Tag Archives: anxiety

People underestimate how much anxiety household sounds can produce for dogs

There are more sounds that can make your dog anxious in your home than you assumed, a new paper reports.

Image credits Susanne Pälmer.

Research at the University of California, Davis, has examined the potential of common household noises to make dogs anxious. Although it’s common knowledge that sudden, loud noises — fireworks or thunderstorms, for example — can easily trigger anxiety in man’s best friend, the results point to a much wider range of sounds our dogs might become frightened by.

But an arguably more important finding is that most owners can’t reliably pick up on the hallmark signs that their dog is anxious.

Misunderstandings

“We know that there are a lot of dogs that have noise sensitivities, but we underestimate their fearfulness to noise we consider normal because many dog owners can’t read body language,” said lead author Emma Grigg, a research associate and lecturer at the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine.

According to the findings, even common noises such as a microwave, a vacuum cleaner during operation, or the battery warning of a smoke detector can trigger a dog’s anxiety. As a rule of thumb, high-frequency intermittent noises are more likely to make your dog anxious than continuous, low-frequency ones.

Some of the most common signs of a dog’s anxiety include cringing, trembling, or retreating. These are the ones most people can reliably pick up on, quite understandably so, as they mimic our own anxiety responses. But other behaviors can be more subtle and easily missed. These include panting, the turning of the head away, or a stiffening of the body. Other signs are a turning back of their ears or lowering of the head below their shoulders.

Gigg says it’s important for dog owners to learn about the anxiety-related behavior that dogs exhibit so that they can better understand and help their pets.

The data for this study was collected as part of a survey of 386 dog owners about their animals’ responses to a range of household sounds. The authors also examined the dogs’ behaviors and the reactions of their owners. This revealed that people both underestimate the anxiousness of their dogs, with a majority of those appearing in the videos actually responding with amusement to their displays of anxiety.

“There is a mismatch between owners’ perceptions of the fearfulness and the amount of fearful behavior actually present. Some react with amusement rather than concern,” Grigg said. “We hope this study gets people to think about the sources of sound that might be causing their dog stress, so they can take steps to minimize their dog’s exposure to it.”

Since dogs can perceive sounds from a broader spectrum than humans, it is possible that something which seems innocuous to us is quite painful to their ears — very loud or high-pitched sounds being some examples. Grigg says that any steps taken to prevent such noises, for example changing the batteries in your smoke detectors more often, can help improve your dog’s quality of life tremendously.

“Dogs use body language much more than vocalizing and we need to be aware of that,” said Grigg. “We feed them, house them, love them and we have a caretaker obligation to respond better to their anxiety.”

The paper “Stress-Related Behaviors in Companion Dogs Exposed to Common Household Noises, and Owners’ Interpretations of Their Dogs’ Behaviors” has been published in the journal Frontiers in Veterinary Science.

Physical exercise is a reliable and accessible way to manage anxiety disorders

Moderate and intense physical exercise can significantly dampen anxiety, even in cases where it is caused by a chronic disorder, according to new research.

Image via Pixabay.

Exercise has been receiving a lot of attention from researchers interested in mental health. The positive effect physical exercise can have on those grappling with depression is well-known. However, the way it links with anxiety disorders is far less understood.

New research from the University of Gothenburg comes to improve our understanding of the interplay between these two factors. According to the findings, moderate and demanding physical exercise can alleviate the symptoms of anxiety even in the case of chronic disorders. These results give cause for hope for patients struggling with anxiety disorders around the world, offering an accessible (and healthy) option for them to self-manage what can quickly become a debilitating burden. It also reminds those who are not struggling with such disorders of the importance of keeping physically active not just for our bodies, but our minds as well.

Mens sana in corpore sano

“There was a significant intensity trend for improvement — that is, the more intensely [the participants] exercised, the more their anxiety symptoms improved,” states Malin Henriksson, doctoral student at Sahlgrenska Academy at the University of Gothenburg and the study’s first author.

The team worked with 286 persons with anxiety syndrome who were recruited from primary care services in Gothenburg and Halland County, Sweden. Their average age was 39, and 70% were women. Half of these participants had been diagnosed with anxiety syndrome for at least 10 years.

They were randomly assigned to group exercise sessions for 12 weeks, consisting of either moderate or strenuous activity. A control group was also used, and its members received advice on physical activity adhering to public health recommendations but were not placed in any of the exercise programs.

Exercise regimes consisted of one-hour training sessions three times per week with supervision from a physical therapist. They included both cardio and strength training. Each session included a warmup followed by a 45-minute training interval and a cooldown period. Intense training was defined as the participants reaching 75% of maximum heart rate during the sessions. Light and moderate exercise was defined as the participants reaching 60% of their maximum heart rate. These were confirmed using heart rate monitors.

Following the 12 week period, their anxiety symptoms were re-assessed. This revealed that their symptoms were lessened across the board, even in cases of chronic anxiety conditions. Most of the participants in the exercise groups went down from a baseline level of “high anxiety” to a “low anxiety” level following the study. Those who followed relatively low-intensity exercise regimes were 3.6 times more likely to see an improvement in their symptoms compared to controls. Those who exercised at a higher intensity were almost 5 times more likely to see improvements compared to controls.

The findings are important as this is one of the largest studies on the topic to date. They provide reliable evidence that physical exercise can be used alongside today’s standard treatments for anxiety — cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and psychotropic drugs — to help patients manage their symptoms. Some of the key advantages of this approach include it being accessible to the vast majority of patients and the lack of side effects, which are common with psychotropic drugs.

“Doctors in primary care need treatments that are individualized, have few side effects, and are easy to prescribe. The model involving 12 weeks of physical training, regardless of intensity, represents an effective treatment that should be made available in primary health care more often for people with anxiety issues,” says Maria Åberg, associate professor at the University of Gothenburg’s Sahlgrenska Academy and corresponding author of the study.

The paper “Effects of exercise on symptoms of anxiety in primary care patients: A randomized controlled trial” has been published in the Journal of Affective Disorders.

Ayahuasca relieves depression and anxiety, finds study on nearly 12,000 users

Ayahuasca brewing in Peru. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Ayahuasca is a powerful hallucinogenic tea that has been brewed in the Amazon rainforest for thousands of years. Although the brew’s main active ingredient, dimethyltryptamine (DMT), is illegal in most countries, recent research suggests the drug may have significant therapeutic properties in the context of improving depression and anxiety symptoms. A new study published this week — the largest thus far on ayahuasca — adds weight to this body of evidence.

The Global Ayahuasca Project was conducted between 2017 and 2020 and involved more than 11,000 individuals, 7,785 of whom suffered from symptoms of depression or anxiety at the time they took the drug. The participants had to fill an online self-reported questionnaire designed to measure mental health outcomes among Ayahuasca users.

The results were impressive, to say the least. Nearly 94% of the respondents experienced at least some sort of improvement in their depression symptoms, ranging from “a bit” and “great” to the complete resolution of their depression. The same was reported in 90% of cases for anxiety symptoms.

Users who reported profound mystical experiences tended to report the greatest improvements in their depression or anxiety symptoms. Similarly, insights into one’s personal relationships following Ayahuasca use were also correlated with improved mental health outcomes.

However, a small fraction actually saw their mental health deteriorate following Ayahuasca use. About 2.7% of respondents reported worsened depression symptoms and 4.4% reported worsened anxiety symptoms. The researchers found that feeling lonely, nervous, anxious or on edge, as well as depressed or hopeless in the weeks immediately following Ayahuasca consumption were predictors of worsened symptoms.

