30 November 2021
2021 FELLOW DR OLIVIA HARRISON, UNIVERSITY OF OTAGO
We are all affected by anxiety – whether it be personally, through a loved one, or in our everyday interactions. In our ever-changing and currently highly uncertain environment, anxiety is one of the most common mental health issues. While anxiety affects people of all ages, we know that both women and younger people are particularly vulnerable to experiencing higher levels of anxiety.
This is a topic of both personal and professional interest to Dr Olivia Harrison. Olivia, who knows what it is like to experience high levels of anxiety, wants to help address some of the gaps in the way individuals identify and perceive their anxiety to better develop treatments and techniques to help manage the symptoms.
Symptoms of anxiety or depression often present in our body and are a familiar part of the language we use to describe these conditions: for anxiety, think racing heart, sweaty palms, shortness of breath...Dr Olivia Harrison looks at how we perceive these symptoms, and how that response in-turn further influences or feeds our mental state.
“Types of anxiety are person dependent and need to be treated individually. While different treatments can work really well for some people, they do not work for everyone. We also know that these treatments don’t always stick, and it may be because we are not giving people the necessary tools for their specific anxiety profile,” says Dr. Olivia Harrison.
However, the goal is not to completely eliminate anxiety in society: “We know certain levels can be healthy for things such as self-awareness. But as society continues to evolve and we adapt, we are seeing anxiety at more disabling levels, and our coping strategies and treatments are lagging behind,” says Dr. Olivia Harrison.
Olivia’s previous work has considered groups of people with different levels of anxiety and found reductions in the way people with higher levels of anxiety are able to perceive changes in their breathing. To test this, Olivia designed a technique for altering breathing resistance automatically and precisely, in a way that is compatible with concurrent brain imaging. Combining these techniques allows a better understanding of the brain processing involved in body perceptions, and its relevance to conditions such as anxiety.
In her upcoming studies, Olivia will now investigate how treatments such as exercise and pharmacotherapy may help improve symptom perception, and how this relates to improvements in anxiety. She will also look to understand how factors such as gender and personality traits may relate to different types of anxiety, and how this may influence an individual’s response to treatment. Understanding your own personality may help provide insight into how and why you worry, and which strategies might help you best manage both your thoughts and symptoms.