Teen Neuroses Point Toward Chronic Anxiety
> 9/25/2008 5:46:47 PM

A groundbreaking longitudinal anxiety study sponsored by the National Institute of Mental Health has already produced significant findings at its halfway point. The study, which has been running for four years, tracks the emotional development of 650 students from the ages of 16 to 24, and the results of its most recent experiments measuring stress responses to simulated situations suggest that bouts of teenage drama may be far more than an “unfortunate phase.” Teen histrionics sometimes hint at serious mood and anxiety disorders that will only grow more severe with time.  

According to lead researcher Michelle Craske, teens predisposed to unusually overpowering sensations of shame, guilt, and anger are most likely displaying early evidence of chronic mental health conditions. Every individual passing the threshold from adolescence to adulthood will, of course, go through his or her share of teary moments. But researchers aim to clarify the divide between traditional growing pains and debilitating states of negativity that characterize depression and anxiety disorders. Neuroticism (or psychoneurosis) is a condition in which affected individuals display a dramatic tendency toward negative emotions that can become powerful enough to interfere with nearly all aspects of daily life. Previous studies have proposed a genetic link between neuroticism and depression, and the connection seems natural as overwhelming negativity is one of clinical depression’s most prominent symptoms. Individuals affected by such neuroses often overemphasize their own negative perceptions, reacting to ordinary circumstances in inappropriately dramatic ways and growing anxious in the face of perceived threats that have little or no basis in reality. This may sound like every teenager you’ve ever known, but separating standard anxieties from true neurosis can be a crucial task for parents and mental health professionals.

In the most recent experiment, the study’s subjects (whose mean age is now 20) were placed in front of computer screens and told to expect a series of up to three progressively stronger electric shocks when the screens turned red to signify “Danger.” Alternately green screens were said to signify a “safe” period in which no shocks would be administered. The participants viewed eight green and eight red sequences in random order, and researchers looking to intensify fear responses also included a countdown to the expected shock in which the screen grew progressively redder. Anxiety indexes for each participant were measured throughout the experiment via factors such as heart rate and sweat gland activity.

The actual risk involved was, of course, extremely exaggerated as each subject experienced only one mild shock midway through the procedure. As expected, the startle response of each subject rose as the supposedly forthcoming shock grew closer. Heartbeats sped up, sweat glands worked harder and eyes blinked faster as the countdown moved closer to zero. This pattern mirrors the standard human fight-or-flight response, when a gut feeling motivates one to action in the face of danger. Stress levels for most of the subjects built to an apex and leveled off as soon as the safe green screen reappeared. But those trending toward neuroticism remained in a heightened state of anxiety throughout the entire exercise, experiencing abnormal periods of stress even during moments when no supposed shock was forthcoming. Their anxieties rose as soon as the exercise began and remained elevated through its entirety. This reaction is out of sync with the usual human response to stressful stimuli and points toward a personal tendency to fall into states of fear and negativity at the slightest provocation.

The real-world implications of such severe stress responses are not good. Affected subjects may dramatically overreact to perceived threats and behave erratically in response to unfounded fears. Unfortunately, such conditions only feed on themselves as heightened anxieties seem to confirm unfounded fears. At a certain point, affected individuals grow anxious over being anxious. As Craske puts it, “Once fear develops, it becomes self-perpetuating.” Such consistent stress does not have any obvious benefits and can gradually wear down both the mental and physical health of its victims. 25% of the American public experiences some sort of anxiety disorder during their lifetimes, and related conditions are twice as common among women as they are among men. Dismissing moody fits as “a teenage thing” is an easy way out, and paranoid parents certainly shouldn’t examine every single exchange for the slightest evidence of disorder. But abnormally extreme negativity points toward a looming problem. And treatment, rather than harsh or overprotective parenting, is the most effective approach.



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