Can We Help Adolescent Brains Fight Off Anxiety?

Anxiety is the most common mental health disorder that affects the lives of children in the US. Today. According to the most recent statistics on the subject, roughly one in three teens lives with anxiety and any given time. 

What would normally be considered “normal activities,” can be excruciating endeavors for teens living with anxiety. Clinically anxious teenagers have difficulty learning, making friends, and adjusting to responsibilities and new life developments. In addition, afflicted teens often turn to negative ways to self-medicate or cope with their anxiety, including turning to drugs and alcohol or isolating themselves from others. And, while well-intentioned parents often go out of their way to alleviate their child’s inner pain, merely asking an overly anxious child about their feelings can even make the situation worse. 

Needless to say, parents of anxiety-ridden children are desperate to learn ways in which they can help their children in any way they can. 

New Research Suggests Small Children Can One Day Be Inoculated from Clinical Anxiety

One exciting new development in psychiatry suggests that young children may one day be able to be inoculated at a young age and prevented from ever experiencing the throes of clinical anxiety. The research conducted by Kate Fitgerald, professor of Psychiatry and Obstetrics at the University of Michigan, suggests that such a treatment is just around the corner. 

Fitzgerald and her team have been studying the psychology of children with anxiety symptoms for a long time. As of late, they have made some important discoveries on the brain makers for childhood anxiety. 

Recently, Dr. Fiztgerald’s team has developed a training program for very young children designed to boost their cognitive capacities that help lessen their anxiety. According to their research, this training program reduces symptoms immediately and possibly, in the future. 

“We hope our work will show that childhood anxiety is not inevitable but might be prevented with the right intervention,” says Fitzgerald. “So far, it’s looking promising.” - Dr. Kate Fitzgerald.

Studying the Neuroscience of Anxiety

Anxiety is a natural emotion that is triggered in our brain to address normal everyday events and challenges.

When faced with scary situations, our brain sends us adrenaline that puts our bodies and minds into flight or flight. During this process, our brain uses our frontal lobes to assess stressful situations on a case-by-case basis, typically drawing from past experiences to create an appropriate response.

Typically speaking, these systems are supposed to work in tandem -- flooding us with adrenaline or “applying the brakes” -- depending on what our body and minds need at the time of stress. 

In a healthy individual, anxiety can be positive: such as when it is used by the brain to motivate a person to study harder for an important upcoming final exam. However, in clinically anxious people, their brains are flooded with fight or flight emotions of anxiety every time, making them feel they need to run away from any challenges. As one can imagine, it takes an exhausting toll for a person with anxiety to exert their control over their emotions to get through everyday activities. 

Facing clinical anxiety in an attempt to tamper fear responses is fundamental in overcoming clinical anxiety. However, Fitzgerald and her team have recently discovered this is not necessarily the case in young children. 

For example, in young children, the researchers found that four-to-seven-year-olds react to scary situations like most children would but are severely anxious when reacting to everyday situations, such as meeting new people or going to school. 

Fitzgerald and her team also discovered that when a child between five and seven makes a mistake, their response is weaker than when an adult does. They say this is likely because young children have weaker cognitive capacities that help them understand what an error is and when it occurs.

This means that when an anxious young child makes a mistake, they are not cognitively able to understand that the mistake can be rectified, thus leaving them more anxious than an older child or adult. 

Cognitive control refers to the mental ability to override impulses and habits so you can do things based on goals and intentions. For example, it takes cognitive control to break a habit of eating junk food so you can follow through on a decision to get healthier.

A young child with low cognitive control is also more likely to develop anxiety later on in childhood, while a higher capacity will be more resilient to stress. Thus, raising cognitive control (which can be measured by the ERN) could treat anxiety in young children and potentially prevent it from becoming worse over time.

“If we could just help kids gain some cognitive control when they are anxious, it could really make a difference in how they deal with stressful situations,” says Fitzgerald. “We just need to empower them.”

Using Cognitive Control to Prevent Harmful Anxiety

Fitzgerald and her colleagues conducted a study to improve cognitive control and reduce anxiety in four-to-seven-year olds. The study involved having the children come to a “camp” they called Kid Power for four half-day sessions over the course of fourteen days.

During Kid Power, children played cognitive-based games such as Simon says and red light-green light. The researchers hypothesized that these games would help strengthen the children’s cognitive control. 

Counselors at the camp then gradually increased the difficulty of these games to help the children master skills such as being flexible, using their memory while at the same time inhibiting undesirable responses (such as moving when Simon didn’t say). Parents were also encouraged to participate at the end of each session and learn the games their children were playing to continue working with their children at home. 

To measure the effects the cognitive games had on their behavior, the researchers measured the children’s anxiety levels (startle response), and their cognitive-ability levels (ERN) before and after their Kid’s Power study had concluded. Again, their findings were more than promising. 

After analyzing the data, Fitzgerald’s team found that the children displayed significantly higher ERN’s (cognitive control). At the same time, their startle responses (anxiety) significantly decreased to normal levels of a child of that age. 

“The brain signal that related to detecting an error actually increased, but in a good way,” said Fitzgerald. “Kids were getting better at doing hard things, stopping instinctual responding, including the fear response.”

What’s more, the parents of the children also mirrored that of the data. They reported witnessing fewer anxiety-related symptoms in their child -- including fear of going to school and meeting new people. 

“It’s exciting to link the brain to behavior, but what’s even more rewarding is the individual children we’ve seen go through the program who are experiencing fewer anxiety symptoms,” - Dr. Kate Fitzgerald. 

The undeniably encouraging results from this isolated study have given Dr. Kate Fitzgerald and her team a $3 million expansion in the form of a grant from the National Institutes of Health. The grant is to expand the Kid Power program and conduct further research on the subject of anxiety prevention. 

She hopes future studies will help her nail down the key ingredient in the program that led to reduced anxiety and, hopefully, find a way to specifically design treatment for individual children—some of whom may need a  more intensive dose of the program or slightly different activities to improve, she says.

“Interventions are within reach,” she says. “As we work to understand the science behind anxiety in young minds, we can use that science to develop treatments that are more effective.”