We inherit anxious behavior. So what?

People who are high in trait Neuroticism are stirred up emotionally more easily and may be more likely to withdraw from challenge/threat situations. With early twin studies, we learned beyond reasonable doubt that this susceptibility to negative emotion is highly heritable (Viken, Rose, Kaprio, & Koskenvuo, 1994), with modern genetics research corroborating early findings in this respect (Goodman et al., 2018; Segerstrom & Smith, 2019).

Recent research has suggested that anxiety and attentional biases to threat stimuli are also highly heritable (Aktar, Bockstaele, Perez-Edgar, Wiers, & Bögels, 2018). That is, we inherit a certain degree of likelihood of quickly directing our attention towards threatening stimuli in preparation for a fight (anger/outrage etc.), flight (running away/ignoring the problem etc.) or freeze (staying very still so the T-Rex doesn’t eat you). However, we don’t just display attentional biases towards actual threat stimuli. My colleagues and I have recently demonstrated that we also have a biased orientation towards stimuli that suggest a possibility of future threat (Gladwin, Möbius, McLoughlin, & Tyndall, 2018).

Image result for anxiety

All in all, we’re a very “touchy” species. That can be adaptive in that it helps us to stay out of danger, or maladaptive as we’re paralysed from moving forward in the world and doing things that are scary but worthwhile.

Due to the high heritability of our susceptibility to negative emotion, it seems that some people will naturally experience more negative emotion than others, independent of our individual circumstances. Therefore, when someone is negatively affected (e.g., anxious, offended, depressed etc.), it does not necessarily mean, in and of itself, that there is something wrong with the world around them. The solution to experiencing negative affect might be to change your environment to make it less scary, or it might be to be braver and meet the challenge head-on. The latter is what behavior therapy trains people to do.


Aktar, E., Bockstaele, B. Van, Perez-Edgar, K., Wiers, R. W., & Bögels, S. M. (2018). Intergenerational Transmission of Attentional Bias and Anxiety. Developmental Science, e12772. https://doi.org/10.1111/desc.12772

Gladwin, T. E., Möbius, M., McLoughlin, S., & Tyndall, I. (2018). Anticipatory versus reactive spatial attentional bias to threat. British Journal of Psychology. https://doi.org/10.1111/bjop.12309

Goodman, S. J., Roubinov, D. S., Bush, N. R., Park, M., Farré, P., Emberly, E., … Boyce, W. T. (2018). Children’s biobehavioral reactivity to challenge predicts DNA methylation in adolescence and emerging adulthood. Developmental Science, e12739. https://doi.org/10.1111/desc.12739

Segerstrom, S. C., & Smith, G. T. (2019). Personality and Coping: Individual Differences in Responses to Emotion. Annual Review of Psychology, 70(1), annurev-psych-010418-102917. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-psych-010418-102917

Viken, R. J., Rose, R. J., Kaprio, J., & Koskenvuo, M. (1994). A Developmental Genetic Analysis of Adult Personality: Extraversion and Neuroticism From 18 to 59 Years of Age. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 66(4), 722–730. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-3514.66.4.722


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