The Age of Anxiety, and promising new research that could help
Published Thursday, May 28, 2015 6:30AM EDT
With deadlines, obligations and stresses, feeling anxious is a normal part of modern life; in fact, a little bit of stress in life is probably a good thing.
But for many people, that anxiousness become much more, pushing them into a state of endless overwhelming worry and fear. When anxiety becomes severe, it can leave people unable to take part in normal life and social interactions.
Getting a diagnosis from a doctor is important, since there are effective treatments for those with anxiety disorders, including psychotherapy, mindfulness meditation training, and medication. But there are also a number of promising treatments on the horizon and new research showing that even simple measures might be helpful for some.
Here’s a look at some of that research:
Changing gut bacteria
Researchers at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ont. believe there's a strong relationship between the bacteria and microbes that live in our bellies, and the chemistry of our brains.
The team recently conducted gut bacteria experiments in mice, all of which were germ-free after having been raised in sterilized environments. Some of the mice showed lots of exploratory behaviour and were considered bold, while another group of mice had a genetic background that made them more timid and anxious.
The researchers took fecal samples from each group of mice and transferred them into the mice of the other group. The anxious strain became more active and daring and had increased levels of a brain protein called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which is linked to reduced anxiety. The normally active mice, on the other hand, became more passive and withdrawn after the bacterial transplant.
The researchers say their results suggest that what’s in our bellies could be affecting our brains and would like to see further research into this area, including investigating whether probiotic bacteria could help treat behavioural disorders in humans.
Spending time with pets
There’s something calming about stroking a pet and feeling their love in return, which is why pet therapy is so often used in hospitals to help calm nervous patients (and even in some universities during exam time).
While dogs often get all the attention in pet therapy, even small pets can be soothing. A recent study found that guinea pigs can help kids with autism ease their feelings of social anxiety. The study placed kids in situations that often cause stress for those with autism, asking them to read in front of a group of peers, and later to interact with normally developing peers while playing toys. The researchers measured the anxiety levels of the kids using specially designed wristbands that could sense when people were excited or anxious based on the electric charges travelling through their skin.
When the researchers then allowed the kids to play with guinea pigs in their laps after the stressful activities, the wristbands showed that the anxiety levels of the kids with autism dropped significantly and quickly.
The researchers say that pets can be calming to those with anxiety issues because the animals offer unconditional acceptance and instantly make the children feel more secure.
Antidepressant medications are often used to treat anxiety but they can carry some side effects, such as nausea and insomnia. Researchers at the Ottawa Hospital Research Institute are looking into whether a drug currently undergoing clinical trials for the treatment of obesity and appetite control disorders might be a better option to treat anxiety.
The researchers say that people with obesity-related diseases often suffer from mood or anxiety disorders, suggesting there could be a common link. They have been testing a drug called trodusquemine that works on the body's endocannabinoid system. This system performs many functions, including regulating mood, but when the system is disrupted in certain people, it can lead to both anxiety and obesity-related eating disorders. Trodusquemine appears to block a key enzyme in this system to both decrease appetite and regulate mood.
So far, trodusquemine has only been tested in mice, but the Ottawa researchers say it has been promising in its ability to reduce anxiety in mice. Now, the hope is to test the drug in humans to see if it works as well.
For many people suffering from a serious form of anxiety called GAD, or generalized anxiety disorder, the main treatments are medication and psychotherapy. But even these options don’t work on everyone and many continue to feel a constant state of worry. Now, researchers in the U.S. are investigating whether Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS) might help.
TMS involves sending magnetic pulses into the brain through a cap worn on the head. By changing the electrical activity in the brain, TMS can help quiet the overactive areas that are responsible for constant worry.
This form of brain stimulation has already been shown to be effective in those with severe, stubborn cases of depression, and early research suggests it may be just as helpful among those with treatment-resistant anxiety disorders.
One small study found that about 70 per cent of patients who completed TMS treatment had a significant clinical response and reduction in their anxiety compared with 25 per cent given a sham form of brain stimulation that involved a much weaker electrical pulse.
The researchers say that based on these promising preliminary findings, they are planning a larger randomized clinical trial.
Listening to music you love can have a powerful effect on mood. That’s why music therapy is widely used in hospitals, schools and nursing homes. Music can help calm agitated dementia patients, lift the mood of those with depression, or help hyperactive kids to focus.
Recent research has found it can also help surgery patients who are dealing with the anxiety that can come from post-operative pain.
In one recent study, women undergoing hysterectomies were told to wear headphones for 30 minutes after their surgery. Half the women listened to silence with noise-cancelling headphones, while the rest listened to jazz music.
The researchers found that the heart rates of those listening to music fell back down to normal levels faster than for those not listening to music. The amount of pain the patients reported was also significantly lower in the group listening compared to the silence group after just 10 minutes.
The researchers say that music can be a cost-effective way to help patients with their anxiety and pain and encourage more research.