One of the first things that people ask upon learning that they suffer from a phobia is: why do I have this phobia? What caused it? Are phobias genetic?
The answer to what causes phobias isn’t as straightforward as many people would think. The life experiences you have had and the environment you were raised in play a massive part in the development of anxiety disorders. But less obvious factors like the news stories you hear, the people you know and your own personality traits can all influence the development of phobias.
One factor people often ask about is genetics. Are phobias genetic? Can fears be passed down through families? And if fear is literally written into your DNA, then is there anything you can do about it, or are you doomed to struggle with phobias and anxiety your whole life? In this post, we will take a brief look at the role genetics play in phobias, why fears are often passed down through families, and why ultimately the question of DNA doesn’t really matter.
DNA and Phobias
The role of your genetic makeup in developing anxiety disorders and phobias is not as clear-cut as thinking that if your parents have a phobia of snakes, then you will develop one too. As with many areas of genetic research, there are still many unanswered questions, but so far no specific DNA component that causes phobias has been identified.
Genetics definitely play some role in fear, however, and they can certainly pass down certain traits and behaviours that make developing phobias more likely. One study showed that if you teach mice to fear certain smells by giving them electric shocks whenever the smell is present, this fear will be passed down to their offspring even though the next generation of mice have never had any bad experiences with this particular smell.
Of course, generalising findings from mice to humans is sometimes a bit of a stretch, but research does suggest that DNA can give you a predisposition to developing anxiety disorders such as phobias. What this means is that some people are more likely than others to develop phobias if exposed to certain life events or traumatic situations. This is why you can have two individuals who both have a frightening experience with heights as a child, but only one goes on to develop a phobia of heights. Some people are more susceptible to developing anxiety issues than others, and DNA can certainly play a part in this.
Family and Phobias
If DNA isn’t a major determining factor in developing anxiety disorders, why do they so often run in families? The answer is more to do with the environment you share than the genes. Phobias can often be triggered by a frightening experience – getting bitten by a spider leading to Arachnophobia for example – and close family members will often share many of their experiences. Family members will also share personality traits and ways of thinking, meaning that they will react to events in similar ways and form similar conclusions about their experiences. This can lead to family members developing the same conditions due to similar patterns of thinking.
There’s another major reason why a child can come to fear the same things as their parents, and that’s learning by observation. Imagine a father who has a fear of the dark. Every time he is outside at night with his child, he will act tense and nervous, which the child is sure to pick up on. The father might also repeatedly tell his child not to go outside alone at night or scold them for playing in the dark. All of this will teach the young child that darkness must be something scary that they should be afraid of.
A Different View
You can’t change your DNA. So even if it is found that you have a genetic predisposition to developing some form of phobia, there isn’t a lot you can do with this information. Many people develop phobias without any genetic factors being involved, and it’s highly likely that many millions of people with a genetic predisposition go through their lives without ever experiencing the right combination of events to turn this into a full blown phobia. In either case, it’s your experiences and your mindset that are the important variables. And, luckily, these are the ones you actually have some control over!
Whether or not your phobia involves some genetic factor, it can still be treated just as successfully. So, your DNA does not set you on an inevitable path towards fear and anxiety. At worst, it makes the road a bit harder, but you still control where it leads.
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