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The problem with resisting relaxation to avoid spikes in anxiety
Your fear of anxiety could be preventing you from treating your anxiety, according to new Penn State research.
- The results of a 2019 Penn State University study explain the effect (and negative impacts) of "relaxation-induced anxiety."
- Experiencing the shifts from relatively calm to high-anxiety can be extremely difficult. In trying to avoid that shift, we allow ourselves to stay in a state of anxiety and relaxation techniques become ineffective.
- New research is finding possible connections between chronic stress and anxiety and structural degeneration of the hippocampus, which leads to impaired functioning of the prefrontal cortex.
Your brain on anxiety
Anxiety directly impacts the amygdala and hippocampus areas of your brain.
Image by GrAl on Shutterstock
Oftentimes "stress" and "anxiety" are used interchangeably, but it's important to note they are two very distinct functions and feelings. Stress is caused by a known source, for example, like when your car breaks down. It can trigger feelings of anger, sadness, or irritability.
Anxiety on the other hand is a feeling of fear, panic, or dread that could very well not have a known trigger. For example, you get in your car on the way to an important meeting and feel on-edge the entire drive. You think you may get into an accident or that your car will break down, when there is no apparent reason why you should be worrying about those things.
Where the confusion happens is that stress oftentimes can trigger anxiety — someone whose body experiences consistent surges of stress hormones is at higher risk of developing an anxiety disorder.
What happens in the brain when you're anxious?
The amygdala: an almond-shaped structure located deep in the brain. It is essentially a "communications hub" between the parts of the brain that process incoming sensory signals and the parts that interpret those signals.
The hippocampus: the part of the brain that encodes threatening events into long-term memories.
Once there is a threat or a perceived threat, your brain releases a surge of chemicals such as cortisol and norepinephrine that give you a natural boost in reflex time, perception and speed. This hormone surge also makes your heart beat faster in order to get more blood and oxygen throughout your body. This is described as "survival mode."
According to Neuroscience Center, this survival mode can be helpful (and is often vital to our survival) but if your body experiences it over and over again, the effects of that chronic stress can take a toll on your physical and mental health: a weakened immune system, weight gain, heart disease, and anxiety disorders, to name a few.
New research (such as the study mentioned above) is finding possible connections between chronic stress and anxiety and structural degeneration of the hippocampus, which leads to impaired functioning of the prefrontal cortex.
The best way to avoid this deterioration is to protect your brain and body from the effects of chronic stress that induces anxiety.
Fear of anxiety can raise anxiety levels, making relaxation techniques ineffective
Experiencing the shifts from relatively calm to high-anxiety can be extremely difficult, but in trying to avoid that shift, many people stop themselves from being able to relax at all.
The results of a 2019 Penn State University study explain the negative impact of "relaxation-induced anxiety," a phenomenon that occurs when people become more anxious during various relaxation exercises.
- Of the 96 participants, 32 people were diagnosed with a general anxiety disorder, 34 were diagnosed with major depressive disorder, and there was a test group of 30 who had neither disorder.
- Researchers led the participants through various relaxation exercises before having them watch videos that could elicit feelings of fear or sadness.
- Participants then answered a list of questions designed to measure how sensitive they were to changes in their mental state.
- This was repeated, and the next survey was designed to measure the participants' anxiety levels through the second relaxation session.
Data from this study shows people with a generalized anxiety disorder were more likely to be sensitive to sharp spikes in emotion. This kind of sensitivity ultimately made them feel anxious during relaxation sessions.
People who struggled with major depressive disorder showed similar results but the effect wasn't as strong, and people without a diagnosis did not show these results.
How to manage anxiety without resisting relaxation
MBIs (mindfulness-based interventions) can be used in combination to combat anxiety.
Photo by file404 on Shutterstock
Being aware of your anxiety is step one.
According to therapist Roger S. Gil, many people have lived in an anxious state for so long that they aren't aware of any other state of being anymore.
"For some people, anxiety is situational. It's normal to feel nervous at the prospect of having to speak in public."
He goes on to explain: "Situational anxiety is one of those things we can only overcome by confronting it. Generalized anxiety is something that can only be coped with by trying to rewrite the pattern of thinking that elicits it."
Regardless of what form your anxiety takes on, there will be ways to cope with it if you understand what effect anxiety is having on you.
Combining various mindfulness-based interventions (MBIs) is far more effective than trying one relaxation technique at a time.
According to new research, participants who tailored various self-help practices to suit their individual circumstances and anxieties found them much more beneficial after as little as 5 minutes per day.
Some examples of MBIs include things such as yoga, meditation, progressive muscle relaxation, and guided imagery practices. all of which are more powerful when used in combination with breathing exercises.
Experts explain that in order for these mindfulness techniques to be most beneficial to you, they should be practiced at least once per day.
- Stanford Scientists Classify 5 Subtypes of Anxiety and Depression ... ›
- Surprising ways to beat anxiety and become mentally strong ... ›
- Scientists have discovered where anxiety comes from - Big Think ›
- Try these four breathing techniques to calm your mind - Big Think ›
Scientists are using bioelectronic medicine to treat inflammatory diseases, an approach that capitalizes on the ancient "hardwiring" of the nervous system.
