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Dealing with Stress, Anxiety, and Grief during COVID-19

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Zoom conversation between Joshua Gordon and Francis Collins

If somebody had told you last year that that our country, along with the whole world, would soon be facing a major health challenge like the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic, you’d have thought it almost unimaginable. Yet here we are.

To help flatten the pandemic’s deadly curve, a great many of us have been asked to remain at home. I have been faithfully adhering to that recommendation—I haven’t been to my office or lab at NIH in almost three weeks, though I can’t remember a time where I have worked harder. While helping to protect ourselves and others, this physical distancing can affect our mental well-being.

Recently, I had an opportunity to discuss these aspects of COVID-19 with Dr. Joshua Gordon, Director of NIH’s National Institute of Mental Health. Our conversation took place via videoconferencing, with him linking in from his home in the New York area and me from my home in Maryland. Here’s a condensed transcript of our chat:

Collins: So, Josh, tell me how you’re doing there. How’s everybody coping?

Gordon: Right now, my family and I are doing fine. My daughter and I are ensconced here at home, both working from home. She’s finishing up high school online and my wife works for New York City. She’s an essential employee, so she’s still going into work but, fortunately, she’s able to make sure that her workspace is very sparse and she’s able to commute by herself.

Collins: I’m glad you’re okay. Exactly how do you name this kind of stress that everybody’s feeling right now? Is it fear? Is it anxiety about being put in such an area of uncertainty? Is it just grief, the sense that something really profound has happened here and we are losing things in terms of our ability to move around freely? Certainly, we also grieve deeply about the suffering and the death that we see.

Gordon: For different people, it’s different combinations. I know that I feel anxiety for myself and my family in terms of our health. But it’s not just anxiety about contracting the coronavirus, it’s also fear and anxiety about what’s happening to society, what’s happening to our economy, what’s happening to our friends and relatives.

And then there is tremendous grief. We’ve acknowledged that we’ve all lost something already. Right? We’ve lost our normal day-to-day interactions. We’ve lost our ability to physically connect with people and it makes it more challenging to socially connect with people. And we’ve lost that sense of certainty and self-power.

Collins: Talking to my wife Diane about this, I think the grief part of it was something we were both feeling, but hadn’t quite named. Somehow being able to talk about it, experience it, and not try to run away from it turned out to be helpful.

Gordon: Yes, it’s important to talk about it. For most people, it’s a matter of being able to talk about your feelings, get it out into the open, and hear from others that are going through the same thing. They’re your friends that you’re Zooming with, they’re your parents or grandparents that you’re talking to on the phone.

Collins: I hope everybody will feel a little more free to be honest about what they are going through. Maybe sometimes we try to just be tough and keep it all to ourselves and don’t want others around us to be influenced, if we’re talking about our own emotions. But we need to share those things. Besides that, what other things, can be helpful to people who are trying to cope with the current circumstances?

Gordon: One important thing is to focus on the facts. There’s a lot of rumor, there’s a lot of hyperbole out there, and there’s a lot of, frankly, uncertainty. But to the extent that you can, learn and share the facts about the virus. If you know what’s happening, it reduces the uncertainty.

At the same time, one can get so taken up with reading the daily news, listening to the various news conferences that are going on, checking the websites, etc., that it becomes all-consuming. So, it’s really important to set aside periods of each day where you turn off social media, you turn off the TV, turn off the news, and do something that you enjoy. It could be art, it could be exercise, it could be picking up the phone and talking to someone about something other than COVID.

The other thing that’s really important is to take care of your body in addition to your mind. Taking care of your body can help your mind do better. So, yoga, exercise, resting, naps, regular meals, all these things can be helpful. Alcohol is often used as an escape mechanism when you’re feeling stressed. That can be a little tricky or dangerous, so try to avoid drinking excessively.

Connecting with others is really important in this day of physical distancing. I like to call it physical distancing, rather than social distancing, because I think we can be socially intimate and physically distant. So, connect with others, reach out to people, use digital tools, use telephones, use email and text, write a letter.

Collins: A letter?

Gordon: Yes, why not? I haven’t gotten mail for three days. Just saying. So, write a letter, connect with people that you can unwind with, that you can get joy from.

Collins: My wife Diane just stepped in and I want to have her to come over for a minute and say something about this, because I think part of the grief we were feeling was this disconnection from face-to-face interactions with people. Diane’s a very sociable person and this is particularly hard when you’re so isolated in one place. But she came up with something yesterday that seemed to be a help.

