Feeling Anxious? Congratulations!

Anxious, depressed, or both?If you’ve been unusually stressed out in 2009, here’s something else to fret about: Anxiety is not only an unpleasant emotional condition, it’s physically harmful. Chronic elevation of the stress hormone cortisol weakens the immune system, disrupts the memory, and damages the cardiovascular system. Thanks to anxiety your life will not only be more miserable, but shorter.

That’s the case for most of us, at any rate. But a recent study carried out by researchers at King’s College London found out that among people suffering depression, those who suffer from anxiety as well actually have a longer life expectancy. “‘One of the main messages from this research is that a little anxiety may be good for you,” observed team leader Dr Robert Stewart.

In terms of the relationship between mortality and anxiety with depression as a risk factor, the research suggests that help-seeking behaviour may explain the pattern of outcomes. People with depression may not seek help or may fail to receive help when they do seek it, whereas the opposite may be true for people with anxiety.

To put it another way, anxiety can do you a lot of good when there really is something for you to be anxious about. Which is, I suppose, why evolution has bequeathed us with anxiety in the first place. Whatever its downsides, anxiety focuses our attention and motivates us to take action. If you’ve got a serious medical issue, and depression is demotivating you from doing anything about it, then a case of gnawing nerves is just what you need.

Everything’s Normal, pt 2

Another perspective on getting swept away unexpectedly.
The incident took place last April in Haines, Alaska. The helmet-cam belongs to Chris Cardello. According to Freeskier magazine, Cardello was wearing a device called an Avalung that allowed up to breathe while trapped in the concrete-like snowpack:

Chris described it like this: “When the slide propagated, I tried to remain as composed as possible and make sure my AvaLung was in. As I was getting buried and the slide slowed, I threw one hand up and with my other hand I grasped the AvaLung, which had been ripped out of my mouth during the turbulent ride. While I was buried, I tried to be as calm as possible—I knew my hand was exposed so my crew would be digging me out shortly. I was able to breathe through the AvaLung, but it was difficult due to the snow jammed down my throat.”

To me the most interesting thing about this quote is Cardello’s statement that “I tried to be as calm as possible.” How does one do that? Famously, survival experts say that in a life-or-death situation, the most important thing to do is not to panic. This has always struck me as a rather absurd idea, since surely no one chooses to panic. But I think I understand what Cardello meant. Trapped under the snow, his heart racing, the possibility of death very close at hand, he must have felt himself on the edge of losing control. And yet he willed himself to keep it together. He fought back the creeping panic. In neurological terms, his prefrontal cortex maintained dominance over his amygdala. Sounds simple — but it’s a lot easier said than done.

The Love Drug’s Dark Side

Everyone loves oxytocin, the hormone and neurotransmitter that functions as the body’s internal “love drug.” It has a reputation as the warmest, fuzziest chemical around. As I’ve written about earlier, oxytocin can moderate feelings of fear in social settings. But it does much more than that. Apart from a rather extensive list of functions in sexual reproduction, childbirth, and breastfeeding, oxytocin affects how mammals behave towards one another. In one famous experiment, for instance, subjects were found to behave more empathically after inhaling a dose of oxytocin-laced nasal drops.

But not all of oxytocin’s effects are so delightful. Experiments with rats have shown that increased levels of oxytocin can lead, in certain circumstances, to heightened aggression. And a recent experiment carried out at the University of Haifa in Israel has found some not-so-pleasant effects in humans as well. Subjects were given doses of nasal spray that contained either oxytocin or a placebo, and asked to play a computer game against a fellow test-subject. Actually, for the sake of experimental consistency, there was no other player — the subjects were playing against a computer. The interesting result was that subjects who had taken oxytocin gloated more when they won, and were more envious when they lost, than controls were.

It seems, explains researcher Simone Shamay-Tsoory, that oxytocin somehow helps to engage a person’s social drive, for better or for worse. “When the person’s association is positive, oxytocin bolsters pro-social behaviors; when the association is negative, the hormone increases negative sentiments,” she says.

Sullenberger Redux

I was in the thick of writing Extreme Fear when Chesley Sullenberger ditched his Airbus A320 in New York City’s East River. I was instantly struck by how perfectly his feat embodied the central paradox of the book: how is that certain people can respond creatively to intense, life-threatening crisis? I wound up exploring his story in Chapter 12, “Mastery,” in which I  recreated the incident in some detail. This recently released computer simulation, however, gives a far more vivid sense of what Sullenberger was going through.

Kudos to Kas Osterbuhr, the engineer at K3 Resources who created the video, and to Jason Paur at Wired.com for his posting it.

Chesley Burnett “Sully” Sullenberger

Everything’s Normal, Then It’s Not

We don’t expect to have our lives upended suddenly and unexpectedly, but that’s how fear often intrudes in our daily lives.
This footage shows a rockslide in Polk County, TN, that was captured by a local news crew filming the cleanup of a previous rockslide. Watching the torrent of boulders and trees reminds me of the avalanche that struck Dave Boon when he was driving with his wife on a highway near Denver. One minute he was chatting with his wife, the next he was hurtling end-over-end down the side of a mountain. Time and again, survivors of disasters report thinking to themselves: “This can’t be real.” Looking at this footage, it’s easy to relate to that sense of disbelief.

