While adolescents are known to suffer from "teenage angst," little research has been devoted to understanding the ins and outs of their depression and anxiety compared to adults’. It is known, however, that some teens suffer from anxiety that is severe enough to interfere with their quality of life, and which may prevent them from enjoying social relationships and even excelling in their studies.
'[W]e hope this approach to encourage positive interpretations of events will prove to be a powerful tool. If we are able to intervene early and effectively in teenagers with anxiety, we may be able to prevent later adult problems.'
Anxious people in general tend to have problems interpreting the world around them in healthy and accurate ways. As Jennifer Lau, author of a recent study designed to begin to change those interpretations, explains in the study’s news release, "some people may tend to draw negative interpretations of ambiguous situations…. I might wave at someone I recently met on the other side of the street. If they don’t wave back, I might think they didn’t remember me — or alternatively, I might think they’re snubbing me. People with anxiety are more likely to assume the latter interpretation."
This sort of negative slant on life can significantly color all of one’s interactions with the world: According to Lau, "these negative thoughts are believed to drive and maintain their feelings of low mood and anxiety."
The researchers had the teenage participants (who did not suffer from anxiety disorders) use a computer program which was designed to prompt either positive or negative assessments of various social situations (reading a comment on one’s Facebook page, for example). Later, the teens were asked to interpret other ambiguous situations. Those who had been trained positively interpreted the ambiguous situations in a more positive light, while those who had received negative training did the opposite.
These results suggest that it may be possible to shift how teens interpret situations, with a relatively simple training method. Lau says that even though "these results are early, and among a limited number of healthy teenagers, we hope this approach to encourage positive interpretations of events will prove to be a powerful tool. If we are able to intervene early and effectively in teenagers with anxiety, we may be able to prevent later adult problems."
Understanding how anxiety, depression, and other mood disorders develop in children and adolescents is important from a public health perspective. Nipping psychological issues like anxiety in the bud during adolescence not only benefits the individual, but it also prevents societal and economic costs that are associated with mood disorders.
Dr. Lau is a researcher at the Oxford University. Her study was published in the July 12, 2011 online issue of Child Psychiatry & Human Development.