anxiety

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Why Do So Many Women Have Anxiety Disorders? A Hormone Hypothesis

(Stuart Anthony/Flickr)

(Stuart Anthony/Flickr)

Why do so many women suffer from anxiety? Is it something inherent in being female, are we more attuned to our moods? Or is that breath-clenching feeling of impending doom hard-wired?

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, women are 60 percent more likely than men to experience an anxiety disorder over their lifetime. (Obviously, men are not immune: taken together, anxiety disorders are among the most common mental health conditions — they affect about 40 million men and women age 18 and older, or about 18 percent of the U.S. population.)

Mohammed Milad is an associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and director of the Behavioral Neuroscience Program at Massachusetts General Hospital. He studies the complex interplay of gender, fear and anxiety. More specifically, he’s looking at how hormones, notably estrogen, might play a role in the fear response and our ability to extinguish fear and anxiety.

I spoke with him about his work. Here, edited, is some of our conversation:

RZ: OK, can you just clearly explain the difference between fear and anxiety? Sometimes it’s a fine line indeed.

MM: I was thinking about taking my kids camping over the summer, and I was reading about bears and potential bear encounters, and considerations for taking cover and putting your food this distance away from your camping site, etc. Anxiety is when you’re camping and you have that heightened awareness — hyper-vigilance  — that’s anxiety, it’s sustained, it’s continuous, but it’s not at the point where it makes you run or look for cover. Fear is when you see the bear; fear is intense, it’s immediate, it’s right there in front of you.

RZ: Thanks for that. But I’m curious, how did you start studying how men and women are different when it comes to fear and anxiety?

MM: When I was in grad school we used to host kids from middle and elementary school…showing our lab to them, showing them the rats, and one kid, maybe 10, 12 years old, asked, are they male or female rats and I said they’re all male rats, and he asked, why, what about the female rats? And I didn’t know the answer, so I went to my mentor and asked, why don’t we study the females? And the answer, simply put, was they’re complicated.

RZ: So the female rats were just too complicated. I get that. But considering far more women than men suffer from anxiety disorders, the fact that you were studying only male rats wasn’t such a great approach, was it?

MM: No, so I think that’s not an acceptable answer now.

RZ: In your experiments on rats and humans, you and your team use Pavlovian conditioning, as in Pavlov’s dogs, who were famously conditioned into drooling every time they heard a bell because they associated that sound with food. So, in these studies you repeatedly showed a blue light on a screen to men and women who would then receive a mild shock, until they came to expect — and fear — a shock every time they saw the blue light. Then, you stopped giving shocks when the blue light came on, to teach the subjects not to fear it. That’s “fear extinction.” And the next day, the men and women were tested to see if they still had a fear response to the blue light.

The results in these studies were all over the place, but most of the variance in fear response was among women in the experiment, right? The men were much more consistent. Why might that be?

MM: That’s what got me into beginning to think about hormones, because what could account for that other than maybe some women that we’re bringing in to the lab were at a particular phase of their menstrual cycle? And when we did that study we found that women who came in when their estrogen is elevated, they had their [fear] extinction capacity much better, in other words, they were able to control their fear, or express much less fear, compared to the women that came in in the early phase of their cycle… when they had low estrogen.

RZ: So just to be clear, high estrogen was linked to better control of fear, and low estrogen meant more potent and longer lasting fear?

MM: Right. Continue reading

Medicated (And Unmedicated) Women Are Talking

By Alicair Peltonen
Guest Contributor

I think a crucial step in decreasing the stigma surrounding mental illness is talking about it openly. And it seems readers want to talk.

My post, “The Medicated Woman: A Pill To Feel Better, Not Squelch Feelings,” on mental health and medication, was shared on Facebook more than 15,000 times and now has over 200 comments, so I thought it was worth a follow-up.

One thing readers wanted to discuss is the safety of antidepressants during pregnancy, a complicated topic which has been covered here and here on CommonHealth. Safety studies are mixed in many cases so women should consult their doctors. Here’s what it says on the Mayo Clinic website:

A decision to use antidepressants during pregnancy is based on the balance between risks and benefits. Overall, the risk of birth defects and other problems for babies of mothers who take antidepressants during pregnancy is very low. Still, few medications have been proved safe without question during pregnancy, and some types of antidepressants have been associated with health problems in babies.

