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Predicting Late Adolescent Anxiety From Early Adolescent Environmental Stress Exposure: Cognitive Control as Mediator.

  • Author(s): Tsai, Nancy
  • Jaeggi, Susanne M
  • Eccles, Jacquelynne S
  • Atherton, Olivia E
  • Robins, Richard W
  • et al.
Abstract

Early exposure to stressful life events is associated with greater risk of chronic diseases and mental health problems, including anxiety. However, there is significant variation in how individuals respond to environmental adversity, perhaps due to individual differences in processing and regulating emotional information. Differences in cognitive control - processes necessary for implementing goal directed behavior - have been linked to both stress exposure and anxiety, but the directionality of these links is unclear. The present study investigated the longitudinal pathway of environmental stress exposure during early adolescence on later adolescent anxiety, and the possible mediating mechanism of cognitive control. Participants were 674 Mexican-origin adolescents (meanage = 10.8 years, 50% male) enrolled in the California Families Project, an ongoing longitudinal study of Mexican-origin families. In the current analysis, we examined self-reports of environmental stressors at age 14 (Time 1), cognitive control at age 16 (Time 2), and anxiety at age 18 (Time 3). Structural equation modeling revealed that environmental stressors (Time 1) had both direct and indirect effects on later anxiety (Time 3) through their effects on cognitive control (Time 2), even when accounting for prior levels of anxiety (Time 2). Cognitive control accounted for 18% of the association between environmental stressors and adolescent anxiety: an increase in stressors decreased cognitive control (β = -0.20, p < 0.001), however, cognitive control buffers against anxiety (β = -0.10, p = 0.004). These findings deepen our understanding of the mechanisms underlying the development of anxiety and highlight the importance of cognitive control as a potential protective factor.

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