Getting to the bottom of anxiety

Our bodies have developed different responses to keep us alert and out of danger, and one such measure is designed to help us detect danger and prepare ourselves to either meet the challenge or escape it. This response is called anxiety and we need it to survive. However, for some people anxiety is constant in their lives, rather than being the exception, which makes it difficult for them to meet their obligations.

The Anxiety Studies Division at UW is dedicated to understanding anxiety in order to better help those who suffer from it. It currently includes Prof. Christine Purdon and Prof. David Moscovitch, as well as the graduate students and research assistants they supervise and work with.

The Anxiety Studies Division was Purdon’s idea to help researchers “access people with an anxiety disorder.”

“As clinical psychologists, we do research on the development and persistence of different mental health difficulties. In other programs across Canada, the clinical programs have some connection with the medical school or hospital setting ... so there’s a readily available group of people one can invite to research. That doesn’t exist [at UW],” Purdon explained.

The Anxiety Studies Division has recently conducted two studies: &ldquo;The role of social comparisons and evaluation of anxious and confident partners&rdquo; and &ldquo;A new understanding of compulsions.&rdquo; These studies can be found in their newsletter and <a href="">on their website</a>.

&ldquo;The role of social comparisons and evaluation of anxious and confident partners,&rdquo; conducted by Tatiana Bielak, psychology PhD candidate, and Moscovitch, examined the impact that visible anxiety and confidence has on the impressions of social partners. Research in the past has shown that social interactions depend on &ldquo;interpersonal warmth&rdquo; to be successful.

Moscovitch and Bielak&rsquo;s research suggests that people with social anxiety may need help with showing interpersonal warmth. It suggests that future treatment could involve group therapy to help individuals practice &ldquo;opening up&rdquo; and showing warmth.

&ldquo;A new understanding of compulsions&rdquo; is a study done by Purdon. She defined compulsions as &ldquo;actions that people feel they must do in order to stave off distress and harm&rdquo; such as excessive washing, checking, and ordering/arranging. Treatment for obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) usually involves telling them to stop doing their compulsions. However, most people are too scared of the consequences of not doing their compulsions to stop.

During the study, Purdon found that people with OCD have difficulty stopping compulsions not because of a lack of willpower. In fact, their compulsions didn&rsquo;t work all the time. Especially when the stakes are high, rather than making them feel safer, more repetitions caused more doubt and anxiety.

Currently, the Anxiety Studies Division is studying mental imagery and memories in social anxiety.&nbsp;