Other comments underscored that stigma still exists but may be slowly diminishing.

(Flickr Creative Commons)

(Flickr Creative Commons)

Jackie wrote: “It took me until I was in my 50’s to accept that medication wasn’t the ‘weak”‘ way. I now see how much I lost and am living through a tremendously stressful life without those urges to accelerate into other cars or cement walls.”

“It’s in our family, but I was the first to seek help, and was probably the worst off. It was a secret that my grandfather had committed suicide,” wrote lilycarol.

And here’s a comment from helentroy4: “My mother was much like me. But to her dying day she never acknowledged that her behaviors were anything but ‘perfect mothering.’ I think had she been able to take advantage of this medication (or others of its kind), she would have been able to have the calming of her heart and soul that I have been blessed to have.”

There were many who suggested that lifestyle changes, including more exercise and sleep, meditation or yoga might be safer and more beneficial than medication. Continue reading

The Medicated Woman: A Pill To Feel Better, Not Squelch Emotions

By Alicair Peltonen
Guest Contributor

I am a medicated woman. I take 50mg of Sertraline (the generic form of Zoloft) a day. I don’t take it to be more tolerable to my husband. I don’t take it because I’m embarrassed by my emotions. And I definitely don’t take it to quietly fit into a polite societal mold. I take an anti-depressant every day to quell my anxiety simply because it feels better. I feel better.

I grew up in a talk therapy household. My father began group therapy for anger management issues in 1984, when I was 10, breaking a cycle of rage and avoidance that tends to swallow people whole, particularly men. He would come home feeling calmer and then he would implore my sister and me to explore our feelings and talk about our problems. Begrudgingly at times, I learned to think analytically. And thankfully, I learned that asking for help is not only acceptable, it’s downright healthy.

I started seeing therapists here and there in my 20s and then regularly several months after my first daughter was born. Medication had never been suggested by any of my previous therapists but this time was different. I couldn’t shake the feelings of inadequacy, the certainty that my daughter didn’t like me and I was just a glorified dairy cow. Post-partum depression is a hell of a thing.

(Rachel Zimmerman/WBUR)

(Rachel Zimmerman/WBUR)

When my therapist suggested I see a psychiatrist to discuss the possibility of medication, I went home and cried for an hour. I felt ashamed, defeated, embarrassed, weak. Even though I had seen medication transform my father from a man who growled and dragged to one who laughed and hugged, it still stung to feel like I couldn’t pull myself together.

But, remembering my father’s bravery, I thought I should at least give it a try. If I didn’t like it, I could always stop taking it. The first pill was swallowed through tears. And each successive pill went down easier. For a full year, I could go days without yelling or wanting to break things and entire weeks without crying. And I felt better.

After a year, I decided to go off the medication. Things had been much better and I wanted to see if I could “go back to normal.” And things did go back to normal. But it turns out my normal wasn’t very comfortable.

There have been many discussions and articles recently asking if modern psychiatry is over-medicating women. A recent op-ed in the New York Times by psychiatrist Julie Holland suggested that many of the symptoms for which women are treated with antidepressants are natural and healthy. “We have been taught to apologize for our tears,” she writes, “to suppress our anger and to fear being called hysterical.”

Here’s the thing, though. Breaking down into uncontrollable tears because you stubbed your toe and it’s the straw that broke the stress-camel’s back doesn’t feel good. Continue reading

Don’t Worry, Be Rational: Why Extreme Fear Of Ebola Is Bad For Your Health

A licensed clinician participates in a CDC training course in Alabama earlier this month for treating Ebola patients. (Brynn Anderson/AP)

A licensed clinician participates in a CDC training course in Alabama earlier this month for treating Ebola patients. (Brynn Anderson/AP)

Let’s face it, Ebola is scary. My kids are scared. The moms at school are talking about giving their children extra multi-vitamins to boost their immune systems in a desperate attempt to do something, anything, to protect their families. But we live in Boston and there are no cases here — yet. Still, that “yet” can make us crazy.

