Are nervous and inhibited babies more likely to become anxious adults? New research says yes. By following babies into their teens and beyond, researchers have been able to confirm the link between behavioral inhibition in young children and anxiety later in life.
“The inhibited child will sit and watch, but she doesn’t play alone or with others. The idea of being included appears to terrify her,” said developmental psychologist Koraly Pérez-Edgar Ph.D, associate professor of psychology at Penn state.
Her research over the years has shown that this kind of extreme shyness is often a predictor of anxiety later in life. She notes that the behavior of a shy child will evolve as they grow up, “but they can remain uncomfortable in their own skin in new social situations.”
It’s rare for a child to be clinically diagnosed with an anxiety disorder before adolescence. “Kids aren’t yet anxious, but can have the temperament that may predispose them to become anxious,” said Pérez-Edgar.
She is careful to note the distinction between normal separation anxiety, a common experience among two and three year-olds, and what might be called an anxious temperament.
“When [a behaviorally inhibited] baby is exposed to novel sensory information — it can be something as benign as one of those mobiles you put over the crib or a normal jack-in-the-box — a lot of babies giggle and laugh, they think it’s funny. But these babies are terrified, they cry and arch their backs — their systems have just said ‘danger, danger, danger,’” she said.
Later in life, this might translate into having a difficult time building relationships and socializing with peers.
Once a behavioral link had been established, researchers began to speculate about the neurology involved. Could extreme shyness be traced to differences in the brain? Developmental psychologist Jerome Kagan predicted that behaviorally inhibited babies might have an overly sensitive limbic system, and in particular an overly sensitive amygdala.
The amygdala is the seat of what is known as the fight-or-flight reaction. When the amygdala is overly-sensitive, it can cause anxiety. After the babies in the study became teenagers and were able to undergo magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans, Pérez-Edgar reports, “We were able to show that yes indeed, teenagers who as babies looked so fearful in the face of novelty, in fact their amygdalae did respond more vigorously.”
At this point, however, the direction of causation is still unknown. “Here we have a chicken versus egg situation,” says Pérez-Edgar. “Is it because you’re temperamentally reactive that your amygdala is overactive, or vice versa?”
Pérez-Edgar is currently conducting a study with children ages nine to 12 to observe how attention and temperament are linked to social behavior. As she points out, the amygdala is not only activated by fear, but is also known to be responsive to other social stimuli.
One way that the researchers are trying to help anxious children is through behavioral therapy: directing the children’s attention away from the source of anxiety. They hypothesize that by training the brain of a child to not seek out things that cause anxiety and by focusing attention elsewhere, their anxiety will lessen.
Source: Penn State