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Anxiety, hormones and better treatments

Research awardFellows Award programme

Funding period 2013 - 2016

InstitutionUniversity of New South Wales

LocationAustralia

Conditions

Dr Bronwyn Graham investigated whether hormone levels can explain why some people respond better to anxiety treatment than others. 

The project

Women are twice as likely as men to develop anxiety disorders, but little is known about why.

And while psychological treatments for anxiety work for many people, they don’t work for everyone.

Those two facts were the starting point for Bronwyn and her team as they began investigating the connection between hormones and anxiety.

The question they sought to answer through their project could have lasting consequences for the way we think about the condition. Could natural variation in hormones make anxiety more likely and affect the way people respond to treatment? 

The process

Through previous research Bronwyn had shown in animals that sex hormones can affect the mechanism that controls fear.

This time, she took that study further – to investigate whether natural variations in the hormone oestrogen can alter how women process fear, and test whether oestrogen can make it more difficult to learn to manage fear. 

Results

Bronwyn found that women with anxiety, who had low levels of the hormone oestrogen, were less likely to get better - and stay better - following psychological treatment.

This means that if we can schedule treatment at optimal times when oestrogen is highest (in the second week of the menstrual cycle), it could end up being more effective - enabling more people to cope with anxiety, based on their personal situation.

Where next?

Bronwyn’s project could improve the lives of thousands of women with anxiety - and paves the way for more research looking into the impact that different types of hormonal contraception could have on psychological treatments.

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