A new study carried out by researchers at Weill Cornell Medical College has given us an interesting insight into a possible reason why depression, anxiety, and stress related problems peak during adolescence. Could a reduced ability to let go of fear lie at the root of at least some of the mental health problems experienced during this time?
The study involved a group of volunteers, a computer screen, headphones and sweat meters, and the results showed that when the teenagers were faced with a perceived threat, it triggered an emotional response that the youngsters couldn’t seem to suppress even after the threat was no longer present.
“This is the first study to show, in an experiment, that adolescent humans have diminished fear extinction learning” said Dr Siobhan Pattwell, lead author and postdoctoral fellow at Weill Cornell.
The researchers asked a group of children, adolescent, and adult volunteers to look at a computer screen which showed a sequence of images consisting of blue or yellow squares. Associated with one of the squares was an unpleasant sound, for example, half of the time, one of the coloured squares consistently triggered the sound. The participants all wore headphones and skin sweat meters whilst viewing the images. If an individual acquired a fear of the sound, they perspired more when they saw that same image that had been associated with the unpleasant noise.
Adults and children responded differently to teens
The following day, the same group once again viewed a sequence of yellow and blue square images but this time there was no unpleasant noise associated with any of the images. This is where it gets interesting.
Those in the 12 to 17 age group didn’t show a decrease in their fear response whereas adults and children didn’t have this problem. The children and adults participating in the experiment appeared to quickly learn that neither the yellow nor the blue square was linked to an unpleasant sound and their fear response rapidly decreased.
“Teenagers didn’t decrease their fear response, and maintained their fear throughout subsequent trials when no noise was played” says Dr Pattwell.
“Our findings are important because they might explain why epidemiologists have found that anxiety disorders seem to spike during adolescence or just before adolescence. It is estimated that over 75 percent of adults with fear-related disorders can trace the roots of their anxiety to earlier ages.”
Standard exposure therapy may not work
According to Dr Francis Lee, Professor of Pharmacology and Psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College and senior co investigator in the study, the standard desensitization techniques (exposure therapies) may not be effective on adolescents.
“If adolescents have a more difficult time learning that something that once frightened them is no longer a danger, then it is clear that the standard desensitization techniques from fear may not work on them”.
More personalized approaches needed
According to Dr Lee, personalized approaches to treatment of fear and anxiety disorders in teens needs to be investigated.
“It is essential that we find a way to help teenagers become more resilient to the fear they experience during adolescence to prevent it from leading to a lifetime of anxiety and depression.”
The study was published on September 17th in the early online edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS),
Depression and anxiety related disorders can be difficult to diagnose in teenagers simply because teens often experience emotional ups and downs and this is considered perfectly normal. However if a teenager’s behaviour changes radically and they are showing symptoms and signs of depression that lasts for two weeks or more and it’s affecting the child’s ability to function on a day to day basis then speak to a doctor or health care provider.
What to look out for:
- Persistent low moods
- Negative thinking
- Loss of interest in activities they used to enjoy
- Constant fatigue
- Difficulty making decisions
- Anxiety and fear
- Complaining of aches and pains without an obvious cause
- Changes in appetite
- Difficulty concentrating
- Emotional instability
- Changes in sleep patterns
- Outbursts of anger
- Agitation or Irritability
- Withdrawal from family and/or friends
- Irrational or bizarre behaviour
- Poor performance at school or college
- Loss of interest in appearance and poor personal hygiene
- Use of alcohol or substance abuse
- Suicidal thoughts or talking about death
If a teen is experiencing any of these symptoms it doesn’t necessarily mean they are definitely suffering from depression but a doctor will be able to rule out other possible causes. The teenage years are difficult enough for many children without the added burden of depression and anxiety, which if left untreated, is likely to persist into adulthood.