Can scientists predict who will develop anxiety disorders years in advance? UCLA psychology professor Michelle Craske thinks so. She is four years into an eight-year study evaluating 650 students, who were 16 when the study began, to identify risk factors for the development of anxiety and depression - the most comprehensive study of its kind.
Craske and her colleagues are finding that neuroticism (the tendency to experience negative emotions such as fear, anxiety, guilt, shame, sadness or anger) is a powerful predictor of both anxiety and depression. Newly published research from the long-term study highlights a potential mechanism by which neuroticism confers risk. The researchers report that teenagers who are high in neuroticism appear to become unnecessarily anxious in ways that are out of proportion with actual circumstances.
Co-authors on the new research include Edward Ornitz, professor of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences at the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at UCLA, and Bruce Naliboff, also of the Semel Institute and co-director of the UCLA Veterans Affairs Center for Neurobiology of Stress.
The longitudinal study marks the first time physiological, cognitive and personality measures, along with life stressors, have been analyzed together, Craske said. Participants in the study attended a Los Angeles school and a school in Evanston, Ill.; to preserve confidentiality, the researchers are not identifying the schools. The students are now 20 and reside in various areas throughout the U.S.
The study is federally funded by the National Institute of Mental Health, the world's largest scientific organization dedicated to research focused on the understanding, treatment and prevention of mental disorders and the promotion of mental health. Anxiety disorders, including panic disorder and post-traumatic stress syndrome, are chronic conditions that tend to persist if untreated.