Diane Baker: Yes. I’ve got to say, the shelter in place order here in Maryland just surprised me. It took me down a couple of notches and I can’t say it was warranted, I was like I can’t take this. Even though it’s what we’ve been doing, it just emotionally really got to me. And so a friend came up with this idea. She went for a walk in her neighborhood, I went for a walk in my neighborhood, we pulled our phones out and we had a conversation. Even though it was cold rainy day, we didn’t mind it because we were talking to each other. So, we’re going to try and do that on a regular basis.

Gordon: You’re right, your social connectedness really helps. Like I can reach out to my parents in North Carolina, I can reach out to my brother in Philadelphia. We’ve had almost nightly Zoom get-togethers and I actually feel like I’m seeing my relatives more these last couple of weeks than I have in months.

Collins: That’s interesting. We’ve done that too. Every Sunday now we have a Zoom meeting with my daughters and my grandkids.

Diane Baker: The other thing I think it’s done is forced us to be more intentional about our communication. I think that’s something we take for granted. For instance, I have this book club I’ve been a part of for a long time, but we always talk books and politics and topical issues. Now, I’m starting to reach out to them on email and say, “Hey, I’m having a real tough time,” and we’re supporting each other in a way that we haven’t before. It’s been very nice. I’ll let you guys go on..

Gordon: Nice to see you, Diane.

Collins: I think we all feel this urge to do something, to try to contribute in some way. In many ways, we feel a little paralyzed by the fact that we’re stuck indoors and all of the things you might like to do might be risky for yourself or other people. What can we do as far as actions to help other people?

Gordon: Those of you who are working directly on COVID can take a lot of pride in the fact that you’re contributing to that mission. But everyone is contributing to that mission by staying home. I would add a more practical bent to all this, which is that it is important to set goals and priorities for yourself. Finally, there are volunteer opportunities that can be done remotely. There are donations that are being accepted. So, I encourage you, if you feel so moved and have the means to do so, contribute in that way.

Collins: Parents are worried about their kids in terms of how this is affecting them. So, what kind of advice can you give to parents about how to interact with children in this very unusual situation?

Gordon: Kids are, I’m sure, feeling anxious. First, recognize what they’re going through. Talk to them about it, find out what’s concerning them.

Kids always surprise you. They’re not necessarily anxious or worried about the things that you’re anxious or worried about. They might be worried about getting COVID, but they might also just be worried that they’re going to miss their best friend’s birthday next week. So, if you find out what’s bothering them, then you can help them. You can have them Zoom a happy birthday song or connect in some other way.

Reassuring them can help. But, more importantly, it’s just answering their questions as honestly as you can. When you don’t know, admit that you don’t, but say that you’ll be there for them.

Collins: Everybody is facing a certain amount of stress, anxiety, and grief at this time, but it hits some people even harder. What would be the signs that this is getting into a circumstance that might require some additional help?

Gordon: Let’s talk about how we recognize when this might be a thing that we can’t deal with and that is sending us over the edge. I went out grocery shopping last Friday. I managed to find a mask to wear and gloves, but I actually couldn’t take it. I was so anxious. I bought a few things and I had to leave. I felt in me something I’ve really never felt before. My heart started racing, I started breathing fast. I was getting a panic attack. That was something pushing me over the edge in ways that I hadn’t been challenged before.

If that happens to you, recognize it and seek help. So, what are the signs? We’re all feeling anxious, but if you feel so anxious you can’t get your work done, you actually can’t do the thing that you set out to do, reach out for help either from a friend or from a professional. Other signs would be you’re starting to withdraw from people, having trouble sleeping, change in appetite, change in physical energy levels, or starting to become irritable or angry.

For those with pre-existing mental illnesses, it’s really important that they reach out to their providers and find ways of connecting. Every mental health provider that I know of right now is moving to telehealth sessions. Not everyone is used to teleconferences, not everyone knows how to use them. So, plan in advance with your provider how you’re going to contact with them so that you can get the help you need when you need it. Make sure that you have enough medication in-house and work out with your pharmacy how you can get it delivered rather than having to go pick it up, whether that’s from a mail order pharmacy or getting your local pharmacy to deliver to you.

Finally, there are hot lines. For those experiencing distress with the COVID epidemic, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Service Administration has the Disaster Distress Helpline. That’s 800-985-5990 or text “TalkWithUs” to 66746. For those who are really struggling, and are thinking of hurting or killing themselves, there’s the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255 or you can text “HOME” to the Crisis Text Line at 741741.

Collins: Before we close, I’d like to talk about how, despite the stress, the anxiety, and the grief that we’re all feeling, we might somehow learn something pretty significant about ourselves during this pandemic. Can you say something about that?

