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Facing our fears – the anxiety treatment that’s changing lives

Not many of us would relish the idea of being locked in a cupboard, especially those who experience anxiety or panic attacks. But MQ-funded researcher Dr Andrea Reinecke is investigating whether confronting our fears head on could actually help patients with anxiety disorders. 

Whilst Andrea’s therapy sounds like it could feel strange and uncomfortable, her investigations have shown that one third of patients are free of their symptoms after just one day of treatment – showing potential for a staggeringly fast and effective treatment.

Now, with funding from supporters like you, she’s taking her research one step further to see if she can combine her sessions with drug treatment to improve even more people’s outcomes. It’s research that offers real hope for people like Teresa, who has suffered from panic attacks all of her adult life.

Teresa told us: “I used to drive to work the same route every day and one day I had a panic attack on my journey. Then every day after that I had a panic attack at that same spot. I used to think: what if something happens to me? What if something happens and people don’t know where I am because I’ve gone a different way? What if I pass out?

“The physical symptoms of panic attacks are horrible. Your heart is racing; you’re short of breath, light headed, dizzy, hyper-ventilating. I felt like I was going to faint and would get a dull ache or pain in my left arm. I thought I was having a heart attack.”

Over time Teresa’s panic attacks crept into almost every aspect of her life, but for years she struggled on alone. Then she heard that Andrea was looking for people to take part in her study and decided to volunteer. Andrea’s study uses a single-session, exposure-based version of cognitive behavioural therapy – or ‘CBT’. It is thought to work by ‘retraining the brain’ into recognising that something the patient once feared is actually not at all likely to cause them any harm. As part of the therapy, Andrea puts her subjects into a small confined space, a cupboard, which triggers their anxiety.

Teresa describes the experience: “The first time I went in the cupboard we agreed she would go away for five minutes and then come back. The next time, she told me she was just going away, and didn’t say when she’d be back. I asked if I knocked on the door would someone let me out? And she said ‘that might not happen’. My palms were sweating. I was terrified.

“Yet the cupboard was an important part of the treatment. I’ve never liked being on my own and had a fear of getting stuck somewhere without any help. But Andrea said that putting myself into situations that made me feel uncomfortable could help. It would retrain my brain that nothing bad was going to happen to me and I would be absolutely fine.

And it really has worked for me. Now whenever I feel a panic attack coming on, I revert back to my time in the cupboard and realise that I am a lot stronger than I think I am.”

Andrea is now focused on increasing the effectiveness of the treatment by combining her single session CBT with a drug commonly taken by patients with high blood pressure. In doing so, Andrea hopes to better understand how and why CBT improves anxiety and see if it’s possible to predict which patients are most likely to benefit from this treatment.

Read more about Andrea's exciting research into anxiety treatments

Last updated: 10 August 2017

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