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What to do when you feel anxious: how reaching for these items can help calm anxiety

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Lauren Geall
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How to help anxiety: use a 'safety signal'.

According to new research, “safety signals” – which could be anything from a piece of music to a beloved cuddly toy – could help people dealing with anxiety to find relief from their symptoms.      

Modern life may just be the perfect recipe for anxiety. We’re working longer hours, answering emails 24/7 (a phenomenon some experts have termed ‘always on’ culture) and we’re burning ourselves out as a result, leading to a variety of mental health conditions. Around the UK, approximately three million people are thought to live with some kind of anxiety disorder.

As awareness has grown over the years, a steadily increasing number of therapies, self-help techniques and treatments have emerged as a way for people dealing with anxiety to find relief from their symptoms. And now – thanks to new research from a team of psychologists at Yale University and Weill Cornell Medicine – another brilliant (and accessible) way to deal with anxiety has been revealed: safety signals.

While the words “safety signals” may at first make the whole thing seem a bit clinical, it’s actually not as complicated as it sounds. According to the team of researchers, a safety signal could be anything from a piece of music, to a person or object – it just has to be something you associate with “the absence of threat”.

How to help anxiety: new research has revealed how “safety signals” could help people dealing with anxiety to feel less fear.
How to help anxiety: “safety signals” can be anything from a piece of music to a beloved cuddly toy.

The study, which used both mice and human subjects, showed that a symbol or sound that is never associated with adverse events (such as the calming presence of a childhood teddy bear, for example) can relieve anxiety. Safety signals have even been shown to use a completely different brain network to the one involved in existing exposure-based therapies, which expose the patient to the source of their fear, such as spiders, until their levels of fear decrease, making this a brand-new way to deal with anxiety. 

In the research, psychologists presented the subjects with two different objects, one of which was associated with a threatening outcome and another which represented a non-threatening outcome.

Firstly, the object associated with the threat alone was presented to the group of subjects, and their responses were measured. Later on, the subjects were shown the threatening object alongside the non-threatening object (the safety signal) – when they were shown the two objects together, their fear was suppressed compared to when they only saw the threatening object.

In simple terms, the presence of a soothing safety signal – such as a childhood teddy bear, favourite piece of music or a friendly face – is enough to reduce our levels of anxiety, even when the source of our fear is still present.

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“Exposure-based therapy relies on fear extinction, and although a safety memory is formed during therapy, it is always competing with the previous threat memory,” explains Dylan Gee, assistant professor of psychology at Yale and the co-senior author of the paper, highlighting the difference between exposure therapy and this new approach. “This competition makes current therapies subject to the relapse of fear – but there is never a threat memory associated with safety signals.”

So next time you’ve got a big meeting at work that’s causing you significant anxiety, take the time to seek some relief in the form of your childhood teddy bear or other soothing object. There’s a reason we loved them as kids, after all.

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Images: Danni Pedersen/Getty

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Lauren Geall

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