New Research Examines the Biology of Childhood Anxiety


Some kids handle the pressures of their young lives–chiefly their abilities to score well on standardized tests in school–while others crumble under the anxiety of the pressure to succeed.  An article in this weekend’s New York Times magazine looks at this fact through the lens of what it can teach us about anxiety and panic in children.  The article chronicles a growing body of research on this question and concludes that though biology plays a role in a child’s ability to manage anxiety, it is far from the only factor in the equation:

An emerging field of research — and a pioneering study from Taiwan — has begun to offer some clues. Like any kind of human behavior, our response to competitive pressure is derived from a complex set of factors — how we were raised, our skills and experience, the hormones that we marinated in as fetuses. There is also a genetic component: One particular gene, referred to as the COMT gene, could to a large degree explain why one child is more prone to be a worrier, while another may be unflappable, or in the memorable phrasing of David Goldman, a geneticist at the National Institutes of Health, more of a warrior.

Understanding their propensity to become stressed and how to deal with it can help children compete. Stress turns out to be far more complicated than we’ve assumed, and far more under our control than we imagine. Unlike long-term stress, short-term stress can actually help people perform, and viewing it that way changes its effect. Even for those genetically predisposed to anxiety, the antidote isn’t necessarily less competition — it’s more competition. It just needs to be the right kind.

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