Gordon: One thing we know is that resilience isn’t necessarily about something you already have. It’s something that you learn, that people who’ve been through challenging times and risen to the occasion, they learn from that. They become resilient. They learn how to get through challenging situations in the future.

For many of us, this is an opportunity to learn more about ourselves and how we can grow as people, as human beings, and as fathers and mothers and daughters and sons. This is an opportunity to prove that we can respond to an emergency like this in a way that is thoughtful, in a way that is caring, and in a way that contributes to improving the situation for all of us

Collins: It does call us, doesn’t it, to focus on things that in our daily rush of business as usual, we neglect to think about. What are we really here for? What’s the meaning of all of this? What is our responsibility to try to make the world a better place?

I’d predict that all of us who are living through this COVID-19 experience will look back on it as a time of special significance in terms of what we learned about ourselves and about the perspective of what really matters in this world. So, yes, it’s stressful, it’s full of grief and sorrow, but maybe it’s a way in which you can gain something to carry forward. Josh, thank you so much.

Resources:

The Disaster Distress Helpline, 1-800-985-5990 (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration)

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, 1-800-273-8255

Crisis Text Line, 741741

Coping with Coronavirus: Managing Stress, Fear, and Anxiety, Director’s Messages (National Institute of Mental Health/NIH)

Stress and Coping, Coronavirus (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)

Coronavirus (COVID-19) (NIH)


Discovering a Source of Laughter in the Brain

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cingulum bundle
Illustration showing how an electrode was inserted into the cingulum bundle. Courtesy of American Society for Clinical Investigation

If laughter really is the best medicine, wouldn’t it be great if we could learn more about what goes on in the brain when we laugh? Neuroscientists recently made some major progress on this front by pinpointing a part of the brain that, when stimulated, never fails to induce smiles and laughter.

In their study conducted in three patients undergoing electrical stimulation brain mapping as part of epilepsy treatment, the NIH-funded team found that stimulation of a specific tract of neural fibers, called the cingulum bundle, triggered laughter, smiles, and a sense of calm. Not only do the findings shed new light on the biology of laughter, researchers hope they may also lead to new strategies for treating a range of conditions, including anxiety, depression, and chronic pain.

In people with epilepsy whose seizures are poorly controlled with medication, surgery to remove seizure-inducing brain tissue sometimes helps. People awaiting such surgeries must first undergo a procedure known as intracranial electroencephalography (iEEG). This involves temporarily placing 10 to 20 arrays of tiny electrodes in the brain for up to several weeks, in order to pinpoint the source of a patient’s seizures in the brain. With the patient’s permission, those electrodes can also enable physician-researchers to stimulate various regions of the patient’s brain to map their functions and make potentially new and unexpected discoveries.

In the new study, published in The Journal of Clinical Investigation, Jon T. Willie, Kelly Bijanki, and their colleagues at Emory University School of Medicine, Atlanta, looked at a 23-year-old undergoing iEEG for 8 weeks in preparation for surgery to treat her uncontrolled epilepsy [1]. One of the electrodes implanted in her brain was located within the cingulum bundle and, when that area was stimulated for research purposes, the woman experienced an uncontrollable urge to laugh. Not only was the woman given to smiles and giggles, she also reported feeling relaxed and calm.

As a further and more objective test of her mood, the researchers asked the woman to interpret the expression of faces on a computer screen as happy, sad, or neutral. Electrical stimulation to the cingulum bundle led her to see those faces as happier, a sign of a generally more positive mood. A full evaluation of her mental state also showed she was fully aware and alert.

To confirm the findings, the researchers looked to two other patients, a 40-year-old man and a 28-year-old woman, both undergoing iEEG in the course of epilepsy treatment. In those two volunteers, stimulation of the cingulum bundle also triggered laughter and reduced anxiety with otherwise normal cognition.

Willie notes that the cingulum bundle links many brain areas together. He likens it to a super highway with lots of on and off ramps. He suspects the spot they’ve uncovered lies at a key intersection, providing access to various brain networks regulating mood, emotion, and social interaction.

Previous research has shown that stimulation of other parts of the brain can also prompt patients to laugh. However, what makes stimulation of the cingulum bundle a particularly promising approach is that it not only triggers laughter, but also reduces anxiety.

The new findings suggest that stimulation of the cingulum bundle may be useful for calming patients’ anxieties during neurosurgeries in which they must remain awake. In fact, Willie’s team did so during their 23-year-old woman’s subsequent epilepsy surgery. Each time she became distressed, the stimulation provided immediate relief. Also, if traditional deep brain stimulation or less invasive means of brain stimulation can be developed and found to be safe for long-term use, they may offer new ways to treat depression, anxiety disorders, and/or chronic pain.