“Drinkers of Ayahuasca in naturalistic settings perceived remarkable benefits for their affective symptoms in this survey assessment. There is no obvious evidence of negative mental health effects being associated with long-term consumption. Additional randomized controlled trial evidence is required to establish the efficacy of Ayahuasca in affective disorders, and to understand the worsened symptoms reported by a small percentage of drinkers,” the authors of the study wrote in the Journal of Affective Disorders Reports.

The fact that this cross-sectional study relied on self-reported data is an important limitation. Also, the study relied on reaching out to Ayahuasca users on niche forums and websites, where individuals with positive experiences are more likely to be online and respond, thus contributing to selection bias to some degree. However, the very large sample size makes it a valuable study. It’s not alone either.

Ayahuasca and mental health

Traditionally, ayahuasca is made by brewing the Banisteriopsis caapi vine and the Psychotria viridis shrub, along with other native plants, in a specific manner. When ingested, the brew delivers a powerful dose of DMT to the body. Typically, a DMT trip shouldn’t last more than a couple of minutes but thanks to the presence of at least one monoamine oxidase-inhibiting plant, the DMT can bind to receptors in the brain for hours. The experience has been described as anything between enlightening to downright distressing.

The brew contains several substances that alter brain chemistry. Among them, some regulate the neurotransmitters serotonin and MAO-A. It was also previously shown that ayahuasca directly affects activity in the hippocampus and amygdala, areas of the brain responsible for memory and emotions, respectively.

A 2013 study carried out by researchers led by Gerald Thomas from the University of Victoria in Canada, found that ayahuasca therapy causes significant improvements “for scales assessing hopefulness, empowerment, mindfulness, and quality of life meaning and outlook subscales.” Thomas argues that ayahuasca therapy is particularly helpful for those suffering from psychological trauma, which puts them at risk of developing alcohol and other drug addictions.

A study published in 2020 by neuroscientists at the University of California, San Francisco, scanned the brains of 50 healthy participants the day before and after they received either a single low dose of Ayahuasca or a placebo. According to the researchers, “the psychedelic experience induced by ayahuasca has a long-lasting effect on the functional organization of brain networks supporting higher-order cognitive and affective functions.”

Changes in these neural networks are associated with introspection, altered levels of affect, and motivation, which may explain both the altered states of consciousness during the high of the drug and the long-lasting brain changes elicited by ayahuasca.

As Ayahuasca’s potential medical benefits surface, scientists will hopefully be allowed to perform clinical trials with the drug. Decades after it was banned from research by governments, studies may show that Ayahuasca’s benefits far-outweigh its risks in a controlled medical context.

Rap music lyrics referencing suicide and depression double since 1998

Emerging from the dark corners of the Internet’s underground rap scene, Long Island rapper Lil Peep quickly garnered a cult following thanks to his blend of rock and hip-hop, but also due to his lyrics about depression and other mental health struggles. Lil Peep died on 15 November 2017 from a drug overdose.

Hip hop culture is often considered as a mirror of current negative issues faced by society, whether it’s poverty, abuse, or corruption. As such, contemporary rap lyrics may provide a unique glimpse not only into the personal lives of the artists but also into today’s most pressing social issues.

In a new study, researchers at the University of North Carolina (UNC) at Chapel Hill analyzed the lyrics of top rap songs released from 1998 to 2018, finding that the proportion of songs that referenced mental health more than doubled in the two decades.

“These artists are considered the ‘coolest’ people on earth right now,” said Alex Kresovich, a doctoral student studying health communication at UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media. “The fact that they are talking about mental health could have huge implications for how young people perceive mental health or how they look at themselves if they struggle with mental health, which we know millions and millions of young people do.”

Kresovich analyzed the lyrics of the 25 most popular rap songs released in the United States in 1998, 2003, 2008, 2013, and 2018. The researchers found that the lead artists, most of whom were black, referenced anxiety in nearly one-third of their songs, whereas depression and suicide were mentioned in 22% and 6%, respectively, of their songs.

According to Kresovich, who has a background as a music producer, rap artists generally use music as an outlet to reflect the distress felt by themselves but also those around them. The most common mental health stressors were love and life issues, the authors wrote in their study published in the journal JAMA Pediatrics.

Of course, rappers have always reflected on the difficulties of their lives from the very beginnings of hip-hop. For instance, some might remember the 1982 classic The Message, in which Grandmaster Flash says: “Don’t push me ‘cause I’m close to the edge, I’m trying not to lose my head/ It’s like a jungle sometimes, it makes me wonder how I keep from goin’ under”.

However, lyrics describing mental health problems have ballooned in recent years. Sometimes depression and anxiety are laid bare and explicitly referenced, but most of the time metaphors are preferred.

“Using metaphors may be a safe way to avoid being judged,” Kresovich says. “For men, especially men of color, mental health is still stigmatized.

“Artists are treading lightly and aren’t going to say, ‘I’m depressed.’ But what they will do is describe feelings in a way that others with depression can understand and relate to,” he says, adding. “It also just may be really hard to rhyme the word ‘depression’ in a song.”

On one hand, the increasing number of references to mental health problems in rap music suggests that artists are more open to sharing their emotional struggles. On the other hand, the lyrics may also reflect a pattern of growing cases of mental illness and emotional distress among the American population, particularly among those 18 to 25 years old and the black youth, who also represent one of the most significant groups of listeners.

According to a Pew Research Center analysis of data from the 2017 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, the total number of teenagers who recently experienced depression increased 59% between 2007 and 2017.

This generation-wide angst may have fueled a new genre of hip-hop music, known as ‘SoundCloud rap’ or ’emo rap’, whose themes lean heavily towards suicide, depression, anxiety, and prescription drugs. Lil Peep, 21, and Mac Miller, 26, two of the scene’s biggest stars, both died of accidental overdoses in 2017 and 2018.

For now, hip-hop seems to be going through a very sad moment. But that’s only because art imitates life and life imitates art — and life right now seems to be really depressing for Americans.

Researchers identify a protein that may be the link between anxiety and depression

Researchers at Karolinska Institutet in Sweden report on a new protein that could tie stress to depression and anxiety.

A 3D-printed human brain. Image via Flickr / NIH Image Gallery.

The team has identified a protein in the brains of mice that regulates the release of both serotonin and cortisol, which are the feel-good hormone and stress hormone, respectively. This protein, p11, was previously discovered by the same team, who showed that it plays a key role in the functioning of serotonin. The present study showed that mice lacking p11 show depression- and anxiety-like behaviour, which was treatable in part with antidepressants.

The findings could help us better understand the biochemical mechanisms behind depression and anxiety, and to develop new medicine to treat them.

P11 giveth, p11 taketh away

“We know that an abnormal stress response can precipitate or worsen a depression and cause anxiety disorder and cardiovascular disease,” says first author Vasco Sousa, researcher at the Department of Clinical Neuroscience, Karolinska Institutet. “Therefore, it is important to find out whether the link between p11 deficiency and stress response that we see in mice can also be seen in patients.”

Individuals that have experienced trauma or episodes of very severe stress are known to sometimes develop an abnormal (i.e. excessive) response to stress in the future. Those who also suffer from anxiety or depression are more likely to show such responses. However, in order to find out how to help them, we must first understand how our bodies create and regulate stress.

The authors report previously observing that depressed patients and suicide victims tend to have lower-than-average levels of the p11 protein in their brains. In order to find if there’s a link there, they engineered lab mice to produce low levels of p11. Further testing confirmed that these animals showed behavior consistent with depression and anxiety.

Mice with p11 deficiency also showed a stronger reaction to stress, exhibiting higher heart rates and more anxiety-related behavior when presented with a stressful situation, than unaltered mice.

The protein is directly involved in the initial release of cortisol in mice, the team explains, as it dictates the activity of neurons in the hypothalamus, an area of the brain heavily involved in controlling hormone levels in the body. It also — through its activity in a completely separate pathway in the brainstem — dictates the release of adrenaline and noradrenaline (also known as epinephrine and norepinephrine), two other hormones involved in the stress response.