Can Handwashing Save Us?

flu particlesThe nation is suffering from a shortage of swine flu vaccine, leaving millions at risk of infection from a potentially deadly pandemic. Fortunately, the experts agree that there’s a simple and effective precaution that we can all take to help keep us healthy: wash our hands. Here, for instance, is an excerpt from USA Today’s article “Stay safe from swine flu with 3 simple steps.

Studies prove that hand-washing dramatically reduces the spread of infection and is even a lifesaver. Even before the outbreak of swine flu, the World Health Organization reported that regular hand-washing — after using the toilet and before eating — could save more lives than any other medical intervention…

The Centers for Disease Control seconds the motion on its swine-flu advice page:

Wash your hands often with soap and water. If soap and water are not available, use an alcohol-based hand rub.

Here’s the medical-advice web site Suite 101:

Handwashing is the single most important measure to prevent the spread of infections, including swine flu.

And so on. There’s just one problem, however. There’s no scientific evidence that this advice has any scientific foundation. In fact, a recent Canadian study found that handwashing did nothing to prevent flu transmission. “Most transmissions of flu virus are through respiratory secretions — coughing and sneezing,” says my brother-in-law John Emy, who practices internal medicine here in New York. Essentially, clouds of fine particles laden with virus waft thru the air, get inhaled, and infect a new host. The hands have nothing to do with it.

Why, then do medical authorities continue to recommend handwashing as a preventative measure?

Well, one could argue that when it comes to swine flu, handwashing is at worst harmless. And it has indeed been demonstrated to help prevent transmission of other diseases, so it’s a worthwhile habit to get into. And in the short term it will at least give healthy worried folks something to do. As I write in Chapter 11 of Extreme Fear, taking constructive action in the face of danger helps to reduce fear. So if the public believes that washing their hands will help them survive the coming flu season, perhaps that’s a good thing in itself.

Let’s not get lulled into complacency, however. As the New Scientist points out in its excellent article on the topic, handwashing is just one of several ineffective measures that the general public believes can keep them safe. Getting plenty of rest, drinking lots of fluids, and eating organic foods are all things that will, in fact, do nothing to prevent swine flu transmission. They’re just comfort blankets, and the downside of comfort blankets is that they can demotivate you from taking constructive action. The reality is that only vaccination offers demonstrated protection the flu. As soon as you can, get that shot.


That’s the scientific term for the irrational fear of winding up on a viral video about pitching over the edge of the platform into the path of an oncoming train, and it’s becoming increasingly common lately, or so I imagine. Here’s the latest evidence:
For those keeping score at home, that’s two since I started this blog; one more makes an official trend. Perhaps we need another hero?

A Drug for Forgetting Fear?

PillsThe human brain is very good at forgetting, a fact that I was recently reminded of when my bank asked me to choose from a series of “security questions” as part of an account upgrade. What was the name of my third-grade teacher? What was the name of the street my school was on? What city was my mother born in? I was astonished at how little of this kind of thing remained in my memory bank.

Forgetting this kind of explicit memory comes easily, but there’s another kind of memory we’re not so good at erasing. Memories of fearful experiences seem to stay with us forever. To the extent that their impact fades over time, it’s not because we forget them, but that our brains gradually suppress them. They’re forgotten, but not gone. And they can cause problems for people suffering from emotional trauma, when buried memories come roaring back to inflict pain all over again.

It would be better if the brain were able to forget some kinds of fearful memories just it can things like names and phone numbers – and a recently published paper presents evidence that might just be possible. Researcher Nadine Gogolla and colleagues demonstrated that as the brain of a baby mouse matures, its ability to form permanent fear memories develops at the same time as a net-like structure forms in the amygdala, where emotions are processed and fear-related memories are stored. Made of proteins called chondroitin sulfate proteoglycans, this “neural net” structures seem to prevent memories from being erased. When they’re disrupted by a drug, mice are more likely to lose those memories.

The finding points the way to a possible therapy for human fears: a drug that would alter the formation or functioning of the “neural net” and thereby allow people to shed troubling and disturbing memories. It’s still a long way off, but the research indicates that it could at least be possible.

Love vs Fear

One of the most powerful anxiolytics — that is, compounds which reduce fear and anxiety –is oxytocin, the hormone of mammalian bonding. Social acts like hugging, touching, and having sex all increase our levels of oxytocin; people who have recently had penetrative sexual intercourse have been found to exhibit less fear in social settings.

Of course, the ultimate oxytocin-generating experience is giving birth to and nursing an infant, and nothing is more fearless than a mother protecting her child. Having become a father a year ago, I can understand what the woman on this train platform must have been going through as she realized what was about to happen.


I wonder if oxytocin might take its effect, at least in part, by somehow affecting the way that our brains process “self” and “other” — bringing those we love and feel affection over the boundary and making them, in effect, part of ourselves. About six years ago I remember being repulsed by the sight of my sister casually picking a piece of half-chewed banana off her baby daughter’s bib and popping it into her mouth.  Since my son was born, I find myself doing this sort of thing all the time. Eating my son’s half-eaten food isn’t like eating someone else’s chewed-up,  spit-covered gunk, it’s like eating my own.

The only problem with my theory is that watching your baby roll under a train wouldn’t be as bad as going under a train yourself; it would be worse.

The Agony of Social Fear

Being looked at by strangers is a primal trigger of anxiety and stress. The essence of courage is persevering in the face of intense fear. Therefore, this young man deserves the Medal of Honor.

Unless you’ve been living in a cave — or using dialup, or both — you’ve probably already seen this clip. But I post it again to pose the philosophical question: how can watching someone in the grip of intense terror be so damned funny?