Craske and her colleagues are finding that neuroticism — the tendency to experience negative emotions such as fear, anxiety, guilt, shame, sadness or anger — is a powerful predictor of both anxiety and depression. Newly published research from the long-term study highlights a potential mechanism by which neuroticism confers risk. The researchers report that teenagers who are high in neuroticism appear to become unnecessarily anxious in ways that are out of proportion with actual circumstances.
Neuroticism is also a common trait of people with eating disorders, especially those with anorexia nervosa.
"This is interpreted as neuroticism leading to enhanced anxiety under conditions associated with aversive events but in which negative events themselves are very unlikely," Craske said. "It may represent a failure to distinguish conditions that are safe from conditions in which threatening events are very likely to occur. By translation, these findings suggest that persons with high neuroticism would respond with appropriate fear to actual threatening events, but with additional unnecessary anxiety to surrounding conditions. This type of responding may explain why neuroticism contributes to the development of pervasive anxiety."
Craske and her colleagues report their findings this month in the journal Biological Psychiatry. She hopes the study will reveal the risk factors that predict anxiety, versus depression, and which risk factors are common to both anxiety and depression.
"Anxiety and depression often go hand in hand; we're trying to learn what factors place adolescents at risk for the development of anxiety and depression, what is common between anxiety and depression, and what is unique to each," Craske said.
It would be interesting to see whether this leads to any better predictions of what traits in what people predispose them to eating disorders.
Because many eating disorder prevention efforts are targeted more generally at improving self-esteem and media literacy, and important population at higher risk may be overlooked. Perhaps these teens would benefit from lessons in decreasing perfectionism and increasing resilience. No doubt it would help with anxiety. Might it also help with eating disorders?