Lower Your Anxiety Levels by Looking at Pictures

Health Writer

You might be able to decrease your anxiety levels by looking at pictures of other people being cared for, loved and supported. Researchers at the  University of Exeter  found that when participants of a recent study looked at pictures of others being cared and loved, their reaction to "threats" was more balanced.

Anxiety can be the result of activating your "fight or flight" response. This happens when you go on high alert for a real or perceived threat from either a physical or emotional situation. Once your fight or flight response is activated, you stay on high alert, everything around you seems like a potential threat and your body reacts by increasing your heart rate, tensing your muscles and increasing your alertness. You need to solve the problem or eliminate the threat, whatever it may be, to lower your anxiety level.

This is particularly true for those with  post-traumatic stress disorder  (PTSD), who often experience periods of hypervigilance. According to Health Pro,  Jerry Kennard, hypervigilance "can be extreme enough for the person to become almost entirely preoccupied with scanning their environments for threats. They may become agitated in crowded or noisy places." He explains that hypervigilance can lead to avoidance of places, situations or people, can sometimes lead to carrying a weapon because of a fear of assault, or the inability to sleep because of a hyper-awareness of sounds. When you become hyper-vigilant, everything becomes a threat and your body stays on high alert. There can be physical complications, such as heart disease, when anxiety levels stay raised over long periods of time.

The scientists at the University of Exeter tried a different method of reducing the brain's reaction to threats. In the study that was published in the journal  Social, Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, researchers looked at 42 healthy individuals. Each person was briefly shown pictures of other people receiving emotional support. After seeing these pictures, they were then shown pictures of threatening facial expressions or words. When the participants first looked at a loving picture, their brain did not respond to the threatening images. The results were confirmed using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).

Dr. Anke Karl, the lead researcher in the study, believes this information can be useful in better understanding PTSD and developing better treatments. For example, Dr. Karl explains that successful treatment for PTSD often is related to the level of social support a person receives. The findings of this study help to explain why this link is so important in treatment. His team wants to "refine existing treatments for PTSD to boost feelings of being safe and supported in order to improve coping with traumatic memories."

PTSD currently is treated  by a combination of psychotherapy and medication. Cognitive behavioral therapy, which works toward changing unhealthy thought patterns, has been found to be effective. This type of therapy usually includes exposure therapy, cognitive restructuring and stress reducing strategies. Creating a support network of family and friends is an important part of treatment.

The scientists also are expanding their study to determine if the same outcome is true for those who are highly self-critical, those with depression, and those who have experienced psychological trauma, such as an accident or a natural disaster.