For those struggling with anxiety disorders, using a “safety signal” — a symbol or sound never identified with a negative event — may help relieve some of their fear, according to new research in both humans and mice at Yale University and Weill Cornell Medicine.
“A safety signal could be a musical piece, a person, or even an item like a stuffed animal that represents the absence of threat,” said Paola Odriozola, Ph.D. candidate in psychology at Yale and co-first author.
The “safety signal” approach differs from exposure-based therapy — a form of CBT commonly used for irrational fears — which slowly exposes patients to the source of their fear, such as spiders, until the patient learns that spiders do not represent a significant threat, and therefore experiences a decrease in anxiety. Unfortunately for many people, however, exposure-based therapy does not truly help.
“Exposure-based therapy relies on fear extinction, and although a safety memory is formed during therapy, it is always competing with the previous threat memory,” explained Dylan Gee, assistant professor of psychology at Yale and co-senior author. “This competition makes current therapies subject to the relapse of fear, but there is never a threat memory associated with safety signals.”
In the new research, subjects were conditioned to associate one shape with a threatening outcome and a different shape with a non-threatening outcome. (In mice, tones were used in the conditioning instead of shapes.)
At first, the shape associated with threat alone was presented to subjects, and then later, subjects viewed both the threatening and non-threatening shapes together. The researchers found that adding the second, non-threatening shape — the safety signal — suppressed the subjects’ fear compared to the response to the threat-related shape alone.
Brain imaging studies of both human and mice subjects presented with the signals showed this approach activated a different neural network than exposure therapy, suggesting safety signaling might be an effective add-on to current therapies.
Gee stressed that the need for alternatives for those suffering from anxiety-related disorders is significant.
“Both cognitive-behavioral therapy and antidepressants can be highly effective, but a substantial part of the population does not benefit sufficiently, or the benefits they experience don’t hold up in the longer term,” she said.
The findings are published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Source: Yale University