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Huda Akil, Ph.D. - Brain & behavior research expert on depression & anxiety
May 01, 2016

Thank you for the opportunity to clarify this point. The majority of children who are shy do not become depressed, so a tendency to be shy does not foretell a mood disorder. Similarly, the majority of risk takers do not become drug addicts. The research, both in animals and humans, looks at the connection from the other direction—it says if someone is severely depressed or anxious, then they are more likely to have an inhibited temperament. But many factors need to come together before a person has a depressive episode— there is often a genetic predisposition coupled with several fairly significant life stresses, especially during childhood and in adolescence, before a depressive episode is triggered.

A very important idea, and one we are funded to study, is that it is possible to build resilience specifically in individuals who are predisposed to anxiety and mood disorders. Remarkably, we are learning that while severe stress can be a trigger for depression, smaller stresses, in limited doses, can actually build resilience—in other words, vulnerable individuals toughen up. It’s like building a muscle gradually by working it but not pushing it to the point of damage. To translate this into everyday life, it suggests that you can make your son more resilient and help him build confidence by finding activities or occasions where he can take little risks, deal with the outcome, and then take slightly bigger risks. A combination of support and optimism on your part about his ability to stretch his limits is a strong basis for building that resilience. And these experiences, as they teach him about himself, actually change the brain, through modifying brain cells and brain circuits, and through other mechanisms. Just as a negative environment can render children more vulnerable, a positive environment with enough challenge but not undue pressure can strengthen them, give them confidence and provide them with valuable tools for meeting life’s demands in the future.

Huda Akil, Ph.D.
Foundation Scientific Council Member
2007 Goldman-Rakic Prize for Outstanding Achievement in Cognitive Neuroscience
Co-Director and Research Professor, The Molecular & Behavioral Neuroscience Institute University of Michigan

Rachel G. Klein, Ph.D., Scientific Council Member, 1995 NARSAD Distinguished Investigator Grantee, 2004 Ruane Prize for Outstanding Achievement in Child & Adolescent Psychiatric Research, Professsor of Psychiatry, New York University Child Study Center, Expert on Childhood mental illnesses including ADHD and anxiety
Q My 10-year-old daughter is showing signs of anxiety. Can this become a full-blown anxiety disorder?
A If the anxiety is within what is generally expected when a child is under... More >
Robert C. Malenka, M.D., Ph.D. - Brain & behavior research expert on anxiety
Q Are there ways to alleviate stress before the damage is done to the melanocortin circuit you speak about?
A There are many, many ways to alleviate stress but the particular... More >