Anxiety study finds breathing link

Department of psychology Rutherford Discovery research fellow Olivia Harrison has discovered...
Department of psychology Rutherford Discovery research fellow Olivia Harrison has discovered anxiety alters a person’s perceptions of their bodily functions. PHOTO: GERARD O’BRIEN
People with higher levels of anxiety have altered perceptions of their breathing, which can lead to ‘‘a negative spiral of emotions’’, University of Otago research has found.

Lead author and department of psychology Rutherford Discovery Research Fellow Olivia Harrison said anxiety was one of the most prevalent mental health conditions, especially at the moment with stress caused by the Covid pandemic.

She conducted a study involving 30 healthy people with low anxiety and 30 people with moderate levels of anxiety, giving each a questionnaire and two breathing tasks, one done during a brain imaging session to assess changes in blood oxygenation and flow.

‘‘The research looks at how the symptoms of anxiety — such as a racing heart, sweaty palms and fast breathing — can feed back and possibly start a negative spiral of emotions, creating even more anxiety.’’

The study found people who had higher levels of anxiety had altered perceptions of their breathing, compared with people with lower anxiety, Dr Harrison said.

‘‘They are actually less sensitive to changes in their breathing, they have reduced ‘insight’ into how well they are able to perceive their body, and they have altered brain activity when they are predicting what will happen to their breathing in the future.

‘‘This is really important, because if we don’t realise when we are breathing faster or harder due to being worried, then we could more easily have further symptoms such as feeling lightheaded.

‘‘If we don’t realise what is happening in our body, then these symptoms can make us feel even worse and worry us even further.’’

While the study did not provide answers about how to effectively treat anxiety, it was a starting point to understand how higher levels of anxiety could influence body perception, she said.

‘‘These results are just the beginning of our understanding about how the communication between the brain and body can start to break down with anxiety.

‘‘We hope to use this information to help improve treatments by giving people the tools to perceive their body better and break the negative cycle of anxiety leading to symptoms leading to more anxiety.’’

The next stage, now running at the University of Otago, was to investigate whether treatments such as exercise or anti-anxiety medications might help people perceive their breathing more accurately, and whether this contributed to reductions in anxiety.

‘‘We would like to see whether the reductions in anxiety are at least in part mediated by improvements in body perceptions, or ‘tuning in’ to our bodies, and whether we can help improve these mental health benefits both by understanding their mechanisms and creating novel treatment strategies that build on these principles.’’

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