Anxiety issues can be generational. Theories exist that suggest that some children are genetically predisposed to develop anxiety issues, while other research supports the transmission of anxiety symptoms from parents to children through exposure and experience. Panic disorder (PD) is one mental health challenge that has been somewhat overlooked in this debate. Specifically, it is unclear whether panic symptoms pass from parent to child, and if so, what causes this transmission. Karin Mogg of the Department of Psychology at the University of Southampton in England decided to explore this relationship further.
In a recent study, Mogg looked at how attentional bias toward threat, an indicator of risk for anxiety, differed in a group of mothers and daughters with and without a history of PD. Mogg recruited 60 mothers and their preteen or teenage daughters and conducted threat experiments on them. The threat cues were visual and verbal in nature, and were designed to threaten physical health. The results revealed some interesting relationships. First, the daughters of mothers with PD did have bias toward the threats, while those whose mothers had no history of anxiety did not. But this bias existed only when the cues were viewed for long durations, not brief durations. Also, the mothers with and without PD did not vary in their levels of attentional bias.
Overall, the findings showed that the daughters with PD mothers had elevated anxiety scores and more physical health concerns than the daughters of mothers without PD. This was demonstrated in girls with and without anxiety. Interestingly, there was no similarity in the attentional bias in the mothers with PD and their daughters. Cole believes that daughters of PD mothers may be sensitive to cues that present threats for their mothers, regardless of their own anxiety levels. Over time, they may have developed methods to monitor situations that could potentially increase their mothers’ anxiety. Longer attention to such dangerous cues could be one way they remain vigilant in this respect. “Thus, general anxiety-proneness in mothers (rather than lifetime PD, in particular) may give rise to increased threat-monitoring strategies in their offspring, which may in turn contribute to anxiety vulnerability,” Cole said. He believes that future work should look at how attentional bias in youth without anxiety affects risk of anxiety problems later in life.
Mogg, Karin, Kimberly A. Wilson, Chris Hayward, Darby Cunning, and Brendan P. Bradley. Attentional biases for threat in at-risk daughters and mothers with lifetime panic disorder. Journal of Abnormal Psychology 121.4 (2012): 852-62. Print.
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