Keeping p11 levels in the brain in check could thus be a promising avenue to treat patients suffering from depression, anxiety, and those who are struggling with chronic anxiety and stress from past experiences. This is especially heartening news as many such patients report that currently-available antidepressants are not effective in managing or treating their conditions.

“One promising approach involves administration of agents that enhance localised p11 expression, and several experiments are already being conducted in animal models of depression,” says Per Svenningsson, professor at the Department of Clinical Neuroscience, Karolinska Institutet, who led the study.

“Another interesting approach which needs further investigation involves developing drugs that block the initiation of the stress hormone response in the brain.”

The paper “P11 deficiency increases stress reactivity along with HPA axis and autonomic hyperresponsiveness” has been published in the journal Molecular Psychiatry.

3 out of 4 dogs suffer from some form of anxiety, and owners should be more aware of this

It’s not just humans that suffer from behavioral problems, dogs get them too. Some of these problems may include excessive barking, destructiveness, aggression, and fearfulness. A new study of nearly 14,000 Finnish pet dogs examined seven anxiety-like traits, finding that nearly three-quarters (72.5%) of dogs had some kind of highly problematic behavior.

Miniature schnauzers were found to be the most aggressive dogs of all of the breeds included in the study. Credit: Pixabay.

The study involved 13,715 dogs from 264 breeds, including 200 mix-breed dogs. The most common anxiety trait was noise sensitivity with 32% of dogs being highly fearful of at least one noise (i.e. thunder, fireworks, etc). The second most common trait was fearfulness (i.e. fear of other dogs, fear of strangers, etc.) with a prevalence of 29%. Separation related behavior and aggression were the most uncommon traits with a prevalence of 5% and 14%, respectively.

The dogs’ behavioral traits were reported by their Finnish owners through an online questionnaire. Their answers were then compiled into a dataset that classified and ranked the dogs’ as being either “low trait” or “high trait” depending on the severity of their anxiety-related behaviors.

Typically, self-reported data is not seen as the most reliable. In this case, however, there’s no better source to describe a pet’s behavior than their owners. In fact, Milla Salonen, the first author of the new study and a Ph.D. student at the University of Helsinki, told Gizmodo that “dog owners are actually pretty good at evaluating their animals” and “dog personality questionnaires are as reliable or even slightly more reliable than human personality questionnaires.”

According to the findings, many anxiety-related disorders became worse as dogs got older, especially for fear of thunder, fear of heights, and fear of certain surfaces. Younger dogs were more likely to display inattentive, hyperactive, and destructive behaviors compared to older dogs, frequently damaging stuff around the house or urinating indoors when left alone.

There were major differences in anxiety traits from breed to breed. For instance, 15.3% of border collies were fearful of heights compared to 38.7% of rough collies. Only 1.5% of Staffordshire bull terriers were afraid of strangers, whereas 27.5% of Spanish water dogs were fearful of new people. Labrador retrievers were the least aggressive, with only 0.4% exhibiting such tendencies. Meanwhile, 10.6% of miniature schnauzers showed significant aggression, making them the dogs with the highest prevalence of this behavioral trait out of all breeds involved in the study.

Breed differences in fear of thunder (a), fear of strangers (b), fear of surfaces and heights (c), hyperactivity/impulsivity (d), inattention (e), aggression toward strangers (f), tail chasing (g), fly snapping/light chasing (h) and vocalization/salivation/panting alone (i).  Credit: University of Helsinki.

These behaviors have a major genetic component, the researchers wrote in the journal Scientific Reports. Relatives of compulsive dogs tend to share the same behaviors and previous studies have associated genomic areas with fear, noise sensitivity, and other problematic behaviors. Environmental factors such as training, physical activity, maternal care, and owner

Male dogs had a higher prevalence of aggressiveness, separation-related behavior, inattention, and hyperactivity/impulsivity. In contrast, female dogs had a higher prevalence of fearfulness, the study found.

Researchers also found that these behavioral problems were rarely alone and exhibited comorbidity. For instance, hyperactivity/impulsivity was correlated with inattention and compulsive behavior. Care to guess what other animals also show similar associations? Yup, humans.

“Behaviour problems, especially aggressiveness, may be public health concerns. Some of these behaviour problems have been suggested to be analogous, or possibly even homologous to human anxiety disorders, and the study of these spontaneous behaviour problems arising in a shared environment with people may reveal important biological factors underlying many psychiatric conditions,” the University of Helsinki scientists wrote.

Radar chart representation of the behavior of dog breeds: Border Collie (a), Miniature Schnauzer (b), Lagotto Romagnolo (c) and Staffordshire Bull Terrier (d). Colors represent larger traits. Clockwise from top: blue – noise sensitivity, lime green – fear, violet – fear of surfaces and heights, orange – aggression, pine green – hyperactivity/inattention, purple – separation-related behavior, yellow – compulsive behavior. Credit: University of Helsinki.

The fact that so many dogs suffer from anxiety disorders might come as a surprise to many owners. In the future, the researchers plan on conducting more studies in order to identify which environmental and genetic factors are behind each anxiety-related canine trait.

Until then, dog owners should be more cognizant of these behaviors and take steps to mitigate them in order to improve their pets’ welfare. The researchers also advise people looking to adopt a dog of a certain breed to be mindful of their personality and underlying behavioral problems in order to match their own. For instance, if you’re more sedentary you should pick a breed that is hyperactive and requires a lot of exercise. After all, owning a dog isn’t all fun — you’re also responsible for their mental health and wellbeing.

Also, if your dog misbehaves due to their anxiety-related traits, the last thing you should do is punish them. A study published last month found that shouting at your dog caused canines to exhibit more stress-related behavior and showed a lower mood.

Student and stressed? Take 10 minutes and go to the park, a study suggests

Going to university can be more than stressful for many, especially when exams and deadlines start to pile up.

Understandably, many students deal with those high levels of stress.

Image credits: Lukasz Szmigiel.

According to a group of researchers, taking as few as 10 minutes in any natural setting every day can really make a difference for most of the students.

Up to 80% of the people studying in higher education said to have experienced stress or anxiety, according to a study by Uni Health in the UK, while a survey by NUS from 2016 said nine in 10 students experienced stress.

An interdisciplinary team from Cornell University reviewed previous studies to see what effects nature has on the mental health of college students.

They wanted to discover what was the right amount of time students should spend outside and what sort of activities they should carry out when they were in nature.

Gen Meredith, associate director of the Master of Public Health Program, and her team discovered that the best range of time to spend in natural areas was of 10 to 50 minutes and that this improved the mood, focus and physiological markers of the students.

Image credits: Wikipedia Commons

“It doesn’t take much time for the positive benefits to kick in — we’re talking 10 minutes outside in a space with nature,” said Meredith in a press release. “We firmly believe that every student, no matter what subject or how high their workload, has that much discretionary time each day, or at least a few times per week.”

Once outside, it’s enough with just sitting or walking to benefit from the positive effects of spending time in nature, according to the researchers. They focused their study on those two activities in order to quantify nature doses in just minutes.

Students in universities with a big and green campus will probably have plenty of places to spend their daily 10 minutes. While it might be trickier for urban universities, it doesn’t mean it’s impossible. They can add green elements to build space and get the same results, the study argued.

“This is an opportunity to challenge our thinking around what nature can be,” says Meredith. “It is really all around us: trees, a planter with flowers, a grassy quad or a wooded area.”

The researchers decided to focus on this area of study as a way to encourage students to spend time in nature to deal with their stress or anxiety and gain positive physical and mental health outcomes. They hope that more universities will consider this, making spending time in nature a daily habit for their students.

