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Knowledge Base » Mental Health » The Future of Anxiety Research: What’s on the Horizon?

The Future of Anxiety Research: What’s on the Horizon?

Approximately 1 in 4 people in the UK will experience a mental health problem each year and the number of people who self-harm or have suicidal thoughts is increasing. 

According to Mental Health UK, a little over 1 in 10 of us will be living with an anxiety disorder at any one time.

Anxiety disorders are among the most common mental health issues, affecting millions of people worldwide. Understanding anxiety can help in developing effective treatments and interventions and improving the quality of life for those affected. Anxiety disorders can lead to significant economic burdens due to healthcare costs, lost productivity and disability claims. Research can help in developing cost-effective treatments and preventive measures, potentially reducing these economic impacts. 

Anxiety often co-occurs with other mental health conditions, such as depression, and physical health issues like cardiovascular diseases. Research helps in understanding these links, leading to integrated treatment approaches that can address multiple conditions simultaneously. 

Anxiety is a feeling of unease, a feeling of worry or fear that can range from being mild to severe. Anxiety is usually experienced as a combination of physical sensations, thoughts and feelings. Anxiety can feel like you are constantly worrying about things, have a sense of dread and you may have difficulty concentrating. Feeling anxious occasionally is different to having an anxiety disorder. Feeling occasionally anxious is a normal part of everyday life. Many people worry about things such as their health, money worries or family problems. But anxiety disorders involve more than just a temporary worry or fear. For people with an anxiety disorder, the anxiety does not go away when the problem resolves and it can get worse over time. 

Signs and symptoms of anxiety disorder may include:

  • Excessive, intense and persistent worry that is not proportionate to the actual threat or situation.
  • It may feel difficult to control.
  • It will often interfere with your daily activities, work and relationships, and affect your overall quality of life.
  • It may lead to avoidance of certain situations or activities.
  • It will usually be persistent and chronic, lasting for six months or more.
  • The feeling of worry may be present even when there is no immediate cause for concern.
  • Feelings of dread, panic or ‘impending doom’.
  • Uncontrollable overthinking.
  • Changes in appetite over a prolonged period of time.
  • Dissociation, which is feeling like you aren’t connected to your own body, watching things happen around you without really feeling it.
  • It may not have an obvious trigger, or the trigger may be disproportionate to the situation and the level of anxiety experienced.
  • You may experience intense physical symptoms such as muscle tension, headaches, nausea, sweating, trembling and difficulty concentrating.
  • It may affect your ability to sleep.
  • It will often require professional intervention, such as therapy or medication, to manage the symptoms effectively.

There are several types of anxiety disorders, including:

  • Generalised anxiety disorder (GAD) – this is chronic anxiety that can last for months or years. There may be no particular cause for the anxiety.
  • Panic disorder – people with this type of anxiety have frequent panic attacks that can come on unexpectedly.
  • Social anxiety disorder – this involves intense fear of social situations in which a person may be watched or judged.
  • Phobia-related disorders – phobias relate to fear and aversion to specific objects and situations.

For further reading about what can cause anxiety, please see our knowledge base.

Girl with anxiety

The Current Landscape of Anxiety Research

The current landscape of anxiety research is diverse and dynamic. It explores genetic, psychological and neurological perspectives. A holistic view is essential for developing more effective interventions and therapies, as well as for promoting a healthier societal understanding of anxiety.

Researchers aim to develop more nuanced and effective strategies for managing anxiety, aiming to improve the quality of life for those affected by the condition.

Genetic Insights

Recent studies have been exploring the genetic component of anxiety, and why it is often in conjunction with other mental health disorders like depression. Genome-Wide Association Studies (GWAS) have been instrumental in identifying genetic variants associated with anxiety disorders. Candidate Gene Studies focus on specific genes thought to be related to anxiety based on their biological functions. Research into gene-environment interactions has shown that genetic predispositions to anxiety can be influenced by environmental factors. For instance, stressful life events, trauma and early life experiences can interact with genetic risk factors to increase the likelihood of developing anxiety disorders. Epigenetic mechanisms, which involve changes in gene expression without altering the DNA sequence, are also crucial in anxiety research. These changes can be influenced by environmental factors and can be heritable.

