With anxiety levels on the rise in the wake of the GFC, Bond University PhD student Elizabeth Scott’s research on one of the community’s biggest burdens on population health could not have come at a better time.
The Queensland Government has recently awarded Ms Scott a $24,000 Smart Futures PhD Scholarship to help fund her study of anxiety in the Queensland population.
Her research offers hope to the one-in-eight Queenslanders who report long-term anxiety related problems – a figure which is 18 percent higher than the average for Australia, according to the 2008 Chief Health Officer’s Report.
Ms Scott said early identification and intervention of anxiety disorders is critical, particularly in children.
“Anxiety disorders are not just about being too anxious,” said Ms Scott. “They are about the irrational worry and avoidance of situations which provoke worry. For children, this worry can be so overwhelming that it leads to the child being misunderstood so that they may appear defiant or experience severe learning difficulties,” she said.
Having worked as a school psychologist for several years, Ms Scott knows first-hand the debilitating effect anxiety problems can have on children and the impact those problems have on their learning and general success at school.
“When a child is anxious, their worrying thoughts tend to dominate and get in the way of their working memory, meaning their processing and storage capabilities are affected,” she said.
It is this relationship between anxiety and the performance of the working memory that forms the basis of Ms Scott’s research.
“The working memory is made up of various components and each one plays a unique role in cognitive functions,” she explained.
“My research will seek to develop a better understanding of just how anxiety, or ‘worrying thoughts’, effects each component of the working memory, which will in turn allow psychologists the opportunity to facilitate the most appropriate treatment.”
Ms Scott will also explore whether the working memory tasks she employs in her research have applications in the diagnosis of childhood anxiety.
“Selection of the most appropriate diagnostic tools to determine levels of anxiety in school-aged children is often difficult. For many young children, self-reporting of symptoms is problematic and diagnosis often relies on subjective data gathered from parents and teachers.
“I hope that my research will identify memory tasks which may be appropriate diagnostic tools for clinical anxiety in children.
“If I can achieve this, this study will have provided a quick and economical method of identification of childhood anxiety, reducing the economic drain on Queensland’s already strained health resources,” Ms Scott said.