“This nature dose is an upstream ‘prevention’ approach to, hopefully, reduce the number of people getting to the point where a pharmacological approach becomes necessary,” Donald Rakow, associate professor in the School of Integrative Plant Science and author of the study, said.

The study was published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology.

A sleepless night can trigger a 30% rise in anxiety

Researchers have uncovered one of the strongest neural links between sleep and anxiety disorders. According to a new study, just one sleepless night can trigger a rise of up to 30% in anxiety levels. The good news is that the remedy is simple, all-natural, and free: deep slumber.

Credit: Pixabay.

“We have identified a new function of deep sleep, one that decreases anxiety overnight by reorganizing connections in the brain,” said study senior author Matthew Walker, a University of California Berkeley professor of neuroscience and psychology. “Deep sleep seems to be a natural anxiolytic (anxiety inhibitor), so long as we get it each and every night.”

Walker and colleagues performed a series of experiments using functional MRI and polysomnography (a test conducted to study sleep and to diagnose a variety of sleep disorders), which scanned the brains of 18 young adults as they viewed emotionally stirring videos after a full night of sleep and, later, after a sleepless night.

After each session, the test subjects’ anxiety levels were measured using a standard questionnaire called the state-trait anxiety inventory.

When the subjects were sleep-deprived, brain scans showed a significant lowering of neural activity in the medial prefrontal cortex — which is involved in anxiety control — while the brain’s deeper emotional centers were overactive.

“Without sleep, it’s almost as if the brain is too heavy on the emotional accelerator pedal, without enough brake,” Walker said.

Credit: Eti Ben Simon.

The researchers found that a full night’s sleep resulted in a marked decline in anxiety levels as measured by brain waves. This effect was especially pronounced in those who experienced slow-wave non-rapid eye movement (NREM), a sleeping state in which brain oscillations become highly synchronized, as well as heart rates and blood pressure drop.

These findings were replicated in a subsequent study involving another 30 participants, showing that those who got more sleep also experienced the lowest levels of anxiety during the next day.

“Deep sleep had restored the brain’s prefrontal mechanism that regulates our emotions, lowering emotional and physiological reactivity and preventing the escalation of anxiety,” Simon said.

According to the researchers, their results consistently show that even subtle changes in sleep quality can affect anxiety levels. This information may be very important considering there are 40 million Americans, both adults and children, who experience an anxiety disorder. It is perhaps no coincidence that the marked escalation of anxiety disorders in industrial countries has grown in sync with the decimation of sleep.

“People with anxiety disorders routinely report having disturbed sleep, but rarely is sleep improvement considered as a clinical recommendation for lowering anxiety,” Simon said. “Our study not only establishes a causal connection between sleep and anxiety, but it identifies the kind of deep NREM sleep we need to calm the overanxious brain.”

The findings were reported in the journal Nature Human Behaviour.

People with anxiety disorders worry about not being worried

In an ironic twist, researchers at Penn State University found that anxious people may have anxiety about maybe feeling anxiety in the future — making them more anxious.

Image credits Gino Crescoli.

People with anxiety may actively resist relaxation to avoid large jumps in anxiety if something bad does happen, the new study reports. According to the findings, people who were more sensitive to shifts in negative emotion — quickly moving from a relaxed state to one of fear, for example — were more likely to feel anxious while being led through relaxation exercises.

But what if?!

“People may be staying anxious to prevent a large shift in anxiety, but it’s actually healthier to let yourself experience those shifts,” said Michelle Newman, Professor of Psychology at Penn State and the study’s second author.

“The more you do it, the more you realize you can do it and it’s better to allow yourself to be relaxed at times. Mindfulness training and other interventions can help people let go and live in the moment.”

The results can benefit those who experience “relaxation-induced anxiety,” she adds, who become anxious during relaxation training. They also help show why relaxation treatments can potentially backfire, causing more anxiety.

People who struggle to relax and let go of anxiety are exactly the ones who need to be able to do it “more than others” as they’re likely battling an anxiety disorder, according to Hanjoo Kim, a graduate student in psychology and the paper’s first author.

Relaxation-induced anxiety has been documented since the 1980s, but its cause has remained unknown. The present study builds on Newman’s past work, especially the “contrast avoidance theory”. She explains that it works as a self-reinforcing loop.

“The Contrast Avoidance model proposes that individuals with generalized anxiety disorder are excessively sensitive to negative emotional shifts in response to unpleasant events, and thus recruit a state of sustained […] worry as a defensive stance against such shifting states,” Newman explains in a 2014 paper.

“Because most of the things we worry about don’t end up happening, what’s reinforced in the brain is, ‘I worried and it didn’t happen so I should continue worrying.'”

The team worked with 96 college students: 32 people with generalized anxiety disorder, 34 people with major depressive disorder and 30 controls with neither. The participants were led through relaxation exercises in the lab, then shown videos that could provoke fear or sadness. They then answered a survey meant to gauge how sensitive they were to the changes in their emotional state. For example, some participants would have a harder time dealing with the emotions after relaxing, while others would find that the exercises helped them.

In the second step of the experiment, the participants were led through the same process. By comparing their answers on the surveys, the team had a rough indication of how anxious they were to go through the experience the second time.

The authors report that people with generalized anxiety disorders were more likely to be sensitive to changes in emotional states (like that involved in the experiment). They note these participants were also more anxious during the relaxation exercises. People with major depressive disorder showed similar results, but not as strong.

The paper “The paradox of relaxation training: Relaxation induced anxiety and mediation effects of negative contrast sensitivity in generalized anxiety disorder and major depressive disorder” has been published in the Journal of Affective Disorders.

Getting rid of debt might not only make you happier — but also smarter

We all know just how much pressure and stress comes from having debts, but it might do much more than that. Now, a new study finds that getting rid of debt can not only reduce stress and anxiety but also improve impulse control and cognitive performance.

The study analyzed 200 low-income people in Singapore, who had their long-running mortgage debts unexpectedly paid off by a charity called ideas42. Participants were given tests to assess cognitive performance, as well as generalized anxiety disorder and their ability to make more beneficial financial decisions. The test returned some interesting results.

First of all, the proportion of participants showing generalized anxiety disorders went from 78% to 53% — an impressive but expected change. As expected, not having debts makes people far less anxious. In addition, the number of people who preferred instant gratification dropped from 44% to 33% — another symptom of being more relaxed, but also capable of making better long-term decisions. In other words, the participants’ impulse control has improved.

However, a more surprising find came on the cognitive function tests. Average error rates dropped from 17% to 4% after the debt was paid down — a substantial improvement.

The findings are extremely important because they suggest that people in poverty, even when equally capable as those of higher-income status, find it very hard to escape poverty.

‘Because debt impairs psychological functioning and decision-making, it would be extremely challenging for even the motivated and talented to escape poverty,’ says Dr. Ong Qiyan, from the National University of Singapore, who led the study.

This is consistent with previous research, which concluded that poverty creates a vicious cycle which is extremely difficult to escape. Essentially, people’s brains are overtaxed by having to deal with the numerous emergencies caused by scarcity. This affects people’s ability to make high-quality decisions and produces long-term mental fatigue.

Even when not necessarily in poverty, debt can cause significant long-term health issues, as well as impair people’s societal progress. This situation would be extremely familiar to America, where student debts amounted to a record-breaking $1.5 trillion, which creates a major source of stress for the country’s educated elite. In a survey last year, a third of all students said student debt is a major source of life stress.