Psychological Approaches

Psychological research on anxiety is broad, with particular emphasis on social anxiety. Studies are investigating cognitive, emotional and interpersonal aspects, including how errors in cognition like over-interpreting other people’s mental states correlate with social anxiety. There is a focus on different therapeutic approaches, including exposure therapy, which helps people to confront and manage their anxiety triggers directly.

Neurological Discoveries

There have been significant advancements from a neurological point of view. One major breakthrough involves the identification of a new brain mechanism linked to anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Researchers at the University of Utah discovered that microglia, a type of immune cell in the brain, play a critical role in anxiety-related behaviours.

Innovations in Brain Imaging and Neuroscience

Innovations in brain imaging and neuroscience are developing and changing our understanding and the treatment of anxiety disorders. 

Examples of this include:

  • Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) – this technique measures brain activity by detecting changes associated with blood flow, providing insights into the connectivity and functional networks of the brain in anxiety disorders.
  • Task-based fMRI – this is used to observe brain activity in response to specific tasks or stimuli, helping to pinpoint regions involved in anxiety responses and how they deviate from the norm.
  • Magnetoencephalography (MEG) – MEG measures the magnetic fields produced by neural activity. It offers millisecond-level temporal resolution, allowing researchers to track the fast dynamics of brain activity and its relation to anxiety.
  • Positron Emission Tomography (PET) – PET scans use radioactive tracers to visualise how tissues and organs are functioning. This is particularly useful in identifying neurochemical changes in the brain which are associated with anxiety. This includes things like alterations in serotonin and dopamine systems.
  • Molecular Imaging – single-photon emission computed tomography (SPECT) – similar to PET, SPECT uses gamma rays to provide 3D images and information about blood flow and activity in the brain. It has been instrumental in understanding the role of neurotransmitters in anxiety disorders.
  • Non-invasive brain stimulation – Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS). TMS uses magnetic fields to stimulate nerve cells in the brain. It has been found effective in treating anxiety by modulating neural circuits that are dysfunctional in anxiety disorders, such as those involving the prefrontal cortex.
  • Transcranial Direct Current Stimulation (tDCS) – tDCS involves applying a low electrical current to the scalp to alter brain function. This method can help enhance or inhibit brain activity in regions associated with anxiety.
  • Artificial intelligence and machine learning – AI and machine learning algorithms are being employed to analyse complex brain imaging data. These tools can help in identifying patterns and biomarkers of anxiety disorders, enabling more precise diagnoses and personalised treatment plans.
  • Connectomics – connectomics involves mapping the brain’s neural connections. By creating detailed maps of the brain’s connectivity, researchers can better understand how disruptions in these networks contribute to anxiety disorders.
  • Neurofeedback – Neurofeedback is a type of biofeedback that uses real-time displays of brain activity to teach self-regulation of brain function. This technique helps people with anxiety learn to control their brain activity, leading to reduced symptoms.
  • Optogenetics and chemogenetics – these cutting-edge techniques involve the use of light (optogenetics) or engineered receptors (chemogenetics) to control neuronal activity with high precision. Although primarily used in animal studies, they offer insights into the neural circuits underlying anxiety and potential future therapeutic targets.
  • Genetic and epigenetic studies – advances in genomics are identifying genetic factors that contribute to anxiety disorders. Epigenetic studies, which look at changes in gene expression without altering the DNA sequence, are revealing how environmental factors can influence the development and progression of anxiety.
  • Integrative approaches – combining various imaging techniques provides a more comprehensive understanding of the brain’s structure and function in anxiety disorders. These integrative approaches can offer a more detailed picture of the neural underpinnings of anxiety.
Anxiety research

Personalised Medicine and Treatment

Personalised medicine holds great promise for improving the treatment of anxiety disorders. By considering the unique genetic, biochemical and lifestyle factors of each individual, personalised approaches aim to enhance treatment efficacy, reduce side effects, and improve overall patient outcomes. 