So, in a crisis, who do you call for comfort? The level-headed risk perception consultant: David Ropeik, who spoke with me briefly today about why such intense, prolonged worry and anxiety can backfire, make your body weaker and perhaps even damage your health:

Here, edited, is our short interview:

RZ: So, why is being scared of Ebola bad for your health?

DR: The health ramifications of this are profound. When we worry, that, biologically, is stress — that’s a mini fight-or-flight response going on in the body. When stress persists for more than several days (short-term stress is not the problems), it becomes damaging to our health. Chronic stress raises our blood pressure and increases the risk of cardiovascular problems; it suppresses our immune system and makes us more likely to catch infectious diseases or get sicker from them if we do. It interferes with neurotransmitters associated with mood, and it is strongly associated with clinical depression. Chronic stress interferes with digestion and memory and depresses fertility and bone growth (slows it down).

[The negative effects of chronic stress are widely reported, but Ropeik cites the book “Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers,” by the biologist Robert Sapolsky, as a key source here.]

So you think people are overreacting and we’re moving into some kind of widespread nation-wide chronic stress phenomenon here?

We’re on the cusp. It’s like what the fear of SARS did to people in Canada — it freaked [them] out for weeks: “Here it comes again,” is what they’re saying.

How do you see all this evolving?

In the last day and a half the criticism of how health officials have handled things and the mistakes they made in Dallas, real as those mistakes are, have become a focus, and it’s now starting to undermine trust in our health care system.

In a crisis, trust is the pivotal factor for how worried people are. Continue reading

Enterovirus D68: Good News, Bad News, What To Do

(CDC)

(CDC)

Pick your viral anxiety: Do you want to focus your media-fueled jitters on Ebola or on enterovirus D68?

Personally, even with today’s news of the first U.S. death from Ebola, I pick the enterovirus every time. For one thing, it’s actually around; it’s not a single case in Texas. But I’d prefer no anxiety at all, and the best antidote tends to be knowledge. So here are some data points:

The Massachusetts Department of Public Health fact sheet on enterovirus D68 is here and the CDC’s here. At a news conference last week, Dr. Alfred DeMaria, the department’s medical director for the Bureau of Infectious Disease, told reporters that enterovirus D68 had probably been “the predominant cause of respiratory illness over the last four weeks.”

Mostly, that meant colds, he said, and he thinks he even had the bug himself. But reports of lung ailments have “decreased significantly over the past couple of weeks,” he said, so “enterovirus 68 seems to be going away.”

Let’s hope. But what the heck? Here & Now reports that the enterovirus has been connected to five deaths nationwide, most recently of a 4-year-old in New Jersey. Of course, we know that viruses can sometimes lead to deaths by unleashing bacterial infections; flu has been known to kill dozens of American children in a bad year. But still, what to make of all the coverage of this unfamiliar virus?

I asked Dr. Ben Kruskal, chief of infectious diseases at Harvard Vanguard Medical Associates. My takeaway: Yes, this is quite a bit like flu, only it’s drawing attention because it’s a virus that’s acting atypically, surprisingly. Our conversation, edited:

There are so many viruses around; why are we even hearing about this one and what should we make of the coverage?

We’re hearing about it because it is not just a strain of a virus we don’t see very often but because it’s causing unusual manifestations, and manifestations that have enough impact for us to pay attention to. It’s actually in 30 or 40 states now, and we don’t really know how widespread it is because it’s clinically not terribly distinctive. It’s a respiratory virus that looks like a lot of other respiratory viruses, including the flu and the cold viruses and a whole bunch of others. And the reason we’re paying attention is not just the fact that it’s an unusual strain — then it would be a sort of laboratory curiosity — but because it’s actually on a more severe end of the spectrum for some people.

So it’s been confirmed that it’s here in Massachusetts, and it sounds like we have had more kids being hospitalized for respiratory trouble than usual in recent weeks, right? For example, Tufts Medical Center tells us that they’ve had 54 hospital admissions of kids with repiratory problems this year, compared to 27 admissions by this date last year, and they’re tending to stay in longer and need more treatment.