All of this indicates that poverty is much harder than you’d think to put on paper. It’s not easy to quantify, and it’s definitely not easy to escape. Poverty is unforgiving, leaving no room for error or risk. For people living in poverty, being capable and competent is not always enough, the study suggests. The study concludes:

“Poverty is one of the world’s most complicated problems, and there are no easy answers or magic bullet solutions. Global economic trends, including the recent recession, and systemic forces such as racism and classism contribute to the current state of affairs.”

Participant.

New neurofeedback system helps people manage arousal and maintain peak performance

When dealing with demanding tasks, the best results come when we’re neither too stressed nor too relaxed. New research from Columbia Engineering (CE) shows, for the first time, how biofeedback loops can be used to keep a participant in that sweet-spot of arousal.

Participant.

One of the participants during the trial.
Image credits Josef Faller / Columbia Engineering.

Feelings of fear, agitation, or calm can have a profound effect on our ability to make decisions and perform tasks in real-world conditions. You’d have a much easier time walking across a beam that’s a few centimeters or inches off the ground than one tens of feet or meters up in the air. That state of calm would help you traverse the beam faster and with a lower chance of falling off.

This example illustrates how too much arousal can be bad for business. However, too little arousal also impairs our ability to perform tasks, as we’re simply not engaged enough to perform. New research is looking into ways to keep arousal at moderate levels in order to improve performance in difficult sensory-motor tasks, such as flying a plane or driving a car in rough conditions.

The sweet spot

“The whole question of how you can get into the zone, whether you’re a baseball hitter or a stock trader or a fighter pilot, has always been an intriguing one,” says Paul Sajda, professor of biomedical engineering (BME) and a study co-author.

“Our work shows that we can use feedback generated from our own brain activity to shift our arousal state in ways that significantly improve our performance in difficult tasks — so we can hit that home run or land on a carrier deck without crashing.”

The team used a brain computer interface (BCI) to monitor the arousal state of participants in real time via electroencephalography (EEG). The 20 participants were students at CE who were pitted against a virtual-reality aerial navigation task (i.e. a video game where you have to fly planes). As part of the task, participants had to fly the simulated airplane through rectangular boundaries. To further ‘cultivate’ their feelings of stress and arousal, the scenario made the boxes narrower every 30 seconds; this, needless to say, made the students fail the task pretty quickly.

However, the system also generated a neurofeedback signal based on each participant’s state. One of three feedback scenarios (BCI, sham, and silence / no feedback) was randomly assigned to each participant for every new flight attempt. In the BCI conditions, participants heard the sound of a low-rate, synthetic heartbeat. This was actively modulated in loudness, based on the participant’s arousal as measured by the EEG: the higher the arousal levels, the louder the heartbeats became. The sham feedback didn’t take arousal levels into account, while the silence scenario simply offered no feedback at all to the participants.

All in all, the results are encouraging, the team writes. Participants’ task performance in the BCI condition, measured as time and distance over which the subject can navigate before crashing into one of the boundaries, was increased by around 20% compared to the baseline.

“Simultaneous measurements of pupil dilation and heart rate variability showed that the neurofeedback indeed reduced arousal, causing the subjects to remain calm and fly beyond the point at which they would normally fail,” says Josef Faller, the study’s lead author and a postdoctoral research scientist in BME.

“Our work is the first demonstration of a BCI system that uses online neurofeedback to shift arousal state and improve task performance in accordance with the Yerkes-Dodson law.”

The Yerkes-Dodson law describes the relationship between arousal and performance. Boiled down, it says that performance will increase with arousal up to a point, after which it will quickly start to drop — in other words, there is an ‘optimal’ level of arousal that causes peak performance in any given task. The authors of this present study used their neurofeedback loop to effectively make participants more productive than what their arousal state would predict as based on the Yerkes-Dodson curve.

“What’s exciting about our new approach is that it is applicable to different task domains,” Sajda adds. “This includes clinical applications that use self-regulation as a targeted treatment, such as mental illness.”

The team is also interested in studying whether and how their feedback loop can be used to regulate arousal and emotions for patients with clinical conditions such as PTSD. Another exciting avenue of research that the team is considering is using online arousal and cognitive monitoring in human-robot interactions. In high-stress situations, such as search and rescue operations, supplying the robot information on a human’s arousal state could help it choose its tasks in a way that reduces it’s teammate’s arousal.

“Good human-agent teams, like the Navy SEALS, do this already, but that is because the human-agents can read facial expressions, voice patterns, etc., of their teammates to infer arousal and stress levels,” Sajda says. “We envision our system being a better way to communicate not just this type of information, but much more to a robot-agent.”

The paper “Regulation of arousal via online neurofeedback improves human performance in a demanding sensory-motor task” has been published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Stress.

Stress may be our hidden weapon against anxiety disorders, new research suggests

Feeling stressed at work? Well, at least there’s a silver lining — stress may help us fight of anxiety disorders, according to new research.

Stress.

Image credits Gerd Altmann.

Stress can have an important part to play in extinction learning, which is the dismantling of previously-learned associations, according to a new study from the Ruhr-Universität Bochum’s Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience. The findings could help us develop new and improved ways of treating anxiety disorders.

Rings a bell

If an animal is repeatedly presented with two paired stimuli, its brain will start to associate the two at some point. In time, if this link is reinforced, the animal will start exhibiting responses to both stimuli even if only the first one is presented. These are known as conditioned responses and were first documented in Pavlov’s famous bell-and-treat experiments.

One darker and less known side of conditioned responses is that they may underpin anxiety disorders. Luckily, however, they can also be used to treat such disorders. For example, if a patient is progressively exposed to objects that trigger an anxiety attack, he or she can learn, in time, to decouple that trigger from feelings of anxiety. This process of progressive decoupling of the stimuli from their anxiety (or any other second stimulus) is known as ‘extinction learning’.

“It is generally assumed that extinction plays a vital role in exposure therapy,” says Dr Christian Merz, co-author of the paper.

It’s not yet exactly clear if this process is more similar to the brain ‘forgetting’ the old link, or to it ‘learning’ a new link that takes its place. What is clear, however, is that this process is highly dependent on context, says first author Shira Meir Drexler.

“If a person learns in their therapist’s practice that a spider is no cause for fear, they might still react with fear to arachnids in their own basement.,” she explains.

Fear the lamp!

The team is the first to show that stress can break this context dependence — in essence, making it possible for someone to unlearn negative associations for good.

They worked with 40 participants over a three-day trial period. On the first day, participants were asked to view a computer screen, and the team showed them pictures of a desk lamp in an office setting. Every time this lamp was shown lit up in a particular color, viewers received mild electrical stimulation of the skin. The current wasn’t powerful enough to cause pain, but it was unpleasant to the participants. All other colors weren’t accompanied by the electric stimulation — thus making the participants associate light of a certain color to the unpleasant sensation.

Skin conductance response tests were used to confirm that the participants had learned this conditioned response by the end of the first day.

On the second day, half of the group was placed in a stressful situation before the trials. They had to hold one hand in ice water while being filmed and monitored by a supervisor for good measure. The other half of the group was not subjected to the stress test. Afterward, all participants were shown a series of photographs depicting a lamp once again. This time, however, there was no electrical stimulation applied following any of the colored lights. The setting had also changed — this time, the lamp lounged in a library instead of the office.

On the third day, the team presented both the office and the library photos of the lamp emitting colored light without following it up with electric stimulations.

The team reports that throughout the second and third days of viewing, participants in the stress group showed less intense anxious responses to the colored light they were primed for during the first day (in the office setting), and no response to the library setting. The non-stress group continued to show the same anxious response to the specific light color in the office setting when presented to them on the third day. They didn’t show any anxiety in the library context, suggesting that extinction learning only took place for them in the library, not the office, setting.

“Pharmacological studies have demonstrated that the treatment of anxiety disorders can be improved if the stress hormone cortisol is administered to the patients,” says corresponding author Oliver Wolf. “Our study has produced evidence for an underlying mechanism.”

