Early risk factors can predict the state of mental health in young adulthood, new study finds

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  • Researchers have found early risk factors that may be predictors of heightened anxiety in young adults during the coronavirus pandemic
  • A study tracked behaviours in young adults from when they were toddlers until they were 18
  • Findings show they had higher anxiety symptoms during the early stages of the pandemic 

Researchers have found the early risk factors that may be predictors of heightened anxiety in young adults during the coronavirus pandemic.

The study, published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, may help predict which people have the greatest risk of developing anxiety during stressful life events in early adulthood, and inform prevention and intervention efforts.

Identifying those at greatest risk

Researchers assessed data from 291 subjects who were followed from when they were toddlers until young adulthood. The participants were part of a larger study on temperament and socioemotional development. Behavioural inhibition was first measured at ages two and three. At seven years, the children’s social wariness was observed in the laboratory during a social situation involving an unfamiliar, same-age, same-sex peer, recruited from the community.

During the assessment of 15-year olds, participants reported on their expression and regulation of worries. In the final stage, between April 20 and May 15 of 2020, approximately a month after a Covid-19 stay-at-home order, young adults completed their first online questionnaires measuring their anxiety.

About a month later, participants completed their second assessment after the Covid-19 stay-at-home order had been lifted. At the time, participants were on average 18 years old.

The results of the study revealed that participants who continued to show a temperament characteristic called behavioural inhibition in childhood were more likely to experience worry dysregulation when they reached the age of 15 years, which, in turn, predicted elevated anxiety during the early months of the Covid-19 pandemic when they were in young adults at around age 18.

The findings

In the first assessment, during the stay at home order, 20% of the participants reported moderate levels of anxiety symptoms. When the order was lifted, 18.3% of participants reported clinical anxiety levels. 

"People differ greatly in how they handle stress. "This study shows that children's level of fearfulness predicts how much stress they experience later in life when they confront difficult circumstances, such as the pandemic," says Dr Daniel Pine, co-study author.

Researchers found that individuals with high behavioural inhibition in toddlerhood who continued to display high levels of social wariness in childhood, reported experiencing dysregulated worry in adolescence, and this ultimately predicted increased anxiety in young adulthood during a critical stage of the pandemic.

"This study provides further evidence of the continuing impact of early life temperament on the mental health of individuals. Young children with stable behavioural inhibition are at heightened risk for increased worry and anxiety, and the context of the pandemic only heightened these effects," says Dr Nathan Fox, co-author of the study, in a press statement.

The results of the study also recommend that targeting dysregulated worry in adolescence may be particularly important for identifying those who might be at risk for heightened anxiety during stressful life events like the Covid-19 pandemic and preventing that heightened anxiety.

READ| You are what you ate - as a child

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