Meanwhile, Willie’s team is hard at work using similar approaches to map brain areas involved in other aspects of mood, including fear, sadness, and anxiety. Together with the multidisciplinary work being mounted by the NIH-led BRAIN Initiative, these kinds of studies promise to reveal functionalities of the human brain that have previously been out of reach, with profound consequences for neuroscience and human medicine.

Reference:

[1] Cingulum stimulation enhances positive affect and anxiolysis to facilitate awake craniotomy. Bijanki KR, Manns JR, Inman CS, Choi KS, Harati S, Pedersen NP, Drane DL, Waters AC, Fasano RE, Mayberg HS, Willie JT. J Clin Invest. 2018 Dec 27.

Links:

Video: Patient’s Response (Bijanki et al. The Journal of Clinical Investigation)

Epilepsy Information Page (National Institute of Neurological Disease and Stroke/NIH)

Jon T. Willie (Emory University, Atlanta, GA)

NIH Support: National Institute of Neurological Disease and Stroke; National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences


Connecting Senescent Cells to Obesity and Anxiety

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Graphical Abstract
Adapted from Ogrodnik et al., 2019, Cell Metabolism.

Obesity—which affects about 4 in 10 U.S. adults—increases the risk for lots of human health problems: diabetes, heart disease, certain cancers, and even anxiety and depression [1]. It’s also been associated with increased accumulation of senescent cells, which are older cells that resist death even as they lose the ability to grow and divide.

Now, NIH-funded researchers have found that when lean mice are fed a high-fat diet that makes them obese, they also have more senescent cells in their brain and show more anxious behaviors [2]. The researchers could reduce this obesity-driven anxiety using so-called senolytic drugs that cleared away the senescent cells. These findings are among the first to provide proof-of-concept that senolytics may offer a new avenue for treating an array of neuropsychiatric disorders, in addition to many other chronic conditions.

As we age, senescent cells accumulate in many parts of the body [3]. But cells can also enter a senescent state at any point in life in response to major stresses, such as DNA damage or chronic infection. Studies suggest that having lots of senescent cells around, especially later in life, is associated with a wide variety of chronic conditions, including osteoporosis, osteoarthritis, vascular disease, and general frailty.

Senescent cells display a “zombie”-like behavior known as a senescence-associated secretory phenotype (SASP). In this death-defying, zombie-like state, the cells ramp up their release of proteins, bioactive lipids, DNA, and other factors that, like a zombie virus, induce nearby healthy cells to join in the dysfunction.

In fact, the team behind this latest study, led by James Kirkland, Mayo Clinic, Rochester, MN, recently showed that transplanting small numbers of senescent cells into young mice is enough to cause them weakness, frailty, and persistent health problems. Those ill effects were alleviated with a senolytic cocktail, including dasatinib (a leukemia drug) and quercetin (a plant compound). This drug cocktail overrode the zombie-like SASP phenotype and forced the senescent cells to undergo programmed cell death and finally die.

Previous research indicates that senescent cells also accumulate in obesity, and not just in adipose tissues. Moreover, recent studies have linked senescent cells in the brain to neurodegenerative conditions, including Alzheimer’s disease, and showed in mice that dasatinib and quercetin helps to alleviate neurodegenerative disease [4,5]. In the latest paper, published in the journal Cell Metabolism, Kirkland and colleagues asked whether senescent cells in the brain also could explain anxiety-like behavior in obesity.

The answer appears to be “yes.” The researchers showed that lean mice, if allowed to feast on a high-fat diet, grew obese and became more anxious about exploring open spaces and elevated mazes.

The researchers also found that the obese mice had an increase in senescent cells in the white matter near the lateral ventricle, a part of the brain that offers a pathway for cerebrospinal fluid. Those senescent cells also contained an excessive amount of fat. Could senolytic drugs clear those cells and make the obesity-related anxiety go away?

To find out, the researchers treated lean and obese mice with a senolytic drug for 10 weeks. The treatment didn’t lead to any changes in body weight. But, as senescent cells were cleared from their brains, the obese mice showed a significant reduction in their anxiety-related behavior. They lost their anxiety without losing the weight!

More preclinical study is needed to understand more precisely how the treatment works. But, it’s worth noting that clinical trials testing a variety of senolytic drugs are already underway for many conditions associated with senescent cells, including chronic kidney disease [6,7], frailty [8], and premature aging associated with bone marrow transplant [9].