Based on these findings, the team plans to investigate whether experiencing a stressful scenario prior to exposure therapy can help improve results.

The paper “Preextinction Stress Prevents Context-Related Renewal of Fear” has been published in the journal Behavior Therapy.

social-anxiety

Social anxiety may be rooted in fear of making mistakes

Researchers at the University of Maryland scanned the brains of 12-year-olds while they performed a task, finding that the children became hypersensitive towards making errors when others were watching. The findings provide a potential neurological mechanism that might explain why people develop social anxiety.

social-anxiety

Credit: Pixabay.

George Buzzell, along with other psychologists at the University of Maryland, wanted to investigate the mechanisms that underlie social anxiety, which is considered the third largest mental health care problem in the world today. By one estimate, 15 million adults (men and women equally), or 6.8% of the U.S. population, are affected by social anxiety disorder (SAD). Social anxiety is the fear of interacting with other people; specifically, it is the fear of being negatively judged and evaluated by other people. SAD is considered chronic because it does not go away on its own

Although there are various therapies that can help people with SAD, scientists have had trouble understanding how the disorder plays out on a neurological level. Buzzell and colleagues performed a new study on 107 twelve-year-olds who had displayed behavioral inhibition when they were younger —  a temperament identified in early childhood that is a risk factor for later social anxiety.

The children were asked to complete a test called the flanker task under two conditions: once while believing they were being observed by peers and once while not being observed. While completing the task, each participant had their electrical brain activity monitored with an electroencephalogram (EEG). The researchers also assessed current social anxiety symptoms and lifetime diagnoses of social anxiety for each teenager.

Based on the post-error response time and a measured pattern of brain activity known as Error-Related Negativity, the researchers found that social anxiety and behavioral inhibition were linked. Because the children are too focused on one’s perceived mistakes in social situations, social anxiety follows. Essentially, this may be evidence of a neurobehavioral mechanism linking behavioral inhibition to adolescent social anxiety symptoms and diagnosis.

“I am interested in better understanding social anxiety, and how it develops, for a number of reasons,” George Buzzell told PsyPost.

“First and foremost, social anxiety is a debilitating disorder affecting many individuals and we need to better understand this disorder if we want to help these people. I myself struggled with social anxiety for almost two decades and feel that I have been largely successful in overcoming it; I want to better understand this disorder so that I can help others find the help they need to do the same.”

There are a couple of caveats to the study. Firstly, the participants’ neurobehavioral measures were assessed only after signs of social anxiety had already settled in. Secondly, ‘error preoccupation’ was measured based only on reaction times, which is a crude measurement. In the future, the researchers plan on using more sophisticated methods to gain a better picture of the neurological processes that precede and follow errors.

Scientific reference: “A Neurobehavioral Mechanism Linking Behaviorally Inhibited Temperament and Later Adolescent Social Anxiety“, was authored by George A. Buzzell, Sonya V. Troller-Renfree, Tyson V. Barker, Lindsay C. Bowman, Andrea Chronis-Tuscano, Heather A. Henderson, Jerome Kagan, Daniel S. Pine, and Nathan A. Fox.

Credit: Pixabay.

More than a third of graduate students are depressed

A new study found that graduate students are six times more likely to exhibit depression symptoms than the general population. The findings should surprise no one but it’s important to have quantitative data about a mental health hazard running rampant in universities across the entire world. Such data “should prompt academia and policymakers to consider intervention strategies,” the authors wrote in the journal Nature

Credit: Pixabay.

Credit: Pixabay.

Researchers led by Teresa Evans, a neuroscientist at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio, surveyed 2,279 students in 26 different countries, 70% of whom were female, 28% male, and 2% transgender. The fields of study involved were 56% humanities and 38% physical sciences. Approximately 40% of the respondents scored moderate to severe for anxiety. Nearly 40 percent of respondents also showed signs of moderate to severe depression.

Consistent with previous research on non-student populations, transgender and gender-nonconforming graduate students, along with women, were more likely to experience anxiety and depression than their cisgender male counterparts. The prevalence of anxiety and depression in transgender or gender-nonconforming graduate students was 55% and 57%, respectively. Among cis students, 43% of women had anxiety and 41% were depressed. That’s compared to 34% of cis men reporting symptoms of anxiety and 35% showing signs of depression.

These incredibly high rates of anxiety and depression, when compared to the general population, are alarming and should serve as a wakeup call for the academia, Evans says.

It’s not hard to understand why life as a Ph.D. student can literally drive some people crazy. Long hours, social isolation, and feelings of inadequacy can break even the most motivated persons among us. Top it all off with a generous topping of impostor syndrome, and And when this situation persists, the anxiety and depression can become chronic.

One obvious solution is improving the work-life balance among graduate students. Of the graduate students who experienced moderate to severe anxiety, 56% did not agree that their work-life balance was ‘good’, versus 24% who did. Among graduate students with depression, more than half (55%) did not agree with the statement (21% agreed).

Proper (or improper) mentorship is another aspect that can impact a graduate student’s mental health. Among the respondents with anxiety or depression, only half agreed that their immediate mentors provided “real” mentorship. Similar results were reported to questions that assessed whether advisors provided support or positively impacted the students’ emotional mental well-being.

Evans and colleagues wrote in their study that one important study limitation is that students suffering from anxiety and depression may be biased, in the sense that they are particularly motivated to take part in the survey. This may have skewed the results but even if only one in four grad students is depressed, that’s still a clear sign that something is wrong. She adds that universities need to recognize the problem and provide students with the necessary training and support in order to help them manage their time and cope with stress.

“Our results show that graduate students are more than six times as likely to experience depression and anxiety as compared to the general population,” the authors wrote. “It is only with strong and validated interventions that academia will be able to provide help for those who are traveling through the bioscience workforce pipeline.”

 

Researchers pinpoint the brain’s anxiety centers

Scientists have located a group of brain cells which they believe are responsible for inducing anxiety. While the cells have only been identified in mice, it’s quite likely that they also exist in humans.

“We call these anxiety cells because they only fire when the animals are in places that are innately frightening to them,” said Rene Hen, PhD, a professor of psychiatry at CUIMC and one of the study’s senior investigators. “For a mouse, that’s an open area where they’re more exposed to predators, or an elevated platform.”

In the study, mice had to navigate an environment which alternated between safe and anxiety-inducing places. The mice were placed in a maze in which some pathways led to open areas (which the mice don’t really like because they feel exposed) and safe zones. The research measured the brain activity of mice using a miniature microscope, recording the activity of hundreds of cells in the hippocampus as they moved around the surroundings. They managed to zoom in on specific areas of the brain.

Then, using a technique called optogenetics, they were able to control the activity of some brain cells (neurons), to see if this would actively interfere with how the mice felt anxiety.

It worked — when the cells were silenced, the mice spent more time wandering in the open spaces they tended to avoid, and when they were stimulated, they avoided the open spaces. This confirmed that researchers had indeed identified the anxiety cells.

Using optogenetics, anxiety cells in the brains of mice light up when the animal is stressed. Image by Lab of Rene Hen, PhD, Columbia University Irving Medical Center.

 

Anxiety and fear are two very useful emotions, which allow individuals to survive potentially dangerous environments and situations. To a degree, anxiety is healthy. But sometimes, the circuits malfunction and overflow — leaving many people suffering from anxiety attacks for no reason.

Existing therapies are often ineffective or have unpleasant, severe side effects.

“The therapies we have now have significant drawbacks,” says Mazen Kheirbek, an assistant professor at the University of California, San Francisco and one of the study authors. “This is another target that we can try to move the field forward for finding new therapies.”

