Childhood Anxiety Studies

Anxiety Disorders and Anxiety Risk – Focus on Preadolescents

Clinical studies in our laboratory focus on anxiety disorders and the risk to develop anxiety disorders in preadolescent children. Early life anxiety is important because it is a risk factor for the later development of various types of psychopathology. The preadolescent period is associated with the emergence of anxiety disorders and precedes a peak in the onset of depressive disorders occurring during the adolescent years.  Preadolescence is a critical time for anxiety risk and is a period that presents the opportunity for early interventions aimed at changing the life course of those at risk to develop stress-related psychopathology. In children, anxiety can make it hard to create and maintain social connections, cause difficulties in relationships with friends and family, and create challenges in school and work environments. Additionally, childhood anxiety is a risk for the later development of other forms of psychopathology. Despite the pervasive and impairing nature of anxiety disorders, historically anxiety in children has been underrecognized, underdiagnosed, and undertreated. The goal of our studies is to understand the factors that contribute to the risk to develop pathological anxiety during childhood by using multiple methods, including brain imaging.

Our approach is to move beyond the traditional diagnostic criteria for anxiety disorders by studying a broad sample of children with varying levels of anxiety. We conceptualize anxiety as a continuum, ranging from “normal” adaptive anxiety to more extreme “pathological” anxiety that impairs well-being and interferes with functioning. We use a combination of methods including clinical assessments, multimodal neuroimaging, behavioral, hormonal, and physiological measures. In relation to understanding the risk to develop anxiety disorders, we have a particular interest in preadolescent girls as a vulnerable population. This is because females are twice as likely as males to experience anxiety and depression during adolescence and adulthood. We are also studying a large sample of girls and boys with anxiety disorders in a multisite project that involves UW-Madison, along with Vanderbilt University and the National Institute of Mental Health. Our ultimate goal is to use our findings to promote the development of new treatments for childhood anxiety that will reduce risk for developing these disorders, and also will more effectively treat children with more severe anxiety. 

Want to find out more? Check out the videos below to see a real life example of Tess, who received treatment to help with her anxiety.

Tess and her Struggles:

Tess Gets Help:

Tess and Research: