Tag Archives: anxiety

Synaptic Sunday #14: Military and Neuroscience

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For Memorial Day weekend, three pieces of neuroscience research relevant to the military (and with applications beyond it):

1) Navy seeks to map the mind

On brain-computer interface technology –

The true goal is to make a vehicle or a robot arm just another extension of the human body and brain.

2) PTSD Combat Veterans’ ‘Fear Circuitry’ In Brains Always On High Alert

Even when an individual with PTSD isn’t confronted by a threat or a relatively taxing mental activity, there’s still PTSD-related activity in certain areas of the brain. What does this mean?

3) Professor finds neuroscience provides insights into brains of complex and adaptive leaders

What do the brains of great leaders look like? Is there really a way to increase leadership strength via neuro-feedback?

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Synaptic Sunday #11 – Adolescence and Anxiety Edition

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Lab rodent

1) Learning to Overcome Fear is Difficult for Teens

Compared to younger and older individuals of their species, both adolescent humans and mice on average have a stronger tendency to keep exhibiting a fear response to a threat even when the danger is gone.

In the human experiment, the fear response was initially elicited by pairing a visual stimulus (one of a sequence of yellow or blue images on a computer screen) with a harsh startling sound; in subsequent trials the same images appeared without any startling noise – leading to an extinction of the fear response in children and adults, but not in the adolescents, who kept showing a fear response to whatever image had once been paired with the noise.

As for the animal experiment, the article reports that the experimenters “used standard fear conditioning common in these types of animal studies.” (This is vaguely worded… did they use loud noises? Or pain?) The experimenters also measured neuronal activity in the mice:

… the research team found that the prelimbic region in the prefrontal cortex, the brain region that processes emotion, is activated during acquisition of fear, and the infralimbic prefrontal cortex is used to extinguish this fear association.

When compared to younger and older mice, adolescent mice didn’t exhibit the kinds of neuronal activity associated with fear extinction (this corresponded to their behavior – they continued to show a fear response over time, regardless of the fact that the danger/unpleasantness was no longer present). Even as they got older, the adolescent mice didn’t lose their fear response.

Related data from other studies with humans:

It is estimated that over 75 percent of adults with fear-related disorders can trace the roots of their anxiety to earlier ages.

It’s not clear how the persistent fear response in this experiment fits into the complex puzzle of excessive anxiety and its sources, people’s predispositions towards it, the reasons it persists (or doesn’t) into adulthood, and the ways in which it disrupts mental and physical functioning (also, adolescents with anxiety disorders have often reported that their symptoms started in childhood). And how do these results tie into other findings with teens that show a greater tendency for them to do something dangerous even if they understand the risks?

2) Anxiety Disorders in Children and Teens

An overview of different types of anxiety that can become excessive and interfere with daily life (e.g. social anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, etc.)

3) Blogging May Help Teens Deal With Social Distress

Most of the study participants were girls (though the experimenters reported that the results for the boys weren’t significantly different).

Maintaining a blog had a stronger positive effect on troubled students’ well-being than merely expressing their social anxieties and concerns in a private diary, according to the article published online in the APA journal Psychological Services. Opening the blog up to comments from the online community intensified those effects.

Maybe the effects were stronger for a public blog because the teens felt less isolated with their problems and felt relief that they could be heard; it turns out that when they opened the blogs up to comments, the response from other Internet users was almost always positive and encouraging (few to no trolls). I’m assuming the blogs were anonymous, making the teens less vulnerable to disruption in their lives offline and maybe helping them write more freely about their worries.

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Incidentally, the photo at the top of the post links to a relevant write-up on “stressed out lab rats” – how rats living in chronic stress tend to make decisions out of habit, as if their constant stress doesn’t allow them to be more mentally flexible. There are definitely parallels to stressed out humans.

Synaptic Sunday #10 – Mental Health and Life Expectancy

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A mental health issue isn’t “all in your mind.” The mind arises from the brain, and the brain is a part of your body that closely interacts with the rest of your body.

1) Even Mild Mental Health Problems Linked to Reduced Life Expectancy

This was from a study of 68,000 adults ages 35 and over in the U.K.:

Their results reveal that people who experienced symptoms of anxiety or depression had a lower life expectancy than those without any such symptoms.

Even people with minor symptoms of mental health problems seemed to have a higher risk of death from several major causes, including cardiovascular disease, according to the researchers.

And it’s not just a matter of poorer health behaviors. The researchers did try to control for factors like weight, eating habits, exercise, drinking, etc. and still found associations between these mental health symptoms and disease. (Granted they didn’t control for all possible factors, but they did try to account for some basic lifestyle choices that strongly impact health.)

Having poorer mental health doesn’t automatically doom you to a shorter life. No one can say what your individual outcome will be. What the study is showing is that on average people with poorer mental health have a shorter life expectancy compared to people with good mental health. As a preventative measure, to increase the odds in your favor that you’ll live longer and with a higher quality of life, don’t ignore your psychological distress or any other symptoms indicative of poor mental health. The effects ripple out to all areas of your life.

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2) Psychological distress linked to life expectancy- experts respond

Here’s a post with some comments from a few researchers and doctors on the study in the first link; the post includes some comments on potential weaknesses in the study and what can be researched next (for instance, what are the best interventions?). There are multiple ways that psychological distress can be linked to poorer health and shorter lifespan. Chronic stress damages the body and increases the chances of physical illnesses. People with poorer mental health might be more isolated and have less of a social support network. Maybe when they’re physically healthy they can get by, but when they come down with a physical illness they may neglect to get it treated. This is a fruitful area of research.

Synaptic Sunday #2

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This Sunday, a few links on excessive anxiety.

1) Anxiety May Hinder Your Sense of Danger

The result implies that worriers are less aware of potential danger—challeng­ing the common theory that anxious individuals are hypervigilant. Frenkel be­lieves that worrywarts’ low sensitivity to external warning signs causes them to be startled frequently by the seemingly sudden appearance of threats, which leaves them in a state of chronic stress.

Further study is needed, but it’s an interesting example of how the brain might work against itself. High anxiety and stress are not meant to be chronic states of being, but reactions to specific situations.

2) Anxious Girls’ Brains Work Harder

A young woman could be intelligent, competent and knowledgeable, but if she has problems with anxiety her brain might not be functioning as efficiently as possible.

“Anxious girls’ brains have to work harder to perform tasks because they have distracting thoughts and worries,” Moser said. “As a result their brains are being kind of burned out by thinking so much, which might set them up for difficulties in school. We already know that anxious kids — and especially anxious girls — have a harder time in some academic subjects such as math.”

Initially the article points out that high brain activity was observed in the more anxious women when they detected an error in their performance on a task (had they not been able to tell when they were making a mistake, would the results have been different?) At least part of the problem could involve fixating on errors: worrying that you’ll repeat them, that you’re no good at this… and any other self-defeating thoughts. But I haven’t seen the original paper, just the write-up at the Sciencedaily link.

3) New Study Suggests Depression May Increase Vulnerability to Anxiety

Depressive disorders and anxiety disorders often go hand-in-hand. Why that is, is not 100% clear at this point. They might have similar neurological underpinnings and can both arise (and interact with each other) as a reaction to adverse circumstances in life. One kind of disorder might also make you more vulnerable to the other (as this study suggests, speculating about depression paving the way for anxiety). Anxiety could possibly make you more vulnerable to depression as well. If someone for example suffers from severe social anxiety, and in consequence experiences poor academic performance, difficulty securing a job, and personal relationships that are strained or nonexistent, depression could set in.

Don’t neglect any problems you have with anxiety. Even if you don’t have a formal diagnosis of an anxiety disorder, you might still be worrying too much and experiencing more stress than is good for you; excessive worrying can hinder cognitive performance and have other adverse effects on your mental activity and physical health. Finding healthy ways to manage anxiety is one of the best things you can do for yourself (here’s one set of suggestions, also making the important point that people with anxiety disorders often have more difficulty coping with life’s uncertainties; here’s another interesting discussion about worrying, with tips to cut down on it and further links to relaxation techniques).

Unproductive thinking

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unproductive thinking

I’ve started reading about mindfulness, the practice of living your life aware of the present moment with its rich mix of sensory details, thoughts and emotions. Mindfulness is about really being present in your life; you’re conscious of the world and whatever is passing through your thoughts. I’ve read that mindfulness can be useful for people who have a tendency to brood and fret like the guy in the comic.

A lot of times we aren’t aware of when we’re brooding; we unconsciously drift into a whirlpool of obsessive repeating thoughts that go nowhere and yield nothing. There are times when I’m sitting down to enjoy a book or a movie, and because of some unresolved problem my attention will unconsciously slip away from the text or from the screen, and that’s it – I’m sucked into the whirlpool (“What’ll I do? Why can’t I get it done? Why can’t I make it right?”) On and on it goes. Apparently with mindfulness training you’re more likely to catch yourself before you go too far down that useless path; you’re better able to redirect your thoughts to the present and choose a more productive course of action.

Why is brooding useless? Because it rarely gives you any solutions. Instead it gets you even more worked up and stressed out than you were before. It tires you out and takes away hope, as you slap yourself down with discouraging thoughts (“I’ll never get this right,” “I’ll never figure it out,” “How long will it take?” “I’m going nowhere”). Brooding gives you a deceptive feeling of being productive. By picking and picking at a problem you feel like you’re doing something about it. But you’re not – you’re just sitting there miserably eating away at yourself. Your negative thoughts (“It’s useless, it’s hopeless, I can’t get anything done”) become reality.

With the proper frame of mind and in the right context, the questions the guy in the comic asks himself can be useful (“Why am I doing this?” is a good question to ask to keep from coasting through life). These questions can help us identify problems and ultimately improve ourselves. But it doesn’t happen when our minds swarm with them, and when we’re fixating obsessively on the difference between who we are and who we want to be. Obsessing over the gap between Present Self and Improved Self only makes it more unbridgeable.

Feel free to share your advice on how to snap out of a spell of brooding. In future posts I plan to return to mindfulness, as I learn more about it.