However, this study is still in its early stages. It remains to be seen whether similar findings carry over to humans, and how this could be translated to a treatment. But it’s still a starting point.

“Now that we’ve found these cells in the hippocampus, it opens up new areas for exploring treatment ideas that we didn’t know existed before,” said the study’s lead author, Jessica Jimenez, an MD/PhD student at Columbia University’s Vagelos College of Physicians & Surgeons.

Journal Reference: Jessica Jimenez et al. Anxiety Cells in a Hippocampal-Hypothalamic Circuit. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neuron.2018.01.016

Painting entitled Anxiety, 1894, by Edvard Munch.

Sleep deprivation and irregular sleep patterns are linked to anxiety and depression

Researchers have discovered a strong link between sleep irregularities and repetitive negative thinking (RNT). RNT is often manifested through rumination and worry. It’s a form of perseverative cognition — an umbrella term for constant, chronic brooding.

Perseverative cognition

Image via MaxPixel.

To better understand the world of perseverative cognition, we must first consider that, in psychology, ‘cognition‘ refers to thinking. Cognition includes all conscious and unconscious processes associated with thoughts. In this context, a persevering thought refers to a thought repeated in a compulsive, unintentional manner. The mind becomes stuck in a perpetual cycle — the same thought is circling round and round inside the head, with no end in sight.

When the nature of the repetitive thought is negative, two typical symptoms emerge: rumination and worry. These two dark sisters often lie at the foundation of depression, anxiety, and many other mental imbalances.

Rumination is defined by thinking obsessively about negative events, or emotions that occurred in the past, while worry is a mental state in which questions and fears about the future create feelings of agitation and insecurity.

How malfunctioning sleep patterns impact negative thinking

Meredith Coles, a Binghamton University Professor of Psychology and Ph.D. student Jacob Nota published a study that offers new insight into how sleep affects repetitive negative thinking.

Their team designed ads with questions like Are you a night owl? Bothered by thoughts that keep coming to mindWorrying about the future?, and posted them strategically in 24-h stores or on Craigslist. After recruiting 52 people with high scores on the RNT scale, they carried out a set of interviews a set of interviews about the participants’ mental state and sleep patterns.

Next, the participants were subjected to a simple test. They were asked to look at sets of two pictures with different emotional values. Scientists selected three types of images: positive, neutral and negative. For example, the negative pictures consisted of guns, knives, threatening animals. The neutral images had common household objects in them, while the positive ones depicted sports, natural scenes, and enjoyable activities.

Researchers then measured how long the participants looked at the negative stimuli in comparison with the positive or neutral pictures. They discovered that the people who had an unhealthy sleep schedule (sleeping significantly more or less than 8 hours per night, with sleep interruptions) encountered difficulty when disengaging from negative images. Practically, they looked longer at the negative stimuli, allowing the vicious circle of negative thinking to continue.

One of the reasons the lack of quality sleep prolongs focus on negative images might be that the brain simply does not possess the required energy to shift its attention to positive stimuli.

In order to confirm their findings, results will soon be compared to a group of healthy controls. The study was published in the Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry.

Feeling bad about feeling bad makes you feel even worse

‘Stop feeling down’ or ‘put that frown upside down’ might be highly counterproductive, a new study reports. Feeling pressure about negative feelings makes people feel even worse.

Image via Pixabay.

It’s OK to feel bad

A study that was conducted at UC Berkeley and published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology analyzed the link between emotional acceptance and mental health in over 1,300 adults. The results suggest that people who don’t want to accept their dark emotions feel more emotional stress, which in turn degrades their mental health.

“We found that people who habitually accept their negative emotions experience fewer negative emotions, which adds up to better psychological health,” said study senior author Iris Mauss, an associate professor of psychology at UC Berkeley.

The opposite also stands true: people who acknowledged their bleak feelings, disappointment, and resentment, reported fewer mood disorder symptoms. This seems to indicate what has been suggested in previous studies: that acceptance is linked to greater mental and emotional health — even when it is acceptance of negative things.

“It turns out that how we approach our own negative emotional reactions is really important for our overall well-being,” said study lead author Brett Ford, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Toronto. “People who accept these emotions without judging or trying to change them are able to cope with their stress more successfully.”

To reach these conclusions, three separate studies were carried out. The studies compensated for age, gender, socio-economic status and other demographic variables. After all, accepting your negative feelings is much easier when you lead a luxurious life, and researchers wanted to take that out of the equation.

In the first study, 1,000 participants filled out surveys rating how much they agree with statements such as “I tell myself I shouldn’t be feeling the way that I’m feeling.” As a general rule, the study showed that those who didn’t feel bad about feeling bad showed higher levels of well-being. It makes so much simple sense that it’s hard to even consider otherwise. If you add an extra thing that makes you feel bad, you’ll feel worse — and sometimes, you’re feeling bad about feeling bad. It’s like a vicious, self-perpetuating cycle from which it can be very difficult to escape. In the second study, 150 participants had to deliver a three-minute recorded speech, as part of a mock job application. The ones who felt negatively about their feelings reported more distress. Lastly, more than 200 people journaled about their most taxing experiences over a two-week period. A similar trend emerged: the more people hate their negative emotions, the more unpleasant experiences they have.

Researchers didn’t try to directly explain why this happens, though it’s quite easy to speculate. Giving a lot of extra attention to negative emotions instead of simply waving them by can’t help, and having an additional reason to feel bad about yourself makes things worse.

The way to go seems to be acknowledging your bleak inner emotions, but not spending too much time on them. Of course, some people naturally deal with these ups and downs better than others. However, education and culture likely play a huge role in how people deal with their emotions and their mental health, and teaching acceptance from an early age might make all the difference.

“By asking parents about their attitudes about their children’s emotions, we may be able to predict how their children feel about their emotions, and how that might affect their children’s mental health,” Mauss said.

Journal Reference: Ford BQ, Lam P, John OP, Mauss IB — The Psychological Health Benefits of Accepting Negative Emotions and Thoughts: Laboratory, Diary, and Longitudinal Evidencedoi: 10.1037/pspp0000157

 

 

A man’s sweet tooth can increase the risk of anxiety and depression

You can add one more entry to the good old “How sugar is bad for you list.” Except this one is a bit more surprising.

Image credits: Michael Stern.

Eating a lot of sugar makes you fat — and we eat way more sugar than we need. But it’s not just that. Sugar causes cavities, increases the risk of heart disease, can lead to insulin resistance (which leads to diabetes), and is even associated with some types of cancer. As Anika Knüppel at the University College London and her colleagues found out, it can even make you more depressed or anxious.

They studied data from over 8,000 adults who were asked to fill out health questionnaires regularly since the 1980s. The participants’ weight and height were also routinely measured, and they undertook regular mental health surveys. Among other things, they had to answer things like “how often do you eat cake” or “how often do you drink fizzy drinks.”

After looking through the data, they found that men who consumed more sugary foods and drinks were 23 per cent more likely to develop depression or anxiety. Ironically, this trend was not present in women, contradicting one of the most common stereotypes.

“I had a feeling we’d see the ‘Bridget Jones-like women eat chocolate’ idea,” says Knüppel. “But it turns out people underestimate that men’s sugar intake is super high.” However, women only made up one third of the people included in the study, so it is possible sugar may have a similar effect for women that wasn’t picked up due to the smaller sample size.

It’s also interesting to note that depression and anxiety themselves did not affect sugar consumption, so people who eat a lot of sugar are more likely to develop depression or anxiety, but the reverse is not true.

It’s not really clear why this is happening, and the study didn’t aim to explain it. It’s just a correlation that was established, no causation was discussed. However, there are several mechanisms which could explain it, Knüppel says. Someone who eats a lot of sugar might be hit stronger when blood levels go low, and in the long run, this could have taxing effects. It’s also possible that sugar increases inflammation which in turn could affect depression.

