The University of Alberta has made a breakthrough in the field of anxiety.
Under the microscope, a team of researchers has potentially found the key to understanding the mental disorder and unlocking new drug treatments for it.
“It’s an exciting time,” said William Colmers, a professor in the department of pharmacology who led the project. “Anxiety is one of these complicated things where a lot of normal processes break down.”
Using laboratory rats, the team studied a stress hormone, a peptide called corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH), and an anti-stress hormone that stops the cycle, called neuropeptide-Y (NPY).
Through the study, the research team discovered that when the rats were given more NPY, they appeared calmer and more willing to meet strange animals.
When given CRH, the rats had much higher levels of anxiety. Repeated exposure of each hormone resulted in lasting effects of either calmness or anxiety for weeks or months.
Rats like humans?
All animals, including humans, experience anxiety. It’s a fight or flight response elicited by the body when it perceives an immediate danger.
For rats, they usually exhibit high levels of anxiety when meeting strange animals. This anxiety – or survival instinct – makes the rat either stand its ground and fight, or scamper away.
But with the stress-relieving hormone NPY injected into the rat’s amygdala, it was much more willing to meet new strangers.
“The more an animal is willing to interact with an unknown animal, the less stressed we can say the animal is,” he explained.
Colmers said the findings are a step closer in understanding the complex world of anxiety.
Pounding heart, rapid breathing and chest pains, maybe it’s a heart attack?
Everyone has sporadic moments of anxiety, said Maricris Poole, a mental health nurse with the St. Albert and Sturgeon Primary Care Network. In some cases, like completing an exam or preparing for a presentation, anxiety can be a good thing.
“It’s there to motivate us, it’s there to keep us safe,” she explained.
But for some people it never seems to go away. Anxious thoughts drift in and out of the mind, until the drifting turns into a race.
People with severe anxiety are often stuck in a perpetual cycle of distorted thinking and catastrophizing every little worry. Unable to control their thoughts, their body is propelled into a seemingly permanent state of panic.
“We all have this internal alarm system, which is the flight, fight or freeze response,” she said. “It affects our thoughts, our physical symptoms, how we behave and how we act.”
Physiologically anxiety can present itself in a variety of ways. In panic disorder, people will experience heart palpitations, chest pains, nausea and trouble breathing.
Usually the individual is convinced that they’re having a heart attack or stroke and will drive themselves to the emergency department.
Other forms of anxiety keep the mind and body restless. Along with worrying about life, friendships or even leaving the house, the individual has a hard time concentrating, is easily irritated, lives with muscle tension and has trouble sleeping.
Poole said when the body gets worked up, some people may need to turn to medication. Pharmaceuticals will tackle the physiological response to anxiety and bring the body to a state of calm.
“Medication is necessary to treat the physical symptoms if they are severe and the person’s not able to focus on other areas that would help them,” she said.
But both Poole and Colmers say medication isn’t the end solution for anxiety.
Even though the body becomes relaxed, anxiety is still running rampant in the brain. By meeting with a counsellor, an individual will learn important skills in dealing with the mental disorder.
“If you just give them the medications, they’ll get better to some degree. But they get much better, and stay better, if they have therapeutic interventions,” Colmers said.
For many, therapy could result in getting off medication. But for those with more severe diagnoses of anxiety, pharmaceuticals will always be a fact of life.
According to Colmers, that’s why it’s so important to continue examining anxiety. Next, he’ll be publishing two papers on further findings from the study, which could lead to more effective drug treatments in the future.