I understand from Dan Slater, who’s the director of pediatrics here at Harvard Vanguard, that we went months without having to admit any kids with asthma to the hospital, and in the last few weeks we’ve had quite a few admissions.

So what’s your public health message then at this point? What do you say to parents?

It’s reasonable to think of this outbreak in most respects as being like a sort of a nastier flu season. The timing is different from the flu season but in terms of how it manifests itself, it’s pretty similar to a severe flu. Remember that the flu and this virus — like any infectious agent — have a spectrum of severity. So even though this one is on average more severe, there are still lots of people who will get just a regular old cold. And there are some people who will get kind of a nasty cold. And there are some people who will get more severe things, including asthma-like illness in people who don’t have pre-existing asthma or an exacerbation of underlying asthma in people who do.

So are there telltale symptoms to watch for? Continue reading

School Lockdown Calculus: The Line Between Preparedness And Trauma

(Cory Doctorow/flickr)

(Cory Doctorow/flickr)

By Dr. Steven Schlozman
Guest Contributor

“If there’s a lockdown and they tell me to go under the table, and there’s a window open next to my desk, I’m going out that window. There’s no way I’m sticking around.”

That’s what a 14-year-old boy recently told me after he was reminded again that with the start of the school year comes as well the now increasingly familiar “lockdown” drill protocols.

Not very long ago, you’d probably have to ask kids what “lockdown drill” meant. Now, however, most kids recognize the term as routine. There’s recess, lunch-time, fire drills and lockdowns. Since the beginning of this school year alone, there have been more than 10 actual school lockdowns across our nation. One, as recently as this week, in New York. Importantly, none of these incidents featured the horrible images that come to mind when we picture nightmares like Sandy Hook or Columbine. A child might think she’s seen a gun in the school, or neighbors nearby might brandish shotguns in the midst of suburban altercations.

In all cases, schools aren’t taking any chances. The lockdown is quickly enacted and, school officials are quick to note, no one gets hurt.

But at what cost? Is there a psychological risk to what has now become routine practice? It’s time that we examine the lockdown and all its potential repercussions.

As a child psychiatrist, I worry a lot about these drills. Schools regularly ask for advice from mental health professionals on these matters, and parents often reach out and ask, understandably, what we ought to do in the setting of the still enormously rare and, at the same time, increasing and enormously traumatic spate of school shootings. The implementation of the mandatory lock down drill at our nation’s schools represents an awful lot of energy and resources and a potentially significant threat to the psychological well-being of our students in preparation for something that still thankfully hardly every happens.

Here are the facts:

•School shootings are horrific.

•School shootings are extremely rare.

•School shootings are increasing (at least according to this FBI analysis).

•Given how rare these events are, one can accurately say that school shootings are in fact increasing at a steady clip.

In other words, if we go hypothetically from one event to four events per year, that’s a fourfold increase even though the overall number of schools without incidents still massively dwarfs the schools that have had to endure a shooter.

•Every parent and every teacher worries about these events.

•Kids, it turns out, seems to worry less about these shootings than do adults.

•Some kids, however, are significantly frightened by these drills. Continue reading

Meditation ‘Overrated’? Not So Fast.

(RelaxingMusic/Flickr via Compfight)

(RelaxingMusic/Flickr via Compfight)

My doctor recently suggested I stop multi-tasking. Focus on one thing at a time, she said: our brains aren’t wired to take on the kind of intense juggling — from chauffeuring to food prep, extracurricular logistics, work strategies, worry over aging parents, anxiety about climate change — that many of us attempt (with varying degrees of success) every day.

For me, meditation and yoga offer a lifeline: a quiet sanctuary where focusing on one thing is the only thing required.

So I was slightly annoyed by the headline of a recent Scientific American story: “Is Meditation Overrated?”

The premise of the piece is this: Many people report that meditation improves their mood and relieves various symptoms of chronic stress and other health problems, BUT the data on this isn’t terribly robust. So, the story continues, “Johns Hopkins University researchers carefully reviewed published clinical trials and found that although meditation seems to provide modest relief for anxiety, depression and pain, more high-quality work is needed before the effect of meditation on other ailments can be judged.”

