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You’re Wired for Anxiety. And You’re Wired to Handle It.

Big Think and the Mental Health Channel are proud to launch Big Thinkers on Mental Health, a new series dedicated to open discussion of anxiety, depression, and the many other psychological disorders that affect millions worldwide.

Anne Marie Albano: So anxiety is rooted in biology. It’s evolutionarily based in that we have our own fight-or-flight responses. Some of it is very old and triggered from the deep part of our brain; that is the oldest part, the fight-or-flight response. And then some of it comes from the cortex, which evolved much later and that’s worry. And that might be 21st century anxiety because there’s a lot we can find to worry about these days. Are we going to make enough money? Are we going to get the right job? Are we going to provide for our families? Are we going to do the right thing? What could go wrong in the world? So many things can trigger anxiety just by walking through everyday life. But the good news is our systems are also set up to handle it. The beauty of anxiety and the system that we have of anxiety that’s all throughout our nervous system is that it evolved to protect us. So there’s two components to it. The oldest being the amygdala, which is deep in the brain in the reptilian part of our brain, signals whether we should fight something, flee something, or freeze. When it goes awry is when it’s perceiving immediate danger that really isn’t there. Somebody’s heart starts to race and they think, "Oh my goodness, is something wrong with me?" That’s panic and that can send somebody into a panic attack which is the clinical manifestation of the fight-or-flight response. The other thing with anxiety is again as we evolved and became thinking human beings and started building communities and cities and civilizations is our brain evolved and there’s the cortex. It’s within the cortex that we think. It’s within that system that we worry. And so we can worry ourselves into states of anxiety where we are fraught in not knowing what to do and we actually get stuck with anxiety and so we’re tense and irritable and upset. So what makes the difference between everyday anxiety, which we all experience – anxiety is perfectly normal. In any form it’s perfectly normal. Having your heart racing because somebody is walking behind you and you don’t know who it is, is kind of normal. But if you let that happen to you when you’re sitting alone at home and you start having panic then that gets out of control. And worry about what to do in the future is normal for all of us. But if we can’t move our minds off of that and onto what do I need to take care of here and let me enjoy my family while we’re doing this thing and activity and I’ll problem solve that later, then that becomes a problem and that might become an anxiety issue. What was great from the 1990s all the way through to now is it sort of was the age of anxiety in terms of mental health treatment development. The 1990s opened up lots of treatment funded here in the United States by the National Institutes of Mental Health. And then also in other countries did similar things where cognitive-behavioral therapy became the most tested and developed treatment and found to be the most effective psychological or talk therapy for managing anxiety. And managing anxiety of all kinds. Obsessive-compulsive disorder, panic disorder, generalized-anxiety disorder, and so forth. Social phobia, the number one anxiety disorder in kids and adults. Cognitive behavioral therapy is great for that. So we put a lot of work into developing these treatments and perfecting them. And then also there are great medications actually that were developed through that time. The combination of the two treatments works best for many people who are debilitated by anxiety. 

But these treatments are excellent and they are available, but not widespread. So this is where again technology comes in because technology has allowed us to put some of the skills training and some of the aspects of cognitive behavior therapy into apps, into online programs and such that then can reach hard-to-reach individuals and people who don’t have access to services. There’s some very exciting work being done today throughout the country and around the world in terms of anxiety research looking at, in different ways, what aspects of the brain are working with the amygdala and the cortex in terms of turning anxiety on when it doesn’t need to, keeping it going. What are the triggers for anxiety on all different levels from genetic all the way through to what’s in the environment? And then helping to sharpen our treatments to direct themselves to those mechanisms and tamp down those mechanisms so that can help a person probably earlier in the cycle of anxiety, earlier in life in such, and to manage. So neuroscience is coming on with all sorts of ways of looking at what are some new technologies including different types of computer apps and stuff that target anxiety processes. And then there are also ways of disseminating treatments and reaching people that we are working with. So I think the big exciting part of what we’re seeing over the next 10 to 20 years is going to be much more dissemination of more targeted and, I think, more effective treatments for people that are going to be coming on board and going to be disseminated through many different means. Not just through your local therapist like me, but also through many different types of technologies that are going to be made available.

Big Think and the Mental Health Channel are proud to launch Big Thinkers on Mental Health, a new series dedicated to open discussion of anxiety, depression, and the many other psychological disorders that affect millions worldwide.


In our first video in the series, Dr. Anne Marie Albano, director of Columbia University Clinic for Anxiety and Related Disorders, traces the biological and evolutionary origins of anxiety, the unique features of anxiety in the 21st century, and the powerful research and tech-driven treatments that have emerged in recent decades.

Remote learning vs. online instruction: How COVID-19 woke America up to the difference

Educators and administrators must build new supports for faculty and student success in a world where the classroom might become virtual in the blink of an eye.

