It has been known for a long time that people suffering from anxiety process information differently compared to people who don't have anxiety. People who suffer from anxiety are much more likely to appraise a situation, even a neutral situation as a threat than people without an anxiety disorder. In effect people with anxiety disorders are invariably hyper-sensitive to situations, and are frequently searching for threat or something to worry about compared to those who don't suffer from anxiety.
This hyper sensitivity is associated with significantly increased activity in a couple of areas of the brain, particularly the older limbic parts in the centre of the brain and the prefrontal cortex, just behind our forehead. Additionally anxiety sufferers display higher and different heart rate functioning when they perceive a threat.
This new study by colleagues at my own university, the University of Oxford, and the University of Bristol, University College London (UCL) and Universitaire Vaudois in Switzerland carried out a ground breaking series of experiments looking at the responses of a group of anxiety sufferers compared to an equal umber of non-sufferers.
What they did was present everyone (both anxiety and non-anxiety sufferer) with a set of images whilst they were in an fMRI scanner and whilst they were also monitoring their heart response.
They got the subjects to do two tasks whilst their brain activity and heart responses were being monitored and they were being presented with the images.
The first task was to do nothing but watch the images. A number of the images were considered to be threat images. In this condition they found what they expected. The anxiety sufferers responded with anxiety to each of the threat images faster and with a greater response than the non anxiety sufferers. The anxiety sufferers also frequently reacted to the non-threat images. No surprise there.
They then taught all of the people in the experiment an emotion regulation technique based on a couple of techniques we use on the Fear Breakthrough Course. These techniques, known as reappraisal techniques basically get people to see things differently.
This time, when anxiety sufferers used the emotion regulation techniques they saw the effect immediately both in the brain and with their heart responses. Not only did the techniques reduce the hyper-activity within the brain, it also had an immediate effect of reducing the heart response to the threat. What surprised the researchers was that in many cases the techniques actually reversed the effects of the anxiety induced hyper-activity.
In effect what this means is that the techniques we use not only reduce the level of anxiety at the time but have the power to reverse the effects of the anxiety and stop it happening altogether.
A Reinecke et al (2015) Effective emotion regulation strategies improve fMRI and ECG markers of psychopathology in panic disorder: implications for psychological treatment action. Translational Psychiatry (2015) 5, e673; doi:10.1038/tp.2015.160