The study looks at behaviour traits at the age of 15, that signal if individuals could be at risk of elevated anxiety three years in the future
When it comes to COVID-19, mental health across the world has taken a hit.
But the group of young adults who are currently unable to socialise or leave their laptop screens are taking a particular hit. This group is coming of age in a time of unprecedented crisis, with the threat of loss and grief overhanging their daily lives.
Often, students are warned by their teachers to take screen breaks and spend time away from the work. But as parents are finding out, the allocation of work after the school day have rendered these individuals busy for the whole evening, meeting their various deadlines.
This kind of stress-immersed isolation can create the right conditions for anxiety, in individuals who have the right traits. This study, supported by the National Institutes of Health, looks at early risk factors that predict the emergence of this anxiety in a group of young adults navigating COVID-19.
“People differ greatly in how they handle stress,” said Daniel Pine, a study author and chief of the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) Section on Development and Affective Neuroscience.
“This study shows that children’s level of fearfulness predicts how much stress they experience later in life when they confront difficult circumstances, such as the pandemic.”
291 participants, followed for most of their lives
The investigators examined data from 291 participants who had been followed from toddlerhood to young adulthood as part of a larger study on temperament and socioemotional development.
The researchers found that participants who continued to show a temperament characteristic called behavioural inhibition in childhood were more likely to experience worry dysregulation in adolescence (age 15), which in turn predicted elevated anxiety during the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic when the participants were in young adulthood (around age 18).
In the larger study, behavioural inhibition was measured at ages 2 and 3 using observations of children’s responses to novel toys and interaction with unfamiliar adults. When the children were 7 years old, they were observed for social wariness during an unstructured free play task with an unfamiliar peer. Worry dysregulation was assessed at age 15 through a self-report survey.
What is behavioural inhibition and why does it matter?
Behavioural inhibition is a childhood temperament characterised by high levels of cautious, fearful, and avoidant responses to unfamiliar people, objects, and situations. Previous studies have established that children who display behavioural inhibition are at increased risk of developing anxiety disorders later.
However, less research has investigated the specific mechanisms by which a stable pattern of behavioural inhibition in childhood is linked to anxiety in young adulthood.
The authors of this study thought that children who demonstrate a stable pattern of behavioural inhibition may be at greater risk for worry dysregulation in adolescence.
Basically, they would have difficulty managing worry and expressing their worries appropriately. This could then create the perfect conditions for elevated anxiety during later stressful events, like the COVID-19 pandemic in which the participants are turning 18.
‘Early life temperament’ as an omen for future mental health
“This study provides further evidence of the continuing impact of early life temperament on the mental health of individuals,” said Nathan A Fox, PhD, Distinguished University Professor and director of the Child Development Lab at the University of Maryland, College Park, and an author of the study.
The findings suggest that targeting social wariness in childhood and worry dysregulation in adolescence may be a viable strategy for the prevention of anxiety disorders.
Fox further commented: “Young children with stable behavioral inhibition are at heightened risk for increased worry and anxiety, and the context of the pandemic only heightened these effects.”