- Bioelectronic medicine is an emerging field that focuses on manipulating the nervous system to treat diseases.
- Clinical studies show that using electronic devices to stimulate the vagus nerve is effective at treating inflammatory diseases like rheumatoid arthritis.
- Although it's not yet approved by the US Food and Drug Administration, vagus nerve stimulation may also prove effective at treating other diseases like cancer, diabetes and depression.
The nervous system’s ancient reflexes<p>You accidentally place your hand on a hot stove. Almost instantaneously, your hand withdraws.</p><p>What triggered your hand to move? The answer is <em>not</em> that you consciously decided the stove was hot and you should move your hand. Rather, it was a reflex: Skin receptors on your hand sent nerve impulses to the spinal cord, which ultimately sent back motor neurons that caused your hand to move away. This all occurred before your "conscious brain" realized what happened.</p><p>Similarly, the nervous system has reflexes that protect individual cells in the body.</p><p>"The nervous system evolved because we need to respond to stimuli in the environment," said Dr. Tracey. "Neural signals don't come from the brain down first. Instead, when something happens in the environment, our peripheral nervous system senses it and sends a signal to the central nervous system, which comprises the brain and spinal cord. And then the nervous system responds to correct the problem."</p><p>So, what if scientists could "hack" into the nervous system, manipulating the electrical activity in the nervous system to control molecular processes and produce desirable outcomes? That's the chief goal of bioelectronic medicine.</p><p>"There are billions of neurons in the body that interact with almost every cell in the body, and at each of those nerve endings, molecular signals control molecular mechanisms that can be defined and mapped, and potentially put under control," Dr. Tracey said in a <a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AJH9KsMKi5M" target="_blank">TED Talk</a>.</p><p>"Many of these mechanisms are also involved in important diseases, like cancer, Alzheimer's, diabetes, hypertension and shock. It's very plausible that finding neural signals to control those mechanisms will hold promises for devices replacing some of today's medication for those diseases."</p><p>How can scientists hack the nervous system? For years, researchers in the field of bioelectronic medicine have zeroed in on the longest cranial nerve in the body: the vagus nerve.</p>
The vagus nerve<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNTYyOTM5OC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY0NTIwNzk0NX0.UCy-3UNpomb3DQZMhyOw_SQG4ThwACXW_rMnc9mLAe8/img.jpg?width=1245&coordinates=0%2C0%2C0%2C0&height=700" id="09add" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="f38dbfbbfe470ad85a3b023dd5083557" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="1245" data-height="700" />
Electrical signals, seen here in a synapse, travel along the vagus nerve to trigger an inflammatory response.
Credit: Adobe Stock via solvod<p>The vagus nerve ("vagus" meaning "wandering" in Latin) comprises two nerve branches that stretch from the brainstem down to the chest and abdomen, where nerve fibers connect to organs. Electrical signals constantly travel up and down the vagus nerve, facilitating communication between the brain and other parts of the body.</p><p>One aspect of this back-and-forth communication is inflammation. When the immune system detects injury or attack, it automatically triggers an inflammatory response, which helps heal injuries and fend off invaders. But when not deployed properly, inflammation can become excessive, exacerbating the original problem and potentially contributing to diseases.</p><p>In 2002, Dr. Tracey and his colleagues discovered that the nervous system plays a key role in monitoring and modifying inflammation. This occurs through a process called the <a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/nature01321" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">inflammatory reflex</a>. In simple terms, it works like this: When the nervous system detects inflammatory stimuli, it reflexively (and subconsciously) deploys electrical signals through the vagus nerve that trigger anti-inflammatory molecular processes.</p><p>In rodent experiments, Dr. Tracey and his colleagues observed that electrical signals traveling through the vagus nerve control TNF, a protein that, in excess, causes inflammation. These electrical signals travel through the vagus nerve to the spleen. There, electrical signals are converted to chemical signals, triggering a molecular process that ultimately makes TNF, which exacerbates conditions like rheumatoid arthritis.</p><p>The incredible chain reaction of the inflammatory reflex was observed by Dr. Tracey and his colleagues in greater detail through rodent experiments. When inflammatory stimuli are detected, the nervous system sends electrical signals that travel through the vagus nerve to the spleen. There, the electrical signals are converted to chemical signals, which trigger the spleen to create a white blood cell called a T cell, which then creates a neurotransmitter called acetylcholine. The acetylcholine interacts with macrophages, which are a specific type of white blood cell that creates TNF, a protein that, in excess, causes inflammation. At that point, the acetylcholine triggers the macrophages to stop overproducing TNF – or inflammation.</p><p>Experiments showed that when a specific part of the body is inflamed, specific fibers within the vagus nerve start firing. Dr. Tracey and his colleagues were able to map these relationships. More importantly, they were able to stimulate specific parts of the vagus nerve to "shut off" inflammation.</p><p>What's more, clinical trials show that vagus nerve stimulation not only "shuts off" inflammation, but also triggers the production of cells that promote healing.</p><p>"In animal experiments, we understand how this works," Dr. Tracey said. "And now we have clinical trials showing that the human response is what's predicted by the lab experiments. Many scientific thresholds have been crossed in the clinic and the lab. We're literally at the point of regulatory steps and stages, and then marketing and distribution before this idea takes off."<br></p>
The future of bioelectronic medicine<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNTYxMDYxMy9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYzNjQwOTExNH0.uBY1TnEs_kv9Dal7zmA_i9L7T0wnIuf9gGtdRXcNNxo/img.jpg?width=980" id="8b5b2" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="c005e615e5f23c2817483862354d2cc4" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="2000" data-height="1125" />
Vagus nerve stimulation can already treat Crohn's disease and other inflammatory diseases. In the future, it may also be used to treat cancer, diabetes, and depression.
