In the United States, anxiety disorders affect 40 million adults age 18 and older, or 18.1 percent of the population every year. The diagnosis is the most common mental illness in the U.S.
Sadly, less than 37 percent of people with anxiety receive treatment.
For example, some individuals panic upon boarding an aircraft, others find it impossible to enter a room with a spider on the wall and again others prefer the staircase over the elevator — even to get to the 10th floor — because riding in elevators elevates their heart rate.
Therefore, what sounds like funny quirks is often debilitating for the sufferers. Sometimes their anxiety can affect them to a point that they are unable to follow a normal daily routine.
Care for the disorder has improved significantly with the introduction of cognitive behavioral therapy and the technique of deliberately exposing anxiety patients to the situations they feel threatened by — under the individual psychological supervision of an expert.
However, CBT appears to help some more than others.
A new German study led by Professor Martin J. Herrmann, a psychologist at the Center of Mental Health of the Würzburg University Hospital, explored strategies to improve patients’ response to cognitive behavioral therapy.
One supplemental method was the use of transcranial magnetic stimulation. During transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), a magnetic coil is placed near the head of the person receiving the treatment.
The coil produces a rapidly changing magnetic field which sends magnetic pulses through the cranium into the brain. There it triggers an action potential in the neurons and the neuron transmits an impulse.
Although the technique has been around only for a few decades, it is routinely used in research and diagnostics. “We knew from previous studies that a specific region in the frontal lobe of the human brain is important for unlearning anxiety,” Herrmann said.
He said initial studies have shown that magnetically stimulating this brain region can improve the effectiveness of unlearning anxiety responses in the laboratory.
In the recently published study, the team investigated whether the technique would help to relieve anxiety associated with a fear of heights.
Researchers studied 39 participants with a pronounced fear of heights. Virtual reality was used to take the participants to dizzying heights during two sessions. “The people feel actual fear also in a virtual reality, although they know that they are not really in a dangerous situation,” Herrmann said.
The scientists stimulated the frontal lobe of some of the anxiety patients for about 20 minutes before entering the virtual world; the other group was only administered a pseudo stimulation.
“The findings demonstrate that all participants benefit considerably from the therapy in virtual reality and the positive effects of the intervention are still clearly visible even after three months,” Herrmann said.
What is more, by stimulating the frontal lobe, the therapy response was accelerated.
Next, the researchers want to study whether this method is also suitable to treat other forms of anxiety by conducting a further virtual reality therapy study for arachnophobic (fear of spiders) patients.
Source: University of Würzburg /EurekAlert
Photo: People suffering from a fear of heights experience the anxiety also in virtual reality — even though they are aware that they are not really in a dangerous situation. Credit: VTPlus.