December | 2010 | All About Anxiety

Archive for December, 2010

Preventing PTSD – Sleep Deprivation

It seems ridiculous to suggest that sleep deprivation is useful in any sort of way, but researchers seem to have found evidence that suggests it can be. Following in the same vein of the discovery of the drug geared toward preventing PTSD, recent studies have shown that sleep deprivation immediately after a traumatic incident can help prevent the onset of PTSD in the future.

It sounds surprising, but the idea actually makes sense. One of the many things that happens while you sleep is that long-term memories are formed in the brain. This occurs in the hippocampus, which resides in an area of the brain that controls emotions, called the amygdala. After a traumatic incident, a lot of sleep can lead to the memories of that incident becoming entrenched in the person’s mind, leading to fear reactions to similar situations in the future, sometimes in the exaggerated way that indicates the presence of PTSD. The researchers’ thinking was that if the brain is deprived of its best opportunity to file away these memories in a clear way, the fear responses will be diminished. Early studies have confirmed this line of thinking.

As with all scientific breakthroughs, there needs to be a quite a bit more research conducted on the matter before we can say with a reasonable certainty that sleep deprivation can be used to combat PTSD. We also need to look at the extent to which fear reactions are stunted; as mentioned in a previous post, it can be dangerous to suppress them too much. If further research goes well, though, this could be a simple, non-medical, and very cheap way to address a very serious problem.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorders; Let’s not sleep on it. (2010, December). NewsRx Health & Science,655. Retrieved December 22, 2010, from Alumni – Research Library. (Document ID: 2214338741).

Active Minds

College leads to anxiety for thousands of students worldwide. This shouldn’t come as a surprise; for many, college means moving away from your family, the only people you have ever lived with, to a new place with thousands of complete strangers. Everyone and everything is unfamiliar. Students need to build new lives, while at the same time taking courses that could very well decide the direction of the rest of their lives. It’s a time of momentous decisions and tremendous personal growth. It’s a challenge. Fortunately, there is one organization that realizes the danger that faces college students and the adverse affects it can have on mental health, and it’s doing all it can to educate students about mental illness while breaking down the walls of stigma that surround it.

Active Minds has chapters at hundreds of schools nationwide, each of which puts on programs and workshops that inform, educate, and spark discussion about mental health topics. Students are told about resources available to them on and off campus to help with problems adjusting to their new settings, or any other problems that college tends to heap on young adults. The organization also puts on national conferences, aimed at helping members of chapter organizations to become knowledgeable, effective leaders of mental health causes on their own campuses. Active Minds even offers grants and scholarships to students who choose to undertake their own research or creative projects in the field of mental health.

Organizations like Active Minds help to shape a positive future for college students across the United States. College is a time when many latent anxiety and panic disorders come to the surface, as students are subjected to more stressors than they have likely ever been faced with in their lives to that point. Without understanding of and knowledge about these disorders, those students are powerless. Active Minds is on the front lines of the fight to educate students about the problems they face, and to let them know that they are not alone, and that they can take control of their situation. Check out their website for more information.

Preventing PTSD

Researchers at Northwestern University in Chicago have developed a drug that, when injected into the brains of mice, prevents Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, based on new discoveries in understanding how the disorder works. The disorder is chalked up to two brain proteins that are activated by a stressful event and remain in a permanent state of excitement for long after the event has concluded. The injection puts the proteins to rest, ending the exaggerated fear responses that can result from PTSD in everyday life. It sounds like a miracle drug, but is it really healthy, even in the mental sense? There are some ethical factors that need to be considered first.

According to the study, PTSD is caused when two proteins in the brain are activated in a fear response, and remain agitated after the danger has passed. PTSD can cause panic attacks, and anxiety related to the onset of them, over everyday occurrences that bear only a slight resemblance to the original trauma. The fear response is exaggerated and over-generalized, causing the onset of unnecessarily heightened states of fear. The drugs, MPEP and MTEP, prevent these proteins from remaining in an agitated state, albeit with a caveat: the drug only works when administered within five to six hours of the inciting trauma. The exaggerated fear is extinguished, with normal fear responses taking hold.

This sounds great, but still needs to be put to a clinical test among human subjects. The real concern is over just how much the fear response will be suppressed. Traumas, after all, should cause some fear, as a means of discouraging the individual from getting into similar situations in the future. If the fear is numbed too much, people’s ability to properly gauge risk and danger could be irreparably damaged. Granted, this has not been the case with the test mice, who show fear reactions based on trauma (an electrical shock), but lack the exaggerated fear that comes with PTSD. It remains to be seen what effect it will have on humans, but the importance of fear needs to be kept in mind as this new approach to PTSD is pursued. If a healthy dose of fear remains, a healthy dose of this drug might prevent a lot of suffering in the future.

Coping With Moving Anxiety

Moving means a lot of different things. First, you’re taking everything in your house, putting it in boxes and trucks, and hauling it off. To put it mildly, it takes a lot of time and effort. Second, you’re probably saying good-bye to the city you’ve lived in for some time, and all the people that made that place special. Finally, you’ve got the prospect of building a new life in a new place surrounded by new people. It’s understandably daunting for millions; you don’t hear many people mention it as a process they are looking forward to. Fortunately, there are healthy ways to deal with the build-up of stress and anxiety.

Just the act of moving can cause tons of worry. What if the family heirloom gets lost or broken? What if all of this stuff won’t fit into the moving van? How am I going to afford the moving expenses? If you’ve ever moved before, I’m sure at least one of those looks familiar to you. The main problem might be that the whole process can just get overwhelming. If that’s the case, take a few deep breaths, sit down, and make a checklist. Break down the process into manageable chunks, and then get started on finishing the first one (and only the first one) on the list. Take it one step at a time, and focus your thoughts and energy on the current step. As the check marks start coming, you’ll feel more accomplished, and more in control of your situation.