As a matter of fact, just after the Cell Metabolism paper came out, Kirkland’s team published encouraging though preliminary, first-in-human results of the previously mentioned senolytic drug dasatinib in 14 people with age-related idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, a condition in which lung tissue becomes damaged and scarred [10]. Caution is warranted as we learn more about the associated risks and benefits, but it’s safe to say we’ll be hearing a lot more about senolytics in the years ahead.

References:

[1] Adult obesity facts (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)

[2] Obesity-induced cellular senescence drives anxiety and impairs neurogenesis. Ogrodnik M et al. Cell Metabolism. 2019 Jan 3.

[3] Aging, Cell Senescence, and Chronic Disease: Emerging Therapeutic Strategies. Tchkonia T, Kirkland JL. JAMA. 2018 Oct 2;320(13):1319-1320.

[4] Tau protein aggregation is associated with cellular senescence in the brain. Musi N, Valentine JM, Sickora KR, Baeuerle E, Thompson CS, Shen Q, Orr ME. Aging Cell. 2018 Dec;17(6):e12840.

[5] Clearance of senescent glial cells prevents tau-dependent pathology and cognitive decline. Bussian TJ, Aziz A, Meyer CF, Swenson BL, van Deursen JM, Baker DJ. Nature. 2018 Oct;562(7728):578-582.

[6] Inflammation and Stem Cells in Diabetic and Chronic Kidney Disease. ClinicalTrials.gov, Sep 2018.

[7] Senescence in Chronic Kidney Disease. Clinicaltrials.gov, Sep 2018.

[8] Alleviation by Fisetin of Frailty, Inflammation, and Related Measures in Older Adults (AFFIRM-LITE). Clinicaltrials.gov, Dec 2018.

[9] Hematopoietic Stem Cell Transplant Survivors Study (HTSS Study). Clinicaltrials.gov, Sep 2018.

[10] Senolytics in idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis: Results from a first-in-human, open-label, pilot study. Justice JN, Nambiar AN, Tchkonia T, LeBrasseur K, Pascual R, Hashmi SK, Prata L, Masternak MM, Kritchevsky SB, Musi N, Kirkland JL. EBioMed. 5 Jan. 2019. [Epub ahead of print]

Links:

Healthy Aging (National Institute on Aging/NIH)

Video: Vail Scientific Summit James Kirkland Interview (Youtube)

James Kirkland (Mayo Clinic, Rochester, MN)

NIH Support: National Institute on Aging; National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke


Distinctive Brain ‘Subnetwork’ Tied to Feeling Blue

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Woman looking distressed

Credit: :iStock/kieferpix

Experiencing a range of emotions is a normal part of human life, but much remains to be discovered about the neuroscience of mood. In a step toward unraveling some of those biological mysteries, researchers recently identified a distinctive pattern of brain activity associated with worsening mood, particularly among people who tend to be anxious.

In the new study, researchers studied 21 people who were hospitalized as part of preparation for epilepsy surgery,  and took continuous recordings of the brain’s electrical activity for seven to 10 days. During that same period, the volunteers also kept track of their moods. In 13 of the participants, low mood turned out to be associated with stronger activity in a “subnetwork” that involved crosstalk between the brain’s amygdala, which mediates fear and other emotions, and the hippocampus, which aids in memory.


Measuring Brain Chemistry

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Anne Andrews

Anne Andrews
Credit: From the American Chemical Society’s “Personal Stories of Discovery”

Serotonin is one of the chemical messengers that nerve cells in the brain use to communicate. Modifying serotonin levels is one way that antidepressant and anti-anxiety medications are thought to work and help people feel better. But the precise nature of serotonin’s role in the brain is largely unknown.

That’s why Anne Andrews set out in the mid-1990s as a fellow at NIH’s National Institute of Mental Health to explore changes in serotonin levels in the brains of anxious mice. But she quickly realized it wasn’t possible. The tools available for measuring serotonin—and most other neurochemicals in the brain—couldn’t offer the needed precision to conduct her studies.

Instead of giving up, Andrews did something about it. In the late 1990s, she began formulating an idea for a neural probe to make direct and precise measurements of brain chemistry. Her progress was initially slow, partly because the probe she envisioned was technologically ahead of its time. Now at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) more than 15 years later, she’s nearly there. Buoyed by recent scientific breakthroughs, the right team to get the job done, and the support of a 2017 NIH Director’s Transformative Research Award, Andrews expects to have the first fully functional devices ready within the next two years.


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