Personalised medicine aims to tailor medical treatment to the individual characteristics of each patient. In the context of anxiety, this approach involves customising treatment based on a person’s genetic, environmental and lifestyle factors to achieve the most effective and least invasive therapy.

  • Pharmacogenomics is the study of how genes affect a person’s response to drugs. For anxiety treatment, pharmacogenomics testing can identify which medications are most likely to be effective based on an individual’s genetic profile. This can help avoid the trial-and-error process often associated with finding the right medication. Certain genetic variations can make individuals more susceptible to anxiety disorders. Understanding these genetic predispositions can help in developing preventive strategies and personalised treatment plans.
  • Biomarkers are measurable indicators of a biological condition. In anxiety disorders, biomarkers can include neuroimaging biomarkers. Brain imaging techniques like fMRI and PET scans can identify structural and functional abnormalities in the brain associated with anxiety.
  • Biochemical markers is where levels of neurotransmitters (such as serotonin and dopamine), hormones (like cortisol), and inflammatory markers can provide insights into the biological underpinnings of anxiety.
  • Personalised medicine can guide the selection of anti-anxiety medications that are more likely to be effective and cause fewer side effects for a particular individual.
  • Psychotherapy including cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and other forms of psychotherapy can be tailored to an individual’s specific anxiety triggers and coping mechanisms.
  • Lifestyle and behavioural interventions – personalised recommendations regarding diet, exercise, sleep hygiene and stress management can be made based on an individual’s lifestyle and specific needs.
  • Technology and tools like mobile apps and wearables. These can be used to monitor symptoms, provide real-time feedback, and support adherence to treatment plans. Apps can offer features like mood tracking, guided meditation and biofeedback.
  • Telemedicine allows for remote consultations and ongoing monitoring, making it easier to personalise and adjust treatment plans as needed.

Digital Mental Health Interventions

Digital mental health interventions refer to the use of technology-based tools and platforms to provide mental health support, treatment and education. The benefits of digital mental health interventions include increased accessibility, convenience, anonymity, and the potential for continuous monitoring and support. Challenges such as ensuring privacy, data security, effectiveness and equitable access remain important considerations. These interventions leverage various forms of digital technology including:

  • Mobile apps – apps designed for mental health offer a range of functionalities including mood tracking, cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) exercises, guided meditation, and mindfulness practices.
  • Online therapy platforms – these platforms connect users with therapists for virtual counselling sessions through video calls, chat or messaging.
  • Internet-based cognitive behavioural therapy – these are programmes that provide structured CBT sessions online. These may include interactive modules and exercises, and sometimes with support from a therapist.
  • Telepsychiatry – this is remote psychiatric service provided through video conferencing. This allows patients to consult with psychiatrists from home, improving access for those in remote or underserved areas.
  • Virtual reality (VR) therapy – the use of VR environments to treat conditions like anxiety, PTSD and phobias is increasing. VR can create immersive simulations for exposure therapy, relaxation training or social skills practice.
  • Chatbots and AI therapists – AI-driven chatbots offer conversational support and CBT techniques.
  • Wearable devices – wearables like smartwatches or fitness trackers that monitor physiological signals to provide feedback and interventions aimed at improving mental health.
  • Online support communities – forums, social media groups, and dedicated platforms where people can share experiences, offer support and connect with others facing similar challenges.
  • Digital therapeutics – prescription digital therapeutics (PDTs) are software applications that have been clinically tested and approved to treat specific mental health conditions. These often require a prescription and are used under the guidance of a healthcare provider.

Case Study – Groundbreaking Anxiety Research

Lauren, a 38-year-old graphic designer, had been suffering from severe anxiety since childhood. Her symptoms included persistent worry, difficulty sleeping and panic attacks that were becoming increasingly debilitating. Traditional treatments like cognitive behavioural therapy and medications provided some relief but were not enough to significantly improve her quality of life.

In 2022, Lauren’s psychiatrist informed her about a groundbreaking research study being conducted at a leading university. The study focused on a new treatment method for anxiety using a combination of advanced neurofeedback and targeted cognitive-behavioural strategies. The research involved the use of real-time functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) neurofeedback. This method allows patients to see their brain activity in real time and learn to control their anxiety-related neural patterns. The approach was combined with traditional CBT to enhance the effectiveness of the treatment.

