st, 2011 at 6:53 PM

    Some people may get anxious due to something that may not make some others anxious at all-That’s genetic. But somethings can make even the most calm person get anxious-that’s environmental. There you go-both are factors, we can’t just point at one of them and say that is the sole reason.

  • Amy


    August 22nd, 2011 at 3:57 AM

    If this question is posed to me,I’d say it is genetic for some people and environmental for some others.

    The reason why I’d say this is because some people are generally more anxious than others even in situations that are not really tough.They are anxious genetically. And for the rest of us-we get anxious based on the situation and environment. So there you go.

  • susan


    August 22nd, 2011 at 4:13 AM

    There are many different ways that this could play out. I would say that there are always going to be some things going on in your life that could contribute to you being sad or anxious. On the other hand for many people it is all about what is on the inside and how they are naturally tuned to deal with life. So maybe it could be a combination of both elements, and for some people one being a little stronger than the other.

  • Sharon


    August 22nd, 2011 at 1:01 PM

    Agree with Nikki…We become whatever we see and learn in our childhood.That’s what happens in a child’s head-see learn and adopt!

  • Chloe


    August 22nd, 2011 at 3:58 PM

    Coming from a home where we were all always on high anxiety alert because my dad would blow a fuse at the slightest provocation, I would say that in the case of me and my brothers we are all pretty sensitive to that and it has always been driven by the environment that we grew up in. I do not think that that would be my true nature had I not had to deal with little blow ups like that all throughtout my childhood, but you know, you just continue to play the cards that you are given and make the most of that hand that has been dealt. Having said that I do think that some households could be a little more mindful of the kind of environment that the kids are exposed to on a daily basis because you are creating the kind of child and adult that one will become.

  • Shannon R.

    Shannon R.

    August 22nd, 2011 at 6:04 PM

    Surely your anxiety would be worse if you lived in a stressful home environment than if you lived in a calm, settled one? I’m surprised there wasn’t more fluctuation there as their lives changed and they experienced more environmental shifts.

    That was an interesting study. Thank you for sharing a good read. :)

  • Trina Morrison

    Trina Morrison

    August 22nd, 2011 at 6:42 PM

    Dang! So I’m always going to be anxious, whether I live in a million dollar condo or a tent in a back yard because it’s in my genes? That’s depressing. I guess some of us aren’t meant to be happy eh. I must have gathered some real bad karma in a past life because I sure don’t think I’ve done anything to deserve suffering this in this lifetime.



    August 22nd, 2011 at 7:02 PM

    Different ppl get anxious for different things.It may be their weak spot but it’s not the same for every1.What I’m saying is that ‘anxiety’ is different for different ppl and it’s definition is not universal.So instead of thinking about whether this is genetic or environmental we should think of ways to deal with it!

  • valerie braun

    valerie braun

    August 22nd, 2011 at 7:58 PM

    I play the hand I’m dealt in life when there’s not much I can do to change it. If my anxiety is down to my genetic makeup, so be it! I’d not be the person I am today if I didn’t have it and since I’m mostly happy with who I am as a person on a fairly regular basis when I’m not fighting my anxiety (and taking my meds ;) ), that’s okay by me. You can’t alter your genetic code!

  • Samantha Corbin

    Samantha Corbin

    August 22nd, 2011 at 8:07 PM

    Anxiety is caused by your parents’ actions more than anything is what I say. People that are not fit to be parents finding fault with things done wrong by a six year old make me want to puke. Genetics could make it worse of course but why can’t grown adults accept that not everybody is perfect 100% of the time? Is it too much to ask?

  • Jim Lake

    Jim Lake

    August 22nd, 2011 at 8:28 PM

    @Samantha Corbin–Sadly it is apparently. We can become more anxious about being criticized than the consequences of it. To anyone that thinks that making people fear criticism is a good method of making them work harder, hear this: you are out of your tiny mind.

  • B.D.


    August 22nd, 2011 at 10:50 PM

    @Jim Lake–That’s taking it a bit far. It is wrong, but who does it knowingly? I reprimand my subordinates at work constantly for their errors. I’m not the one giving then an anxiety complex however. I’m the one saying “No, this is what the customer asked for.” If they have anxiety issues, those are theirs to deal with and as the study said, it’s the genetics more than the environment that affects their anxiety. If they did the job as detailed in their job description, they wouldn’t get reprimanded so often.

  • Tabitha Cramer

    Tabitha Cramer

    August 22nd, 2011 at 11:42 PM

    I know a few of the commenters are saying it’s environmental so I’d like to drag out my soap box for a moment. :) I have a daughter who, despite being a good kid who never causes problems or gets into trouble, has a lot of issues with anxiety. She is very serious to a fault and I don’t know where she picked that up at all because neither her father nor I are that way inclined.

    I have never harshly disciplined her for doing wrong and I have never disciplined her for an accident beyond making her fix what she’s broken. Accidents happen. We love her dearly. Her home environment is not unpleasant by any standards.

    She does have an uncle on her Dad’s side who is OCD and that’s the closest connection I can think of to a possible genetic link.

    In her case, I’m certain it’s genetics that are at play here, not the environment.

  • shaun


    August 23rd, 2011 at 3:55 AM

    What happens in our environment goes on to become the norm for us and we follow the same as if it is genetically embedded within us…This is especially true to things that happen at an early age.

  • carla Gentry

    carla Gentry

    August 23rd, 2011 at 12:38 PM

    We are so heavily influenced by our friends and our families that it is hard to think that sensitivity to anxiety would not also be influenced by these things and people. We emulate what we see all of our lives, and you know how nice it can be to be around someone with a positive disposition. It is like it can change your whole outlook, and the same thing goes for when you are around someone snarly. That can make an otherwise great day horrible! We unexplainably take our cues from others, and when they are nervous and anxious it is only natural that we are going to be the same.

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