Mom’s Genetic Trait for Anxiety is a Marker for the Problem in Offspring

“People become attached to their burdens sometimes more than the burdens are attached to them.”- George Bernard Shaw

From the observable physical features, such as the color of the eyes, mannerisms, etc., to the less-observable genetic vulnerability to certain mental and physical diseases, children take after their parents in more ways than one can account for. In the field of psychopathology, there is less information about a child’s predisposition to develop an anxiety disorder or the role that attention towards threats plays in triggering long-term anxiety.

Establishing a marker for the early identification of anxiety among at-risk individuals can enable a person to take preventative measures against the condition. Such a measure will also reduce the number of cases where patients avail treatment only on the exacerbation of the symptoms of an anxiety disorder.

In an effort to fathom the role of attention bias among growing babies with anxious mothers, a study was carried out by Koraly Pérez-Edgar, Kristin Buss and Vanessa Lobue. While Pérez-Edgar and Buss are professors of psychology at Penn State University, Lobue is an assistant professor of psychology at Rutgers University.

The researchers discovered that babies with anxious mothers were more keen on focusing on threats in their environment. The study was published in the journal Emotion and provides a fresh insight into the risk of developing anxiety disorders in certain individuals.

Socioemotional development of a child under anxious mothers

Earlier studies have authenticated that paying too much attention to threats is a risk factor for increasing one’s anxiety. In fact, certain talk therapies for anxiety disorders focus on turning the patient’s attention away from the potential threats to achieve a reduction in the level of anxiety. However, none can determine the effects on the babies.

The study recruited 98 babies aged four to 24 months who focused on a screen with an eye tracker. The expressions of the babies were measured as they gazed into a series of happy, neutral and angry faces. To distract them, a second image was displayed in their peripheral vision.

Using infrared eye-tracking technology to ascertain how long the babies looked at different faces and interviewing their mothers to gauge their levels of anxiety, the following key findings were established:

  • Babies with anxious mother had a harder time looking away from an angry face (associated with the threat) than babies whose mothers were not as anxious.
  • The more anxious a baby’s mother was, the more likely her baby would spend time looking at angry faces before turning to look at the secondary image. This suggests that it is more difficult for babies with anxious mothers to disengage from a potential threat in their environment.
  • The researchers hypothesize a genetic vulnerability is at play as babies with anxious mothers spend a longer period looking at angry faces regardless if they were four or 24 months old.

“It doesn’t seem like the babies are learning to pay more attention to the threat from their anxious moms. If that were true, the older babies might have more trouble turning away because they’ve been around their moms longer than the younger babies,” said Pérez-Edgar, adding, “This seems to suggest that there may be a shared genetic or biological component.”

These findings provide support for attention bias as an early mechanism that explains the risk for anxiety disorders in relation to socioemotional development. The study provides a vital clue about risk factors for anxiety disorder among children.

Seek treatment to alleviate anxiety in children

Anxiety disorders are the most common mental disorders world over, and the United States is no exception. The prevalence of the condition suggests several risks factors are responsible for triggering anxiety disorders. As such, anxiety disorders can be effectively treated using the right medical interventions.


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