Lauren was selected to participate in the study, which lasted for 12 weeks. Her treatment involved:

  • Initial assessment – comprehensive psychological and neuroimaging assessments to establish baseline anxiety levels and brain activity patterns.
  • Neurofeedback sessions – weekly sessions where Lauren learned to modulate her brain activity. She was shown visual representations of her brain’s activity and trained to alter patterns associated with anxiety.
  • Integrated CBT – weekly CBT sessions tailored to complement the neurofeedback training, focusing on cognitive restructuring and stress management techniques.

By the end of the study, Lauren’s anxiety levels had decreased significantly. Her panic attacks had reduced in frequency and severity, and she reported a marked improvement in her ability to manage daily stress. The neuroimaging data showed that Lauren had developed the ability to control the activity in her amygdala, the part of the brain often associated with anxiety and fear responses.

Six months after the study concluded, follow-up assessments revealed that Lauren had maintained her improved anxiety management skills. She continued practising the techniques learned during neurofeedback and CBT, leading to sustained improvements in her mental health. Lauren’s quality of life improved dramatically, enabling her to excel in her career and enjoy personal relationships without the constant burden of anxiety.

future of anxiety research

Ethical Considerations and Future Challenges

Researchers must design studies that minimise potential harm to participants. This includes avoiding unnecessary stress or anxiety triggers and providing appropriate support and interventions during and after the study. 

Protecting the privacy and confidentiality of participants is paramount. Sensitive data about participants’ mental health must be securely stored and anonymised to prevent any potential misuse or stigmatisation. Ensuring informed consent is crucial in anxiety research. Participants must be fully aware of the study’s aims, procedures, potential risks and benefits. This is particularly important for vulnerable populations, such as those with severe anxiety disorders, and who may not have capacity.

Future challenges in anxiety research include:

  • Advancing personalised medicine – personalised approaches to anxiety treatment, which tailor interventions based on individual genetic, environmental and psychological profiles, are promising but present challenges in terms of data privacy, ethical use of genetic information, and fair access to personalised therapies.
  • Integrating technology – the use of digital health technologies, such as apps and wearables, in anxiety research and treatment poses challenges related to data security, user privacy and ensuring the accuracy and reliability of the technology.
  • Longitudinal studies – long-term studies are necessary to understand the chronic nature of anxiety disorders and the long-term effects of treatments. However, maintaining participant engagement over extended periods is challenging, and ethical considerations regarding long-term data storage and privacy must be addressed.
  • Addressing comorbidities – anxiety often coexists with other mental health conditions, such as depression, and physical health issues. Research must consider these comorbidities to develop more effective, holistic treatments. This requires complex study designs and careful consideration of how to measure and interpret the interactions between multiple conditions.
  • Global health disparities – anxiety disorders are a global issue, but most research is concentrated in high-income countries. Expanding research efforts to low- and middle-income countries is essential for developing a comprehensive understanding of anxiety. This includes addressing ethical considerations related to conducting research in diverse cultural contexts and ensuring that findings benefit all populations.
  • Ethical AI and machine learning – as AI and machine learning become more prevalent in anxiety research, ensuring these technologies are used ethically is crucial. This includes addressing biases in AI algorithms, ensuring transparency in how AI is used, and safeguarding against the potential misuse of AI-generated data

If you are struggling with anxiety, MIND offers helpful advice about where you can get support and different treatment options and self-help techniques. NHS allows you to find an NHS talking therapies service. A GP can refer you, or you can refer yourself directly without a referral. 

You can get help from 111 Online or call 111 and select the mental health option. If you need help for a mental health crisis or emergency, you should get immediate expert advice and assessment. 

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About the author

Claire Vain

Claire Vain

Claire graduated with a degree in Social Work in 2010. She is currently enjoying her career moving in a different direction, working as a professional writer and editor. Outside of work Claire loves to travel, spend time with her family and two dogs and she practices yoga at every opportunity!

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