Anxiety levels in children are associated with low social connectedness and high environmental threat
April McCarthy, Prevent Disease
Two new meta-analytic studies involving thousands of children and college students show that anxiety has increased substantially since the 1950’s. In fact, the studies find that anxiety has increased so much that typical schoolchildren during the 1980’s reported more anxiety than child psychiatric patients did during the 1950’s. The findings appear in the December issue of the American Psychological Association’s (APA)Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
“The results of the study suggest that cases of depression will continue to increase in the coming decades, as anxiety tends to predispose people to depression,” says psychologist and study author Jean M. Twenge, PhD, of Case Western Reserve University.
She adds that other implications of the findings suggest that alcohol and drug abuse will continue to be an increasing problem too, because anxiety usually precedes the onset of substance abuse. There are also implications for physical health. “Research has found that anxious people have a higher mortality rate, most likely because anxiety has been linked to higher occurrences of asthma, irritable bowel syndrome, ulcers, inflammatory bowel disease and coronary heart disease,” said Dr. Twenge. About 8 percent of today’s U.S. teens suffer from some type of diagnosed anxiety disorder, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.
While it may be true that some people are excessive worriers and anxious, it is not by any means a condition that should require medication for the majority of the population. We’re now finding out that anxiety has its role in the human body and may demonstrate some higher levels of thought processing.
The type of anxiety looked at in these studies is known as trait anxiety, the relatively stable individual differences in anxiety-proneness, which is different than state anxiety, a temporary emotion experienced due to a particular situation. In the first study, anxiety scores from 170 samples of American college students (representing 40,192 students) were analyzed from research conducted between 1952 to 1993. The second study looked at anxiety scores during the same years in 99 samples of children (representing 12,056 children, ages 9 – 17). Both studies show a significantly large increase in anxiety levels, providing more evidence for what some authors have called “the age of anxiety.”
Why the increase in anxiety? In both studies, anxiety levels are associated with low social connectedness and high environmental threat. During the study period, social connectedness decreased because of higher divorce rates, more people living alone and a decline in trust in other people. The author says many of these changes involve greater individualism, but she says there can be a down side to this. “Our greater autonomy may lead to increased challenges and excitement, but it also leads to greater isolation from others, more threats to our bodies and minds, and thus higher levels of anxiety,” said Dr. Twenge.
Most threats also increased during the study period, including violent crime, worries about nuclear war and fear of diseases such as AIDS. The study also cites increased media coverage as a source of a greater perception of environmental threat since the 1950’s. Since the study ended in 1993, some of these environmental threats have declined, including crime rates and worries about nuclear war, which are good signs for stopping or reversing increases in anxiety, according to Dr. Twenge.
However, she says, social connectedness has not improved very much since the early 1990’s. “Although divorce rates have decreased somewhat, the percentage of people living alone continues to increase, and levels of trust are still declining,” said Dr. Twenge. “Until people feel both safe and connected to others, anxiety is likely to remain high.”