Panic disorder is a form of anxiety disorder that’s characterized by sudden episodes of intense fear or worry. The exact cause of a panic disorder is challenging to pinpoint. Like other mental health disorders, it’s likely a combination of factors rather than just one cause. One of these factors may be your genes, which are passed down to you by your parents. But how much do your genes influence your mental health, and what can you do if you have a family member with a panic disorder?
Research has found a link between certain mental health conditions and genetics. Scientists determine the genetic influence on diseases and disorders by looking at family history. If your parents or grandparents have a disease that might have a genetic cause, you may have a higher chance of getting it than the average person. But when it comes to mental health issues, it’s important that the research can rule out environmental or developmental factors as a primary cause.
They do that by looking at twin and adoption studies. Identical twins don’t just look the same; they share very similar genes. If researchers can find enough pairs of twins where only one has a disorder, and the other doesn’t, it probably means the disorder doesn’t have a strong genetic cause. Adoption studies look at the influence of adopted and biological parents on a child.
If an adopted child shares a mental health problem with their biological parent despite being raised by an adopted family, genes may have played a significant role. Disorders like autism, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, bipolar disorder, major depression, and schizophrenia have been found to have significant genetic causes.
Researchers who look at the genetic influences of certain diseases often use a measurement called heritability. Heritability measures the statistical likelihood that a trait has occurred through genetics more or less than environmental causes. The scale of heritability is between zero and one, and it’s sometimes displayed as a percentage. The closer to 1 or 100 percent, the more likely it is that genes played a major role in a trait like a predisposition to panic disorders.
One twin study that looked at the heritability of panic disorders found a heritability as high as 30 to 40 percent. A meta-analysis of many high-quality twin studies found a heritability of 0.43. However, a more recent study that looked at 5,000 twins found a heritability of just 0.28. The findings have led researchers to believe that panic disorders are substantially influenced by genetics, but environmental factors also play a major role.
Even though panic disorders are influenced by your genetics, just because you have a relative with the disorder doesn’t mean you’ll get it yourself. Environmental factors can play a protective role. For instance, developing healthy ways to cope with stress can help reduce your risk of experiencing anxiety. However, a family history of panic disorders may mean you are at a higher risk of developing one, too. Still, knowing your family history and risk factors can lead you to get help as soon as you need it.
Mayo Clinic. (2018, May 4). Panic attacks and panic disorder. Retrieved from https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/panic-attacks/symptoms-causes/syc-20376021
National Institute of Mental Health. (2019, September). Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder. Retrieved from https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/attention-deficit-hyperactivity-disorder-adhd/index.shtml
National Institute of Mental Health. (2018, July). Anxiety Disorders. Retrieved from https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/anxiety-disorders/index.shtml
National Institutes of Health. (2015, May 15). Common Genetic Factors Found in 5 Mental Disorders. Retrieved from https://www.nih.gov/news-events/nih-research-matters/common-genetic-factors-found-5-mental-disorders
Na, H.-R., Kang, E.-H., Lee, J.-H., & Yu, B.-H. (2011, June). The genetic basis of panic disorder. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3102861/