While some are more prone to bouts of anxiety and stress than others, we’re all familiar with what it’s like to feel particularly nervous or frantic. It’s not a whole lot of fun, to say the least, but many people have accepted the inconvenient fact that anxiety is simply a part of their lives.
If you find yourself constantly dealing with intrusive anxiety, and have yet to find an effective coping method, researchers from Yale University have a suggestion: safety signals.
The research team, which also included scientists from Weill Cornell Medicine, says that a safety signal can be any type of symbol, object, or sound that has never been associated with negativity or a bad situation in general.
“A safety signal could be a musical piece, a person, or even an item like a stuffed animal that represents the absence of threat,” explains co-first study author Paola Odriozola, a Yale Ph.D. candidate, in a press release.
Some curb their anxiety through the use of prescription medication, while others are able to subdue their stress via therapy. These avenues are not universal solutions, however, and it’s estimated that antidepressants and behavioral therapy only help about half the people who struggle with anxiety each day.
The use of safety signals may prove especially useful for those who have found therapy unhelpful. According to the study’s authors, these calming cues soothe the mind through a completely different brain network than a typical session of behavioral therapy.
For reference, behavioral therapy is usually centered on having the patient face their fears, so to speak, and confront the topic or activity that is causing them anxiety. For example, people with an irrational fear of insects are often instructed to hold a bug in their hands during behavioral therapy. After a certain amount of time, the idea is that the patient will realize they have nothing to fear from a small insect.
Behavioral therapy undoubtedly helps many people conquer their irrational fears and anxiety, but others never achieve the intended effect. Therapists, doctors, and scientists alike have often wondered why therapy doesn’t help everyone, and now this study appears to be offering an explanation. Therapy just isn’t tackling the problem from the right perspective and isn’t stimulating the brain in the right way for certain people.
“Exposure-based therapy relies on fear extinction, and although a safety memory is formed during therapy, it is always competing with the previous threat memory,” comments co-senior author Dylan Gee, assistant professor of psychology at Yale. “This competition makes current therapies subject to the relapse of fear — but there is never a threat memory associated with safety signals.”
The experimental portion of the study was conducted with both human subjects and mice. To start, the human participants were conditioned to associate one shape as threatening and anxiety-inducing and another shape with more mild, non-threatening outcomes. For the mice, sounds were used instead of shapes.
Next, only the threatening stimulus was presented to participants, followed by a combination of both the scary and neutral shapes or sounds. Interestingly, in both humans and mice, adding the non-threatening stimulus to the situation helped the participants calm down and exhibit less fear in comparison to when they were only shown the threatening “symbol.”
While all of this was happening, the subjects were also having their brain activity tracked. The subsequent readings showed that the safety signal strategy activated a completely different neural network in humans and mice than behavioral therapy. These results make a strong argument that finding a personal safety signal may prove much more useful than therapy for certain people struggling with irrational and frequent anxiety. For others, safety signals may serve as a great supplemental strategy in combination with more traditional methods like therapy or prescription medication.
Culturally, we’ve all become a bit more open to discussing mental health problems like anxiety without the stigmatization that such topics used to carry in decades past. Safety signals may seem far-fetched to some upon first consideration, but if these personalized items or songs are indeed effective at relieving debilitating anxiety, they should be embraced and accepted in all corners of society.
“Both cognitive behavioral therapy and antidepressants can be highly effective, but a substantial part of the population does not benefit sufficiently, or the benefits they experience don’t hold up in the longer term,” Gee concludes.
The study can be found here, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.