In this blog post a few days ago, John mentioned an April 2008 literature review by researchers at Boston University who wanted to explore the efficacy of Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT) in treating anxiety. The authors of the review concluded that CBT, a short-term treatment technique, is generally effective for anxiety orders.
In a related article from the June 2008 BUforward Alumni e-newsletter, a study taking place at the University’s Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders is discussed in more detail. Associate Professor of Psychology Donna Pincus is currently conducting a five-year, NIMH-funded study looking at the effectiveness of intensive, short-term CBT on adolescent patients with severe anxiety problems such as agoraphobia and panic disorder.
Patients don’t get any medication during the therapy; “interoceptive exposure” (placing people in the same situations that cause them to panic) is more than enough. Pincus explains:
“In order to overcome anxiety, adolescents have to actually experience the physical sensations that are caused by panic… The first time it’s scary — terrifying, even. But by the second or third time, habituation occurs. By allowing patients to experience sensations of panic in a controlled setting, they learn that it takes only a few minutes for those sensations to dissipate, because our bodies like to stay at homeostasis… And once a patient stops responding to the sensations with fear, the sensations go away.”
Sixteen-year-old study participant Lindsey Lanouette suffered from panic attacks and anxiety before participating in Pincus’ cutting-edge program:
“…Lindsay…appeared to have it all. Tall and lithe, with long blonde hair and striking blue eyes, she had lots of friends, got along well with her parents and sister, earned good grades, and played varsity soccer.
But sometimes, while wandering the aisles of a shopping mall or eating in a dimly lit restaurant, things would start to go wrong. She’d become dizzy, her heart would race, and before long, she could barely breathe. “It just felt as if the walls were closing in,” the Falmouth, Massachusetts, teenager recalls, “and I couldn’t do anything to stop it. Sometimes I thought I was dying.”
During the eight-day treatment series at Boston University, in order to induce panic attacks in a controlled environment, clinicians had her
“…[Shake] her head from side to side to induce dizziness, [run] in place to make her heart race, [breathe] through a cocktail straw to make her feel light-headed, and [stare] at a bright light to cause disorientation.”
Although a session of interoceptive exposure therapy like Lanouette’s certainly sounds unorthodox, the approach appears to be working so far. Pincus claims “very positive” results in one-year follow-ups with former patients and “significant decreases in both the number of weekly panic attacks they are experiencing and the severity of their panic from pretreatment to post-treatment.” Of course, it’s too early in the game to draw any firm conclusions from Pincus’ work just yet, but it’ll be interesting to see what she comes up with when her five-year research period is done and the statistics have been calculated.