So shouldn’t the headline be: “Meditation Relieves Some Modern Woes; More Research Needed To Conclusively Prove Further Benefits?”

Or, my own personal headline: “Meditation Helps Me Scream At My Kids Less And Not Attack My Husband When There’s Yet Another Wet Towel On The Bed.” (See also, a new study, entitled: “I Am A Nice Person When I Do Yoga!!!)Continue reading

Understanding Aster: How Singing And Dancing Help Heal A Child’s Trauma

For the past four years, I’ve been involved with a local nonprofit, the North Cambridge Family Opera, which stages original productions featuring cast members age 7 to grandma, and with a range of abilities. In 2011, I wrote about how performing in the group’s opera helped children with autism. This year, I was struck by the story of how music helps heal the past trauma of one young cast member, 8-year-old Aster, adopted from Ethiopia after her birth parents died. I asked Aster’s mother to write a bit about their experience. Here’s her post:

By Marina Vyrros
Guest contributor

In the mid 1990s, I worked as a refugee aide in the Guatemalan rainforest.

Many people in that community — having fled horrific atrocities, like their villages being razed or worse — were suffering from post-traumatic stress.

Atrocities notwithstanding, a contingent of ranchero musicians somehow managed to lug homemade, oversized guitars to the camps and play music each night, often in the 100-degree heat.

While the NGO’s provided a valuable service — helping the people rebuild their external structures — the service that the ranchers provided, though perhaps less tangible, was invaluable. Their nightly gatherings, singing songs about their plight, helped the community to rebuild and heal internally.

Four years ago, when I adopted an almost 4-year old child from Ethiopia (who continues to recover from the trauma of having lost both birth parents during her formative, early childhood years) the lesson of the power of music was not lost on me.

Claudia M. Gold, a pediatrician, blogger and author of “Keeping Your Child in Mind: Overcoming Defiance, Tantrums, and Other Everyday Behavior Problems by Seeing the World Through Your Child’s Eyes,” explains what may be going on in my daughter’s brain:

“Severe meltdowns are common in children who have experienced early trauma, at the time when the higher cortical centers of the brain were not yet fully developed. Stress of a seemingly minor nature can lead the rational brain to in a sense go ‘off-line.’ The child will have access only to the lower brain centers that function more instinctively.”

Especially during her first few years in Cambridge, Aster’s meltdowns were epic, but music and dance have consistently provided the most important vehicle to help her regulate her emotions.

Before, she might bang on the walls, now, to relieve her frustration, she pounds on a djembe, an African drum, in an afterschool program; instead of crying over seemingly inconsequential things, now, to release her emotions she invents and belts out Whitney Houston-y type songs, tears streaming down her face. To release her energy — which is abundant — she dances around. Everywhere. It all helps.

Recently, over the past five months, Aster’s been singing, dancing and even acting with the North Cambridge Family Opera based in Cambridge. In this year’s production, “Rain Dance,” she and the other animals living on the South African savannah elect a Machiavellian lion in a desperate attempt to end the local drought. Trouble ensues.

All kinds of research suggests that music can minimize the symptoms of post traumatic stress and other types of trauma. A 2011 study found that guitar-playing can help veterans with PTSD drown out the traumatic memories of bombs blasting; and in 2008 researchers found some reduction of post-traumatic stress symptoms following drumming, in particular “an increased sense of openness, togetherness, belonging, sharing, closeness, connectedness and intimacy, as well as achieving a non-intimidating access to traumatic memories, facilitating an outlet for rage and regaining a sense of self-control.”

Dr. Ross Greene, author of “The Explosive Child” writes that “children with behavioral issues don’t lack the will, they lack the skills.” Continue reading

Study: Meditation Relieves Some Anxiety, Depression Beyond Placebo

papermoons/flickr

papermoons/flickr

We’ve all been there: feeling low, overwhelmed, anxious, or just majorly bummed out about the freezing cold, the dead-end job, the noncompliant spouse, whatever, and we dream of a pill — a quick fix — to put an end to all that negative muck.

Of course, pills have side effects, and don’t always work. But it turns out there’s something that may be more effective with no downside, though it takes a bit of effort: meditation for about 30 minutes a day.

