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Is Worry Inherited?

Thinking about worry through an intergenerational lens.

Key points

  • Understanding worry as an intergenerational, inherited legacy frees you to learn how to better cope.
  • Tracing family “worry” back a few generations can link events that might have been the origin.
  • People had to learn to cope with horrific events and passed on maladaptive behaviors to the children they raised.
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Are you a worrier? If you're prone to worrying, some of your relatives were probably worriers, too.

In my work as a clinician, a predominance of people in therapy struggle with some form of anxiety, which, in a continuum of behavior, is the offshoot of worry. Worry interferes with living well and can sometimes lead to debilitating symptoms. The concept of intergenerational trauma or intergenerational transmission of anxiety are interesting evolving bodies of research that beg the question, “is my worrying and anxiety bigger than me—something I inherited?”

If you take some time and think about stories that are passed down in your family over the generations, there’s often a horrible story of something that changed people dramatically from that point forward. That’s the kind of stuff to pay attention to. It somehow informs how you learned to cope with scary and traumatic things, and, oftentimes, not in the most productive way.

Worry and anxiety are not the same thing. You can have anxiety and not necessarily worry. But when you worry, you are experiencing anxiety, which, in and of itself is never pleasant, but it can also become the gateway to a host of numerous other symptoms. The American Psychological Association (APA) defines worry as a state of "mental distress or agitation due to concern about an impending or anticipated event, threat, or danger. Difficult to control, persistent and excessive worry is a main symptom of generalized anxiety disorder." To further clarify, anxiety, defined by the APA, is “an emotion characterized by apprehension and somatic symptoms of tension in which an individual anticipates impending danger, catastrophe, or misfortune.”

If you're prone to worry, you just might want to ask yourself where the worry or your anxiety could have originated from: is it something that is genetic, learned, or absorbed over time? As a therapist, I find it useful to trace family “worry” and “anxiety” back a few generations. Research on intergenerational trauma is often headlined by horrific historical events, such as the Holocaust or an exodus from oppressive impossible living conditions. What intergenerational trauma theory explains is this: people had to learn to cope with horrific events that occurred in their lives, and, as a result, passed on faulty behaviors to the children they raised. Research questions whether the response to trauma is physically or psychologically inherited, learned, or passed down in families, tantamount to a tradition of sorts.

Asking someone to think about whether their parents were worriers, or suffered from anxiety, begins the dialogue of exploring what occurred in previous generations. Often, there's a family horror story about an event that seems like it should have had a really traumatic effect on grandma or grandpa or great-grandma or great-grandpa, and more than likely did. I find it particularly helpful to explain and link those events that might have triggered and advanced worry and anxiety family-wide—what might have been the precipitant to the behavior of worry. This opens up a way of viewing the self in the context of a larger whole—less of what might be about you, but rather, in the context of things you inherited from your ancestors.

Family history is not the entirety of the explanation for anxiety, but viewing worry through an intergenerational lens helps lessen shame, blame, and guilt for your responses to life events in a symptomatic and maladaptive manner through excessive worry. Understanding worry as an intergenerational inheritance of sorts, and as an inherited legacy, frees you to consider learning how to better cope.

It’s not what life presents to you but how you cope. In psychotherapeutic treatment work, people can learn to reframe to a more manageable psychological narrative as a way to learn to worry less, which leads to becoming more amenable to change, resiliency, and coping. That’s something worth passing down.


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