Many studies have been recently published about the ways childhood anxiety can be impacted by parenting. Many times, this impact isn’t even seen in obvious ways, but in the parents’ subtle messages sent through the way they model their relationship to challenges, or discuss how they are managing fears.
But recent research is showing there is actually a genetic link in the ways the brain responds during an “attack” of extreme shyness for anxious people. As a 2018 study by Anita Harrewijn at the University of Leiden showed, the threat of being thrown into an anxiety-producing situation changes the brain waves of people with anxiety, in ways that are similar across families.
In this study Harrewijn studied 134 participants, using brain wave research (EEG) to determine how brain patterns shifted in response to a stress-inducing situation. In the participants with social anxiety, a raised level of activity was found between the cortical and subcortical areas of the brain. As Harrewijn noted, “Whereas the cortical area mainly regulates control, the subcortical area deals with emotion. The two areas seem to be competing for attention.”
How do people become anxious?
This finding is a fascinating one, as scientists start to unravel the distinction between “nature and nurture” as related to parent and child anxiety. While some behavior may be learned, as previous research shows, it seems increasingly likely that there is a genetic component impacting even the ways our brains process and respond to stress.
That’s not to say we can’t do anything about child anxiety–on the contrary, it would be hugely helpful if we could unravel this genetic link further, and figure out how to provide diagnoses and support earlier on, in a targeted way. We could think of “early intervention” for anxiety, the same way we think about such programs for children having trouble learning to speak.
If we start early, in terms of understanding who is likely to become anxious and providing support, we can make inroads into helping kids become more resilient, before their fearful responses to high-stress situations can take hold. Rather than waiting until kids are teenagers and facing unprecedented levels of severe anxiety, as a New York Times article showed, we can start to recognize that such anxiety takes time to develop, and shore kids up before they reach the turbulent middle and high school years.