Otago University neuroscientist Dr Olivia Harrison is researching the physical symptoms of anxiety. Charlotte Muru-Lanning talks to her about how the ways we perceive our mental health can influence the response we feel in our bodies.
Many of us are pretty familiar with anxiety. In the era of Covid, breathlessness, accelerated heartbeats, clammy palms and light-headedness have become commonplace as we await the daily 1pm (or thereabouts) case numbers, attempt to social distance in supermarkets that always seem far too crowded, and watch as new variants surge overseas.
Neuroscientist Dr Olivia Harrison has always been interested in the connection between the brain and body. Having started her career in exercise science, Harrison’s focus shifted to neuroscience during a three-year stint studying in Switzerland. Now Dunedin-based, she’s focused on better understanding anxiety and has recently been awarded a Rutherford Discovery fellowship along with the 2021 L’Oréal-Unesco For Women in Science fellowship to support her research at the University of Otago.
Harrison explains that anxiety is unique to each person and should be treated as such. In practice, this means treatments that work perfectly well for some of us might be less effective for others. Often, treatments that are common don’t stick, she says. And that may be because they’re not tailored to people under their unique anxiety profile.
There are various types of anxiety, and often it’s hard for people to differentiate between regular emotions and the mental health condition of anxiety, says Harrison.“The language we use with anxiety is the same for the normal feelings of anxiety we get and also for the disorder,” she says.
All of us have differing levels of anxiety – in fact, anxiousness can be a normal and even useful reaction, which is something Harrison reckons is important to keep in mind. “To be worried about things is a really normal human response and something that we need, otherwise our whole species would go extinct. So it’s not something we’re looking to get rid of,” she says.
As an ordinary part of existence in the world, particularly within our current pandemic context, experiencing anxious feelings can be a rational response to danger and often allows us to forge social connections and be empathetic. “I think it keeps us real,” she says.
At the same time, while we all experience bouts of anxiety, not everyone has an anxiety disorder. That’s when anxiety becomes disabling and negatively impacts everyday life, explains Harrison. It’s people struggling with these higher levels of anxiety she’s hoping her research will benefit.
There’s an extremely varied spectrum when it comes to debilitating anxiety, she says. Increasingly common are the “worried well”, who tend to function perfectly well day to day, but who are more susceptible to intense symptoms of anxiety in times of stress. As someone who considers herself to be “worried well”, Harrison uses exercise as a coping strategy to tune out and regain control.
The research Harrison will be heading at her lab at the University of Otago strives to better understand the physical responses to anxiety to create more helpful treatments and tools that can be applied to the differing experiences of anxiety.
Better understanding how racing heartbeats, sweaty palms and light-headedness actually help to drive a cycle of anxiety is useful in creating clinical tools to break that anxious cycle. Simply arming people with the knowledge as to why they’re experiencing particular symptoms can be a helpful first step in itself in overcoming problematic anxiety, says Harrison.
It’s not exactly news, but in the world of anxiety, it’s near impossible to downplay the unique significance of breathing as both cause and treatment. Part of the reason there’s such a strong link between breathing and anxiety is that it’s one of the automatic functions of our body that we actually have control over. Most of us mortals have zero control over our heart rate or how much we’re sweating, but for the most part we have pretty strong authority over our breathing. That means it plays a crucial role in both the uncomfortable symptoms of anxiety and in managing it.
“If we get anxious, one of the first things we tend to do is hold our breath,” she says. And conversely, “it’s also something that we can intervene in”.
Over the next three to five years, the research Harrison is undertaking will monitor the breathing and brain responses of 70 participants who struggle with anxiety across the spectrum, as they take part in various kinds of exercise tasks. They’re hoping to find out how sensitive people with anxiety are to those physical changes by monitoring their breathing with a special machine and comparing that with their own perception of changes.
Harrison suggests that often people with anxiety will need higher levels of physical activity to feel changes in breathing and brain function. That’s because you’re likely already running at an incredibly tense level, she says.
While there are publicly funded treatment programmes for anxiety in New Zealand, there’s a shortage of practitioners, meaning that only the most severe cases have access – underscoring the need to better understand coping strategies for those who experience more manageable forms of anxiety.
“It’s really about finding what works for you,” she says. “You will gravitate to what you do and what helps best, and you’ll find the things that make you feel good.”