I’m sure we’ve all experienced those gut wrenching moments of anxious anticipation before delivering a speech or performing on stage. When butterflies overtake your stomach, and it’s suddenly difficult to breath. You’re sweating uncontrollably and are fearful of what is to come. You can consider these tedious and unwanted emotions symptoms of a panic attack. Throughout my childhood, I unfortunately battled with acute anxiety. Taking drugs such as Xanax on the rare occasion of a panic attack would completely calm me down as soon as it kicked in. I unconsciously took the medication my doctor provided for me, however, I never really understood the true scientific components of the drug that helped relieve my symptoms. How could swallowing a small pill relieve all of my stress?
Surprisingly, nearly one in five Americans suffer from some type of anxiety disorder. A commonly prescribed drug, Alprazolam (also known as Xanax) is used to relieve symptoms of short-term extreme anxiety. “Xanax produces its calming effects by suppressing the inhibitory receptors in the brain and central nervous system to decrease the abnormal excitement in the brain that leads to anxiety symptoms.” (This medication blocks the benzodiazepine site on the brain, and by doing this it is able to hyperpolarize neurons.) When in the middle of a panic attack, your brain fires neurons that is the cause of the symptoms that you experience. The hyperpolarization of these neurons stops it from firing as often.
In a controlled study testing the effectiveness of Alprazolam, a randomized 72 subjects all dealing with excessive anxiety were either given a placebo or the medication. The test results showed that the people taking the medication had significant decreases in anxiety levels while the people taking the placebo did not change at all. This hints towards the fact that anxiety related medication does indeed help to alleviate one’s symptoms.
In a similar study, Two research groups working independently in Ohio and Colorado sought out test the CRH levels in rats, ultimately arriving at similar results. In the experiment, research leaders Gray and Lim manipulated the endocannabinoid levels in rats. At Kent State University, neuroscientist Lim Gilman blocked the CRH receptors in mice, ultimately shutting out the stress-inducing component, which enabled them to more easily approach unfamiliar mice.
Similarly, University of Colorado-Boulder professor Gray wondered how the brain responds to constant social defeat. For instance, what happens when a kid gets tormented by his peers over and over again? He mimicked this by placing a rate into the home of another rat, immediately, the newcomer was forced to surrender to the dominant force. In the study, rats who faced repetitive social defeat produced more CRH progressively, which resulted in increased emotions of fear in later encounters. In conclusion, both Lim and Gray understand that some animals deal with anxiety better than others, however, it’s unknown how these differences manifest in the brain.
Notably, research analyst Pam Maras sees evidence that differences in one’s resistance to anxiety occur early in life. In the study conducted above, the more nervous rats began developing excessive anxiety at 11 days old, which would transfer to a 5 week old infant. At this point in life, animals that had not yet experienced anxiety were more resilient to stress as they grew older. Researchers are unsure as to why some species are more susceptible to anxiety than others. In conclusion, scientists have a lot to learn and test before such a drug will be ready for clinical use.
So overall, if you personally struggle with thoughts of anxiety, the current medications available on the market have been proven to aid one’s symptoms effectively. Luckily, more research is being conducted as we speak to find even better forms of medication that will be available in the future!