Drilling Holes in Your Skull for Anxiety Relief

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In 2005 Karl Deisseroth used the light beam to activate certain brain cells responsible for mood as a way to control its circuitry. Deisseroth, Professor of Bioengineering of Psychiatry at Stanford University, is best known for his development of a technology he coined as “Optogenetics”.

According to Deisseroth, Optogenetics is a tool not only to better study and observe the complex circuitry of the brain but also to manipulate the electrical activity of very specific cells that are responsible for certain emotion or behaviour.

Deisseroth applies his method in two main steps. He first infuses specifically targeted cells or groups of cells within the brain with a gene to render them light sensitive. Then he triggers or suppresses the activity of those neurons by stimulating them. This process requires a surgical operation (drilling holes into the person’s skull) in order to insert into the brain devices to accomplish the required procedure.

One of the applications of this technology that attracted much attention is to discover how the brain of an anxious or depressed person works and treat it. For this purpose Deisseroth only accepts people suffering from severe cases of depression and anxiety that all the other methods have failed to help them. He then combines psychiatric medications and Optogenetics to control those areas in their brain responsible for mood and behaviour.

Optogenetics could be a cutting-edge technology for research. However, it may not be suitable for treatment for several reasons. As you recall the first step of this brain manipulation technique is to render certain brain cells sensitive to light. In order to achieve this, a live virus is applied to the brain cell, which genetically and permanently alters its function. We don’t know what might be the long-term negative consequences of tampering with genetic function of brain cells. One possible side effect is that the immune system might reject the genetically altered brain cells.

Now, let’s assume that this technology is free from side effects. Why resort to such an invasive and expensive procedure when there are other less expensive and more effective methods available? As Leonardo Da Vinci said: “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.”

I believe that a small percentage of people suffering from anxiety and depression can get help from drugs and/or complex technologies such as Optogenetics. However, according to my experience, the majority of people respond well to the right methodology. The key is to find a competent therapists who are specialized in helping people with anxiety and depression.

Mary’s Battle with Anxiety and Depression

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Before coming to see me, Mary had been suffering from anxiety and depression for five years. Her symptoms would worsen at night right after dinner. She would try to endure her anxiety as best as she could but when she was not able to control herself she became irritable and start to shout at her husband. She would then take refuge in front of the family computer to watch sad videos on youtube and cry.

Mary was taking a pill for depression and another for her anxiety. She had undergone psychotherapy for a long time but it yielded no positive results. The message she received from her psychotherapist was that she had to say ‘No’ to things and be assertive in life.

After listening to her describe her challenges and her life, I asked her to write her emotions and thoughts down on a daily basis. I explained to Mary that we all have an emotional well. In order to feel emotions without any negative consequences, we ought to keep this well clean. However, once in a while our emotional well needs a good cleaning. The exercise of writing down all her private thoughts, fears, anxieties and worries was a good way to cleanse her ’emotional well’.

A week later after our session she reported that she still had anxiety but that it was much less intense. She also felt more courageous and willing to speak up and tell others what she thinks. I asked her to continue writing down her emotions for another two weeks and gave her additional tasks to do until our next session.

Gradually Mary got better. She learned to be more assertive as her anxiety and depression diminished. Two months later, in our last session, she said she was feeling happy. She had stopped watching sad online videos. Naturally, others had also have noticed the positive change in her.

“I have forgotten I had anxiety!”, she told me excitedly, “Even my psychiatrist noticed that I was feeling better and reduced my medication.”

Not all cases of anxiety and depression are solved in such a short time but it is possible as Mary’s case demonstrates. The first step is to realize that seemingly intractable long-term issues do not necessarily need equally long-term and complex solutions.

Rosario’s Panic Attacks and Hypochondria

When I went to see my next appointment, I was concerned to see Rosario leaning against and for all intents, being carried into my office by a young lady.

“I’m sorry, but I’m having an anxiety attack right now!”

Rosario was the first person, among hundreds of cases that I have helped, that showed up at my office with an extremely high level of anxiety.

I quickly responded, “I’m glad that you are having an anxiety attack right here and right now because this way I can observe you with my own eyes. It will be very useful for my work. So please go ahead and feel free to hyperventilate, get nervous and have a pounding heart. Don’t worry about passing out because right next door my office there are several doctors, and there is a health clinic right across the street. I also see that someone is with you.”

“I’m her daughter-in-law”, said the accompanying young woman.

Rosario’s symptoms had already started to diminish. But I insisted that she should not calm down so quickly because it was a great opportunity for me to observe her. After all, my objective observation would give me more information than her subjective narration of her symptoms. But Rosario became calmer and relaxed and finally asked her daughter-in-law to wait outside.

She explained that it all started 7 years ago at her place of work. An argument with her boss caused her to have her first anxiety attack. She left her job and in the following months she lost 40 pounds due to anxiety-related digestive problems. Moreover, 20 years ago, her husband had several affairs with other women. This infidelity had brought on a depression. Although she wanted to forgive him, she couldn’t but help feel bitter resentment.
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Stopping a Cycle of Obsessive Self-Doubt

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James was depressed. A few months ago, coming to see me, he had been forced to sell his vacation home in Mexico. He really liked this flat but because of financial problems he was obliged to sell it. After ‘giving away’ his cherished flat full of so many fantastic vacation memories, James became depressed and obsessively regretful.

“I had to close my retail store because of the financial crisis. This made me very anxious because I had so much debt. Then I had to sacrifice my vacation flat in Mexico. That was supposed to be my retirement. Every night I cry myself to sleep. I know I had no choice and that the money from the sale helped me to repay my debts, but I also lost a huge investment opportunity in Mexico for my future.”

James went on to explain that this dilemma had caused him chest pains, a feeling of emptiness and insomnia among other symptoms. He was under medications for anxiety and depression. He knew that he had no choice under the dire circumstances but he couldn’t help regretting his decision. He had become obsessed with the idea and couldn’t stop thinking about his loss. He had tried to convince himself that his action was the correct one but the more he tried to convince himself with rational and convincing arguments, the stronger his obsessive thoughts and doubts became. His partner also tried, without any success, to reassure him that he had no choice and that the only way out was to sell that apartment.
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Finding Love After Loss and Depression

Source: Brent Moore
Source: Brent Moore

Patricia was a 50 year old widow who lived alone. She had been suffering from anxiety and fibromyalgia for the past 10 years. She had pain all over her body but especially acute pain in her lumbar sacral and cervical areas. She was taking anti-anxiety and anti-depressants. Like so many sufferers of this illness, Patricia had tried every possible treatment for fibromyalgia.

She told me that she would look at photos of her deceased husband and cry. Whenever she felt sad and depressed her pains and aches became worse, but she couldn’t help it.

During our first session I taught her a self-hypnosis technique and asked her to practice it to alleviating her physical pain. I also asked her to practice another technique that consisted in feeling her body. I asked her to practice these two exercises for couple of weeks.

Patricia came back a bit relieved. She had practiced the exercises and had noticed a slight improvement. For the following seven days I gave her another task. I asked her to think of a ritual to close the chapter she had left open with her deceased husband.
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