STANFORD, Calif. People with generalized anxiety disorder, or GAD, have abnormalities in the way their brain unconsciously controls emotions. That's the conclusion of a new Stanford University School of Medicine study, and the study authors say the findings could open up new avenues for treatments and change our understanding of how emotion is regulated in everyday life.
The work is published online in this month's American Journal of Psychiatry.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, 18 percent of Americans have an anxiety disorder. GAD in particular is marked by extreme feelings of fear and uncertainty; people with the disorder live in a state of non-stop worry and often struggle getting through their daily lives. "Patients experience anxiety and worry and respond excessively to emotionally negative stimuli, but it's never been clear really why," said Amit Etkin, MD, PhD, acting assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences and first author of the study.
Etkin said clinical data have suggested that adult GAD patients initially register negative stimuli in a largely normal way, but have deficits in how they then control negative emotions. He and his colleagues conducted their research to better understand these potential abnormalities and to shed light on two theories dating back to Sigmund Freud: that most emotion regulation is done unconsciously, and that a disturbance in unconscious emotion regulation leads to psychiatric symptoms.
For the study, Etkin recruited 17 people with GAD and 24 healthy participants and used functional magnetic resonance imaging and a behavioral marker to compare what happened when the two groups performed an emotion-based task. The task involved viewing images of happy or fearful faces, overlaid with the words "fear" or "happy," and using a button box to identify the expression of each face. Not all the words matched up some happy faces featured the word
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Stanford University Medical Center