Saying good-bye is probably the hardest part of moving. The prospect of not seeing your closest friends and family whenever you want can be a painful one to accept. Try to get a sense of closure and get in one last outing with each of your closest friends and family before you head out. There can be few things more nagging than knowing you didn’t get to say a proper good-bye to a loved one. Of course, we are also fortunate to live in the current times. The Internet never will be a substitute for being with the person, but video chat services like Skype and IM programs like GTalk and AIM go a long way toward keeping in touch once distance becomes a factor in friendships. It might sound like a cheap imitation, but you might be surprised at your own reaction upon using Skype to see a face you haven’t seen in a while.

Meeting new people under any circumstances can be an anxiety-ridden experience. The importance of first impressions can put any of us on edge. Start small. After getting settled into the new digs, go out and introduce yourself to the neighbors. A small gift can go a long way toward sparking a new life-long friendship. Don’t pressure yourself into thinking you need a huge circle of friends from the get-go. Spend some time getting to know your neighbors, and find some common ground. Who knows; maybe you’ll share a hobby or two, which might lead to a club with a few more people right up your alley. Good friendships tend to lead to more good friendships, so try taking things slow, and letting things unfold before you. You’ve got a long time in your new home; there’s no rush!

The Painted Brain

If you’ve got a mental health story to tell, and are itching to find a creative outlet for it, here’s something you might be interested in. The Painted Brain, formed in 2005 and based in Los Angeles, only prints a couple issues of its magazine per year, but it’s a perfect way for artists, poets, writers, and anyone passionate about mental health to submit creations and ideas to a publication that is filling a much needed role as a fun, engaging way to raise awareness and educate about all kinds of mental health topics. Studies have shown that creativity through the arts is an effective way for many to sublimate the stress caused by anxiety, so why not give it a shot? It can be a great way to relieve stress and express your feelings in a healthy, constructive way, and who knows: you might just end up in the next issue.

The magazine is just the start of what the Painted Brain is doing, though. The organization has been putting on performances, interviews, and speakers to raise awareness and money for mental health topics. Take a look at their website, and look for the Painted Brain to grow outside of the Los Angeles area in the near future. The website also has a great list of links for further information about mental health topics and activities and events that might be going on in your area. If you happen to be in the Los Angeles area, you can even help put the magazine together yourself!

If you’ve got some added holiday stress or anxiety these days, and aren’t sure just what to do about it, think about getting creative! It’s fun, it’s easy, and sometimes, the end result can speak much louder than words can.

Specific Phobias

They’re often overlooked as a serious mental health issue, but phobias for some people (indeed, millions) can have a drastically negative impact on daily functioning. In fact, the very definition of a phobia is an uncontrolled fear of something, to the point where the fear causes significant impairment of daily life. The worst misconception about phobias, however, is the idea that they are permanent, and that we are powerless to act against them. In fact, phobias can be treated very readily, as long as we are willing to make the effort to fight them.

A key aspect of a specific phobia is that it is generalized, to the point of irrationality. Often (but not always), phobias are caused by a traumatic event early in life, especially one that triggers fear or is labeled as dangerous by the developing mind. The traumatic event might not even have happened to us; observing a strong reaction on the part of another person can trigger a specific phobia, as well. My phobia was triggered by a personal experience: an unfortunate incident involving a very large boxer and my small, three-year-old self resulted in a persistent fear of dogs throughout my entire childhood. At the time, the fear seemed natural enough, and not all that damaging to my daily life. Looking back, though, I can see that it caused some pretty unnecessary reactions on my part; at my worst, I would cross the street to avoid walking past a dog on a leash that was about one-fifth my size!

I don’t really bat an eye when I cross a dog these days, and though I never received formal treatment, the way I got rid of the phobia is not much different from what we would experience in a treatment setting. Over time, I was exposed to more and more dogs; my neighbors had them, my relatives had them, my friends had them. I couldn’t avoid them unless I never went to see any of those people, and that option didn’t sound like it would make me very happy. As I started to see more and more dogs, I started to notice a curious thing. Contrary to what I had always thought, every dog in the world wasn’t rigidly determined to tear me apart at a moment’s notice. In fact, some were quite nice to me. Of course, even in those days, if you had asked me in the comfort of my own home whether or not I thought every dog in the world would jump at me if given the opportunity, I would probably respond sensibly. I knew that all dogs weren’t as violent as the one that attacked me all those years ago, but when we are in the moment, the parts of our brain (especially the amygdala) that regulate and control emotion and fear automatically activate a fear response. Over time, when we are exposed to stimuli around which our phobias are based, and that fear is not actualized, the fear response starts to weaken. Hence, treatment for phobias typically comes in the form of exposure therapy.

Exposure therapy is, at the risk of oversimplification, roughly what I went through with dogs, but in a controlled setting with a therapist. There are quite a few advantages to formal exposure therapy. In a controlled setting, the actual danger of anything threatening happening is essentially zero, and you’ve got a licensed therapist with you to act as your support and lifeline. Exposure therapy is a gradual process. If you’re battling a persistent fear of spiders, to the point where yard work is rendered impossible, therapy might start with being in the room for a few seconds with a spider at the opposite end, and, over the course of weeks or months, work toward actually approaching and, ultimately, touching that spider. The key to exposure therapy is the dawning realization that phobia-based fears are irrational, and that the danger we automatically perceive isn’t real. Once you reach that point, you can work on mastering your fear, so (unlike young me) you won’t find yourself avoiding the stimuli in your everyday life, no matter the cost. It can be a difficult process, but with exposure therapy, you won’t need to go through it alone, and, with a little determination, you’ll be laughing in the face of your fears once you get to the other side.