Credit: Adobe Stock via Maridav<p>Vagus nerve stimulation is currently awaiting approval by the US Food and Drug Administration, but so far, it's proven safe and effective in clinical trials on humans. Dr. Tracey said vagus nerve stimulation could become a common treatment for a wide range of diseases, including cancer, Alzheimer's, diabetes, hypertension, shock, depression and diabetes.</p><p>"To the extent that inflammation is the problem in the disease, then stopping inflammation or suppressing the inflammation with vagus nerve stimulation or bioelectronic approaches will be beneficial and therapeutic," he said.</p><p>Receiving vagus nerve stimulation would require having an electronic device, about the size of lima bean, surgically implanted in your neck during a 30-minute procedure. A couple of weeks later, you'd visit, say, your rheumatologist, who would activate the device and determine the right dosage. The stimulation would take a few minutes each day, and it'd likely be unnoticeable.</p><p>But the most revolutionary aspect of bioelectronic medicine, according to Dr. Tracey, is that approaches like vagus nerve stimulation wouldn't come with harmful and potentially deadly side effects, as many pharmaceutical drugs currently do.</p><p>"A device on a nerve is not going to have systemic side effects on the body like taking a steroid does," Dr. Tracey said. "It's a powerful concept that, frankly, scientists are quite accepting of—it's actually quite amazing. But the idea of adopting this into practice is going to take another 10 or 20 years, because it's hard for physicians, who've spent their lives writing prescriptions for pills or injections, that a computer chip can replace the drug."</p><p>But patients could also play a role in advancing bioelectronic medicine.</p><p>"There's a huge demand in this patient cohort for something better than they're taking now," Dr. Tracey said. "Patients don't want to take a drug with a black-box warning, costs $100,000 a year and works half the time."</p><p>Michael Dowling, president and CEO of Northwell Health, elaborated:</p><p>"Why would patients pursue a drug regimen when they could opt for a few electronic pulses? Is it possible that treatments like this, pulses through electronic devices, could replace some drugs in the coming years as preferred treatments? Tracey believes it is, and that is perhaps why the pharmaceutical industry closely follows his work."</p><p>Over the long term, bioelectronic approaches are unlikely to completely replace pharmaceutical drugs, but they could replace many, or at least be used as supplemental treatments.</p><p>Dr. Tracey is optimistic about the future of the field.</p><p>"It's going to spawn a huge new industry that will rival the pharmaceutical industry in the next 50 years," he said. "This is no longer just a startup industry. [...] It's going to be very interesting to see the explosive growth that's going to occur."</p>
The first rule of Vulture Club: stay out of Portugal.
So you're a vulture, riding the thermals that rise up over Iberia. Your way of life is ancient, ruled by needs and instincts that are way older than the human civilization that has overtaken the peninsula below, and the entire planet.
"The Expanse" is the best vision I've ever seen of a space-faring future that may be just a few generations away.
- Want three reasons why that headline is justified? Characters and acting, universe building, and science.
- For those who don't know, "The Expanse" is a series that's run on SyFy and Amazon Prime set about 200 years in the future in a mostly settled solar system with three waring factions: Earth, Mars, and Belters.
- No other show I know of manages to use real science so adeptly in the service of its story and its grand universe building.
Credit: "The Expanse" / Syfy<p>Now, I get it if you don't agree with me. I love "Star Trek" and I thought "Battlestar Galactica" (the new one) was amazing and I do adore "The Mandalorian". They are all fun and important and worth watching and thinking about. And maybe you love them more than anything else. But when you sum up the acting, the universe building, and the use of real science where it matters, I think nothing can beat "The Expanse". And with a <a href="https://www.rottentomatoes.com/tv/the_expanse" target="_blank">Rotten Tomato</a> average rating of 93%, I'm clearly not the only one who feels this way.</p><p>Best.</p><p>Show.</p><p>Ever. </p>
Contrary to what some might think, the brain is a very plastic organ.
As with many other physicians, recommending physical activity to patients was just a doctor chore for me – until a few years ago. That was because I myself was not very active.