A new analysis by researchers at Johns Hopkins find that just a half-hour of “mindfulness meditation” may improve some of these garden variety, not yet full-blown, symptoms of anxiety and depression. The findings, published online in JAMA Internal Medicine, also found that some pain symptoms can also be relieved through a consistent meditation practice.

This should not come as breaking news. Many studies over many years link meditation to all kinds of health improvements. But I think it’s worth restating, since meditation is still viewed as a crunchy, ineffective practice by so many — including those in the medical mainstream.

Here’s lead study author Dr. Madhav Goyal, assistant professor in the Division of General Internal Medicine at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, quoted in the news release:

“A lot of people use meditation, but it’s not a practice considered part of mainstream medical therapy for anything,” says Goyal, M.D. M.P.H. “But in our study, meditation appeared to provide as much relief from some anxiety and depression symptoms as what other studies have found from antidepressants.” Continue reading

High Anxiety: How I (Sort Of) Overcame My Fear Of Flying

Screen shot 2013-08-01 at 9.39.48 AM

Imagine this tense scene at Logan International Airport’s Terminal E earlier this summer:

A woman with two young children rummages through her medication bag while awaiting an overnight flight to Europe. She pulls out a bottle of pills, then grabs her phone to text her therapist:

Woman: How early can I take half a Xanax? Flight at 8:20. Getting shaky.

Therapist’s response: You can take it now. You can do this!!!!

The scene, sadly, is all too real; that frantic woman is me.

I hate flying. Just writing the word ‘flying’ gives me a pang of dread, twinges of imminent diarrhea and the feeling that I might choke on my own fear.

I’m like Woody Allen on the plane in “To Rome With Love,” a death-grip on Judy Davis’ arm when turbulence hits. “I can’t unclench when there’s turbulence,” he says. “I don’t like this, the plane is bumpy, it’s bumpy… I don’t like when the plane does that… I get a bad feeling.”

In my case, to avoid this excruciating feeling, I have cancelled family trips at the last minute, pretended to be ill, and dragged my children on a 30-hour train ride from Boston to Orlando.

This summer, I’d finally had enough of my fear and its invasive grip on my life. But could I overcome it? I honestly wasn’t sure.

(Before I go on, let me say clearly that mine is definitely a “first-world problem.” There’s no poverty, abuse or major life-threatening illness going on here — just a “problem bred of privilege,” as one friend put it. Still, it’s fairly widespread, and worse since 9/11. Though precise prevalence numbers don’t exist, a 2008 study published in the Journal of Anxiety Disorders says fear of flying is “estimated to affect 25 million adults in the United States and nearly 10–40% of the adults in industrialized countries.” Similarly, a 2007 New York Times report quotes an NIH estimate that about 6.5 percent of Americans fear flying so intensely that it qualifies as a phobia or anxiety disorder.)

woowoowoo/flickr

woowoowoo/flickr

Russian Planes With Duct Tape

It wasn’t always this way for me. As a single, childless reporter, I flew all over: to Africa and Vietnam, to Cuba on a Russian-made plane lined with duct tape and in China on a domestic flight on which the pilot told everyone to move to the left side of the plane for “balance.” I flew in tiny, private planes across Washington state in bad weather, and to Provincetown on a little 9-seater.

Then, while walking to work across the Brooklyn Bridge on September 11, 2001, I saw the second plane hit the World Trade Center.  A year later, when I was pregnant with my first child, my flying anxiety suddenly took hold.  When the baby was six months old, I rescheduled a family trip abroad to avoid heavy rain. After that, for the next 10 years, I never took a flight more than three hours long.

I said “no” to weddings, work trips and excursions with my husband to romantic locales. I always had a good excuse not to travel, but in reality, avoiding these trips was all about my fear.

Flying Coffins And Familial Anxiety

There are likely genetics at play here: anxiety is a family trait, and several of us have suffered with flying fears. Years ago, a close relative freaked out on a flight from D.C. to San Francisco and, after a scheduled layover in the midwest, refused to get back on the plane. Instead, he took a train home. For a while, my father called planes “flying coffins,” and took a heavy dose of Klonapin, usually prescribed for seizures and panic attacks, before flights. Continue reading