It’s also important to keep in mind that sugar isn’t the main driver of depression or anything like that. But it can be significant, and it can just be that something that pushes you over the edge. It’s another reason to keep an eye on your sugar consumption.

”There are numerous factors that influence chances for mood disorders, but having a diet high in sugary foods and drinks might be the straw that breaks the camel’s back. There is increasing evidence for the physical damage sugar has on our health. Our work suggests an additional mental health effect.”

 Journal reference: Scientific ReportsDOI: 10.1038/s41598-017-05649-7
Credit: Pixabay,

How to beat anxiety — according to science

Credit: Pixabay,

Credit: Pixabay,

Do you have anxiety? Have you tried just about everything to get over it, but it just keeps coming back? Perhaps you thought you had got over it, only for the symptoms to return with a vengeance? Whatever your circumstances, science can help you to beat anxiety for good.

Anxiety can present as fear, restlessness, an inability to focus at work or school, finding it hard to fall or stay asleep at night, or getting easily irritated. In social situations, it can make it hard to talk to others; you might feel like you’re constantly being judged, or have symptoms such as stuttering, sweating, blushing or an upset stomach.

It can appear out of the blue as a panic attack, when sudden spikes of anxiety make you feel like you’re about to have a heart attack, go mad or lose control. Or it can be present all the time, as in generalised anxiety disorder, when diffuse and pervasive worry consumes you and you look to the future with dread.

Most people experience it at some point, but if anxiety starts interfering with your life, sleep, ability to form relationships, or productivity at work or school, you might have an anxiety disorder. Research shows that if it’s left untreated, anxiety can lead to depression, early death and suicide. And while it can indeed lead to such serious health consequences, the medication that is prescribed to treat anxiety doesn’t often work in the long-term. Symptoms often return and you’re back where you started.

How science can help

The way you cope or handle things in life has a direct impact on how much anxiety you experience – tweak the way you’re coping, therefore, and you can lower your anxiety levels. Here are some of the top coping skills that have emerged from our study at the University of Cambridge, which will be presented at the 30th European Congress of Neuropsychopharmacology in Paris, and other scientific research.

Do you feel like your life is out of control? Do you find it hard to make decisions – or get things started? Well, one way to overcome indecision or get going on that new project is to “do it badly”.

This may sound strange, but the writer and poet GK Chesterton said that: “Anything worth doing is worth doing badly.” And he had a point. The reason this works so well is that it speeds up your decision-making process and catapults you straight into action. Otherwise, you could spend hours deciding how you should do something or what you should do, which can be very time-consuming and stressful.

People often want to do something “perfectly” or to wait for the “perfect time” before starting. But this can lead to procrastination, long delays or even prevent us from doing it at all. And that causes stress – and anxiety.

Instead, why not just start by “doing it badly” and without worrying about how it’s going to turn out. This will not only make it much easier to begin, but you’ll also find that you’re completing tasks much more quickly than before. More often than not, you’ll also discover that you’re not doing it that badly after all – even if you are, you can always fine tune it later.

Using “do it badly” as a motto gives you the courage to try new things, adds a little fun to everything, and stops you worrying too much about the outcome. It’s about doing it badly today and improving as you go. Ultimately, it’s about liberation.

Just jump right in …
The National Guard via flickr, CC BY

Forgive yourself and ‘wait to worry’

Are you particularly critical of yourself and the blunders you make? Well, imagine if you had a friend who constantly pointed out everything that was wrong with you and your life. You’d probably want to get rid of them right away.

But people with anxiety often do this to themselves so frequently that they don’t even realise it anymore. They’re just not kind to themselves.

So perhaps it’s time to change and start forgiving ourselves for the mistakes we make. If you feel like you’ve embarrassed yourself in a situation, don’t criticise yourself – simply realise that you have this impulse to blame yourself, then drop the negative thought and redirect your attention back to the task at hand or whatever you were doing.

Another effective strategy is to “wait to worry”. If something went wrong and you feel compelled to worry (because you think you screwed up), don’t do this immediately. Instead, postpone your worry – set aside 10 minutes each day during which you can worry about anything.

If you do this, you’ll find that you won’t perceive the situation which triggered the initial anxiety to be as bothersome or worrisome when you come back to it later. And our thoughts actually decay very quickly if we don’t feed them with energy.

Find purpose in life by helping others

It’s also worth considering how much of your day is spent with someone else in mind? If it’s very little or none at all, then you’re at a high risk of poor mental health. Regardless of how much we work or the amount of money we make, we can’t be truly happy until we know that someone else needs us and depends on our productivity or love.

This doesn’t mean that we need people’s praise, but doing something with someone else in mind takes the spotlight off of us (and our anxieties and worries) and places it onto others – and how we can make a difference to them.

Being connected to people has regularly been shown to be one of the most potent buffers against poor mental health. The neurologist Viktor Frankl wrote:

For people who think there’s nothing to live for, nothing more to expect from life … the question is getting these people to realise that life is still expecting something from them.

Knowing that someone else needs you makes it easier to endure the toughest times. You’ll know the “why” for your existence and will be able to bear almost any “how”.

So how can you make yourself important in someone else’s life? It could be as simple as taking care of a child or elderly parent, volunteering, or finishing work that might benefit future generations. Even if these people never realise what you’ve done for them, it doesn’t matter because you will know. And this will make you realise the uniqueness and importance of your life.

Olivia Remes, PhD Candidate, University of Cambridge

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Anxious Yellow Face.

Preventing clinical anxiety may come down to physical differences in brain lobes

Feeling anxious? You may have a small inferior frontal cortex, then. New research has linked college students’ likelihood of suffering from anxiety and a negative mindset with the size of this brain area.

Anxious Yellow Face.

Image via Pixabay.

If you’re not anxious about something, anything, in college, you’re doing it wrong. The American College Health Association reports that some 60% of students experience one or more episodes of anxiety per year — which isn’t good.

“There is a very high level of anxiety in the student population, and this is affecting their life, their academic performance, everything,” said University of Illinois psychology postdoctoral researcher and lead author of the paper Sanda Dolcos.

“We are interested in identifying what is going on and preventing them from moving to the next level and developing clinical anxiety.”

Previous work has found a link between the size of someone’s inferior frontal cortex (IFC) and their likelihood of experiencing anxiety and developing a negative bias, Dolcos adds. So, together with graduate student Yifan Hu, she set out to find if the link holds true for college students. The team worked with 62 student participants, who were asked to complete standardized questionnaires aimed at gauging their anxiety levels, depressive tendencies, and biases (affective go/no-go task). Participants then had their brain structure recorded with neuroimaging techniques.

The results suggest that the relative size of the IFC is a good predictor of a student’s negative bias (tendency to view everything in a negative light) which “was mediated by” their levels of anxiety. In other words, people who had larger IFCs usually showed levels of anxiety. Those with smaller IFCs were more anxious, and this anxiety was associated with a predisposition towards developing negative biases.

 

“We found that larger IFC volume is protecting against negative bias through lower levels of trait anxiety,” Hu said.

“We are interested in identifying what is going on and preventing them from moving to the next level and developing clinical anxiety.”

Anxiety can impact all areas of someone’s life by keeping them on edge, always on the look-out for potential problems or dangers even under the best of circumstances. Negative biases throw a wrench in someone’s ability to invest in activities which would prove beneficial in the long run, as they keep expecting everything to go wrong. Understanding how brain structure and traits such as anxiety relate could help researchers find new ways address these conditions by directly influencing the brain.

The paper “Trait anxiety mediates the link between inferior frontal cortex volume and negative affective bias in healthy adults” has been published in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience.