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December 21, 2021

Persistent anxiety as a child may lead to psychosis as a young adult, new research shows

Targeting stress hormones and chronic inflammation may reduce the risk

Mental Health Anxiety
Childhood Anxiety Treatment Alexas Fotos/Pixabay

Treating childhood anxiety by targeting stress hormones and chronic inflammation may risk the risk of developing a psychotic disorder as a young adult, new research shows.

About 7.1% of U.S. children ages 3-17 have been diagnosed with anxiety, and rates continue to rise, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

New research underscores the importance of providing treatment to these children. 

Experiencing high levels of anxiety throughout childhood and adolescence increases people's risk of developing psychosis in their early 20s, researchers from the United Kingdom found. But treating early anxiety by targeting stress hormones and chronic inflammation could reduce that risk.

"Early diagnosis and management of adolescent anxiety and possibly novel treatments targeted at inflammation could be key actions to unlock treatment strategies that reduce the risk of children and adolescents going on to develop psychosis," said Isabel Morales-Muñoz, a researcher at the University of Birmingham.

Persistent high levels of anxiety at young ages also may lead to a higher risk of psychosis experiences, which are different from psychotic disorders such as schizophrenia, researchers found.

Psychotic experiences are hallucinations or delusions that occur in people with and without psychotic disorders. They are only considered a symptom of mental illness if the person is experiencing other symptoms of the condition, too.

Schizophrenia is characterized by abnormal thinking and perceptions. Other symptoms include lacking motivation, difficulty concentrating and losing interest in things the person once enjoyed. People with bipolar disorder also may have psychotic symptoms.

Though genetics contribute to the likelihood of having a psychotic experience, there are other factors at play. Environmental factors, such as having a traumatic experience or using cannabis, can induce a psychotic experience.

These factors also play role in the development of a psychotic disorder, but there are still many unknowns about the underlying causes of psychotic disorders and psychotic experiences, mental health experts say.

The researchers noted there was a stronger association between persistent high levels of anxiety and psychotic disorders than anxiety and psychotic experiences. People who experience psychotic experiences are a more diverse group, they found.

"Childhood and adolescence is the core risk phase for developing anxiety disorders which become risk factors for general mental disorders in adulthood," senior study author Rachel Upthegrove said.

In their findings, however, the connection between anxiety and mental health disorders appears specific to psychosis and not other disorders such as hypomania, phobias and substance use disorder. More research is needed.

There are several types of anxiety disorders, according to the Anxiety & Depression Association of America. Generalized anxiety disorder is when a child excessively worries about a variety of issues such grades, family issues, friendships and sport performance. They tend to be perfectionists.

A child is diagnosed with a panic disorder when they experience at least two unexpected panic or anxiety attacks and then worry about having more.

Toddlers and pre-schoolers may have separation anxiety when a parent leaves the room or drops them off with a sitter, but they usually can be distracted from these feelings. Older children who have trouble being away from home may have separation anxiety disorder, which most commonly occurs in children ages 7-9.

Data on 3,889 children from the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children were used for the analysis. The children's mental health was assessed at ages 8, 10, 13 and again at age 24. The findings were published in Biological Psychiatry.

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