Credit: Shutterstock
Sponsored by Charles Koch Foundation
  • If you or someone you know is attending school remotely, you are more than likely learning through emergency remote instruction, which is not the same as online learning, write Rich DeMillo and Steve Harmon.
  • Education institutions must properly define and understand the difference between a course that is designed from inception to be taught in an online format and a course that has been rapidly converted to be offered to remote students.
  • In a future involving more online instruction than any of us ever imagined, it will be crucial to meticulously design factors like learner navigation, interactive recordings, feedback loops, exams and office hours in order to maximize learning potential within the virtual environment.
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White dwarfs hold key to life in the universe, suggests study

New study shows white dwarf stars create an essential component of life.

NASA and H. Richer (University of British Columbia)
Surprising Science
  • White dwarf stars create carbon atoms in the Milky Way galaxy, shows new study.
  • Carbon is an essential component of life.
  • White dwarfs make carbon in their hot insides before the stars die.
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"Forced empathy" is a powerful negotiation tool. Here's how to do it.

Master negotiator Chris Voss breaks down how to get what you want during negotiations.

Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images
Personal Growth
  • Former FBI negotiator Chris Voss explains how forced empathy is a powerful negotiating tactic.
  • The key is starting a sentence with "What" or "How," causing the other person to look at the situation through your eyes.
  • What appears to signal weakness is turned into a strength when using this tactic.
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Octopus-like creatures inhabit Jupiter’s moon, claims space scientist

A leading British space scientist thinks there is life under the ice sheets of Europa.

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SETI Institute
Surprising Science
  • A British scientist named Professor Monica Grady recently came out in support of extraterrestrial life on Europa.
  • Europa, the sixth largest moon in the solar system, may have favorable conditions for life under its miles of ice.
  • The moon is one of Jupiter's 79.
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How to catch a glimpse of Comet NEOWISE before it’s gone

Unless you plan to try again in 6,800 years, this week is your shot.

Image source: Sven Brandsma/Unsplash
Surprising Science
  • Comet NEOWISE will be most visible in the U.S. during the evenings from July 14-19, 2020.
  • After July 23rd, NEOWISE will be visible only through good binoculars and telescopes.
  • Look in the northwestern sky below the Big Dipper after dusk while there's a chance.

UPDATE: NASA is broadcasting a NASA Science Live episode highlighting Comet NEOWISE. NASA experts will discuss and answer public questions beginning at 3PM EST on Wednesday, July 15. Tune in via the agency's website, Facebook Live, YouTube, Periscope, LinkedIn, Twitch, or USTREAM.

Before last evening, July 14, 2020, the easiest way to see Comet NEOWISE — the brightest comet to zoom past Earth since 1977's Comet Hale-Bopp — from the United States was to catch it about an hour before sunrise. Now, however, you can see it in the evening, where it will remain for until the 19th. This is a definite don't-miss event — NEOWISE won't be coming back our way for another 6,800 years. It's the first major comet of the millennium, and by all accounts, it's unforgettable.

NEOWISE just got back from the Sun

Comet NEOWISE is named after the NASA infrared space telescope that first spotted it on March 27th. Its official moniker is C/2020 F3. It's estimated that the icy comet is about three miles across, not counting its tail.

NEOWISE is now heading away from our Sun, having made it closet approach, 27.4 million miles, to our star on July 3. The heat from that encounter is what's given NEOWISE its tail: It caused gas and dust to be released from the icy object, creating the tail of debris that looks so magical from here.

As NEOWISE moves closer to Earth, paradoxically, it will be less and less visible. By about July 23rd, you'll need binoculars or a telescope to see it at all. All of which makes this week prime time.

An evening delight

star constellation in sky

Image source: Allexxandar/Shutterstock/Big Think

First, find an unobstructed view of the northwest sky, free of streetlights, car headlights, apartment lights, and so on. And then, according to Sky & Telescope:

"Start looking about one hour after sunset, when you'll find it just over the northwestern horizon as the last of twilight fades into darkness."

It should be easy to spot since it's near to one of the most recognizable constellations up there, the Big Dipper. "Look about three fists below the bottom of the Big Dipper, which is hanging down by its handle high above, and from there perhaps a little to the right." Et voilà: Comet NEOWISE.

Says Sky & Telescope's Diana Hannikainen, "Look for a faint, fuzzy little 'star' with a fainter, fuzzier little tail extending upward from it."

The comet should be visible with the naked eye, though binoculars and a simple telescope may reveal more detail.

You may also be able to snap a photo of this special visitor, though you'll need the right gear to do so. A dedicated camera is more likely to capture a good shot than a telephone, but in either case, you'll need a tripod or some other means of holding the camera dead still as it takes a timed exposure of several seconds (not all phones can do this).

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