By
msnbc.com contributor
updated 8/11/2010 1:48:55 PM ET 2010-08-11T17:48:55

Tania Day knows she’s a world-class worry wart. You name it, she worries about. Finances. Check. The environment. Check. The recession. Check.

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And it seems her 5-year-old son, Ian, worries about the same things, too. His latest angst: the BP oil spill, which he fears will invade his favorite stream. He also has some major concerns about the family budget and that mom may be spending too much money at the grocery store. “He’s becoming a worry magnet, just like me,” says Day, a 39-year-old stay-at-home mom from Cleveland, Ohio, who has struggled with anxiety most of her adult life. “Now I worry about why he worries.”

That’s a lot of worry.

The good news for little Ian is that fretful DNA isn’t necessarily destiny, at least according to a study of anxious monkeys.

In research published in the journal Nature Wednesday, scientists from the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Medicine and Public Health looked at how genetic and environmental factors affect the part of the brain that make us anxious.

The study involved 238 related rhesus monkeys, all of which underwent PET scans. The anxiety-ridden monkeys showed extra brain activity in both the amygdala, an almond-shaped brain structure associated with the processing of emotions like fear and pleasure, and the anterior hippocampus, a brain area associated with memory. (Turns out that anxious monkeys are similar to anxious kids — they're shy, inhibited and they've got high levels of the stress hormone, cortisol.)

But it was largely the type of anxiety seen in the hippocampus that seemed to be hereditary.

“We’re really excited about this because what this study is saying is, sure, we inherit some traits from family, but how we process the environment is really important, too,” says Dr. Ned H. Kalin, a psychiatrist and the lead author, who estimates that (at least in monkeys) only about 35 percent of anxiety risk is inherited. Early nurturing, he suspects, plays a bigger role.

Since scientists could predict which monkeys were more prone to anxiety by looking at the brain activity on the scans, the hope is to translate those research finding to young children at risk “before anxiety takes over their lives,” says Kalin, who also heads U-W Madison’s HealthEmotion Research Institute. 

About one in eight kids are affected by some type of anxiety problem, according to the Anxiety Disorders Association of America. When left untreated, anxiety issues can affect school performance, social relationships and lead to drug and alcohol abuse.

If childhood symptoms are extreme, Kalin suggests getting professional help. For kids who are in the more moderate range, parents can help by talking to their kids about their fears and encouraging them to try things they may be afraid of. “Anxiety has always been around, but we live in a more complex world, and it seems these issues are more prevalent,” says Kalin. “But people are also more willing to talk, and that’s healthy.”

Day has already spoken to her doctor about her concerns. And she’s following his advice. She and her husband no longer discuss finances, the environment or other “worrisome things,” in front of Ian or her other two kids, Gabi, 8, and Bryce, 3, neither of whom exhibit any anxiety issues.

Instead, they’re spending a lot more time playing together as a family, and “actually enjoying the environment and each other,” says Day, who recently got a hint this new strategy may be working. “Ian told me I needed to chill a little bit,” she says, with a laugh. “That was awesome.”

Joan Raymond is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in Newsweek, the New York Times, MORE and Woman's Day.

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