Otago-based neuroscientist Dr Olivia Harrison literally studies anxiety for a living – and it’s a topic of both personal and professional interest. Olivia, who has just been awarded a $25,000 global fellowship to continue her research, who knows what it is like to experience high levels of anxiety – and now, she wants to help address some of the gaps in the way individuals identify and perceive signals from the body to better develop treatments and techniques to help manage the symptoms.
Tell me about your own experiences with anxiety in both your professional and personal life?
Anxiety affects everyone in some way, and it is something I have always been aware of in myself as well as friends and family. However, it’s important to remember that it is really normal to feel worried when something unexpected, big or scary might be happening – feeling worried can be a protective mechanism to keep us safe.
It’s when our worries become disproportionate to what is happening that we might need to address how we are managing things, and see if there are techniques we can use to help. In my professional world, we try to understand how the brain and body talk to each other when you are feeling anxious, as symptoms of anxiety (such as your heart beating faster, or your breathing rate going up) often end up in your body.
We are trying to understand how this communication may break down with anxiety, and how misperceiving signals from our body may make us even more worried. If we can try and understand this loop between anxiety and symptoms, then we can try to think about how we improve treatment strategies to work better for each person.
You use the term ‘worried well’ – what does that mean to you? What do you think the dangers of the ‘worried well’ are?
I think of the ‘worried well’ as those who are operating at greater than average levels of anxiety, but who are still high functioning and you may not know that this worry is there in the background. And while most of the time us worried well are coping just fine, we might be more at risk of anxiety wearing us down, of becoming burnt out, and even maybe tipping into a place where anxiety stops us doing things that we want to do.
So there is maybe a greater risk that anxiety will have a bigger impact on our lives. But if we can recognise these symptoms early and setup some strategies that will help, then we can reduce the possibility that this level of anxiety may progress into a more disabling anxiety disorder. Acting early will hopefully help us to prevent further stress on the individual, as well as reduce the strain on the medical system.
How do different personality traits relate to different types or feelings of anxiety?
This is something we are working on at the moment – trying to get a better idea of who might be more susceptible to greater levels of anxiety, and what factors may be contributing to this. We are really interested to know whether our actions and behaviours line up with what is important to each person (e.g. do you value forming connections and relationships, or striving for achievement in your field etc.).
In one aspect of our research we are collaborating with a really exciting company IPM (https://ipmag.ch/en/) to try and understand the links between our basic needs and behaviours, and how these may relate to our mental health. Understanding these relationships is the first important step – if we understand what drives us, then we can work on aligning our behaviours to better fulfil our needs.
How have the last few years shaped our collective battle with anxiety?
With the worldwide pandemic we have seen a sharp increase in the number of people struggling with mental health issues such as anxiety. This means that more and more people may have been personally affected, or have loved ones who may be suffering. One positive is that we are now normalising talking about our mental health, which is a great first step in tackling these issues.
And one important thing to remember amongst this change is that anxiety will look and feel different to everyone, which means that figuring out how to manage it will be a personal journey rather than a ‘one size fits all’. And while we have tremendous work being done by our clinical practitioners to help people on this journey, the earlier we can start to recognise when anxiety starts to impede on the life we want to lead, the earlier we can act to try and bring things back under control.
Your research is around understanding how individuals perceive symptoms of anxiety, such as a racing heart, shortness of breath or sweaty palms – and how their response to this perception can further influence one’s mental state. What are your preliminary observations around this?
What we have found so far with our research is that people who have higher levels of anxiety have altered perceptions of their breathing compared to people with lower anxiety – they are actually less sensitive to changes in their breathing. Additionally, they have reduced ‘insight’ into how well they are able to perceive their body, which causes a mismatch between what we think is happening in our body and what is actually happening.
Finally, we have found that people with higher levels of anxiety have altered brain activity when they are predicting what will happen to their breathing in the future. So while we might believe that we are very ‘in-tune’ with our bodies, what we see is that anxiety can actually reduce our ability to sense changes in our breathing. This is really important, because if we don’t realise when we are breathing faster or harder due to being worried, then we could more easily have further symptoms such as feeling light-headed. And if we don’t realise what is happening in our body, then these symptoms can make us feel even worse and worry us even further!
So even this knowledge might help to make a few things clearer; when we are anxious, we are likely ‘tuning out’ from body symptoms, even though we might not know it. However, these results are just the beginning of our understanding about the relationship between our brain and body with anxiety, and we don’t yet know if anxiety causes these changes in perception, or whether these perceptual differences are underlying some of our anxiety. So lots more work to be done here!
What does the L’Oréal For Women in Science fellowship means to you personally and how it will be used to help advance your research?
The L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science fellowship provides a very generous $25,000, which I am using to buy vital equipment that we need to perform our research studies. This alone is a huge help! But even beyond this, the fellowship provides a wonderful platform and a communication channel to advocate for women in science. Science is changing – no longer is it only a man in a white coat with a test tube, and now there are so many different types of scientists that have different strengths, such as communication or coordinating a research team. Becoming a L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science fellow is a real honour, and I hope that talking about different areas of scientific research can help make it more accessible to everyone. Science is actually a really creative space, and if our work can make a difference in someone’s life then for me, that’s a win.