Teens With Anxiety Disorders Tell Their Life Stories Differently

Our mental health is often tied up in how we see the relationship between the past, present and future. For that reason, how we tell our life stories can say something about our psychological state.

A couple years ago, for example, I wrote about how people who draw more connections between different phases of their lives tend to have more coherent identities. Last year, some research came out showing that simply taking the time to write down a chapter of your life story can boost self-esteem.

Now, there’s a new study out showing that adolescents with and without anxiety disorders tell their life stories differently. In the study, 68 teenagers were asked to write descriptions of past life events and of their expectations for future life events.

In describing the past, teens with anxiety disorders reported the same number of negative events as teens without anxiety disorders, but the teens with anxiety disorders remembered their pasts as more emotionally negative.

This negative tilt in how the teens with anxiety disorders narrated their life stories is consistent with the idea that people with anxiety disorders are more biased toward focusing on negative emotions and negative events.

Both groups of teenagers tended to have positive expectations for the future, but the expectations of those with anxiety disorders were a bit less positive. Moreover, adolescents with anxiety disorders had less coherent descriptions of both the past and the future, and more vague expectations for the future.

These differences didn’t show up when the teenagers were asked simply to describe what happened to them over the weekend. According to the authors, this shows that the differences observed aren’t just down to teens without anxiety disorders narrating events from their lives more effectively.

The findings from this study highlight how teens with anxiety disorders seem to be skewed toward seeing their experiences in a more negative light. While the idea of people with anxiety disorders having a bias toward the negative isn’t new, this study shows that such a bias can influence how people interpret their lives on a long-term scale.