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Social Network Helps the Stressed and Depressed Cope

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When you’re anxious, stressed, or depressed, your inner monologue often goes to a dark place. It can start to seem like everything you do is stupid, all obstacles are impossible to overcome, and everyone hates you. A therapist can help you see that these thoughts don't correspond with reality, but not everyone has access to a therapist 24/7. 

Enter Koko, an app that allows you to enlist a team of strangers to be your pseudo-therapists. It’s a social network built on the ideas of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and “reframing,” or rethinking your perspective. 

Creator Rob Morris developed the tool, which launched on Apple's app store this week, while completing his PhD at the MIT Media Lab. In a study of 166 people with symptoms of depression, the crowdsourced technique Koko employs helped people improve their moods and learn cognitive reappraisal, a therapeutic tool that teaches people to tweak the way they're thinking about a problem.

Image Credit: Koko

When you log in to Koko, you can post the negative, depressive, anxious thoughts that often go unshared on general social media channels, where people feel pressured to present themselves in a flattering light. You can post, for instance, “I just ruined an important work presentation, and I feel like an idiot.” The app will prompt you to delve deeper into your feelings about the situation. Then, other users can comment on your post—but they have to say something deeper than “oh, that sucks!” Instead, users are supposed to reframe the negative thought, helping the stressed party find the positive aspect of the situation, no matter how small. They might, for instance, point out that public speaking is a common fear, and it’s important to give yourself credit for trying your best. 

The practice of helping others see their problems in a new light can, in turn, help you learn to rethink your own stressors. And having a community to turn to in tough times can help people feel less alone, allowing them to unload anonymously to a supportive group. It’s not a comprehensive substitute for talking to a mental health professional, but it's a lot more helpful than posting cryptic statuses on Facebook or telling no one at all. 

Koko is available for iOS now. An Android app is forthcoming. 

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Scientists Identify Cells in the Brain That Control Anxiety
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People plagued with the uncomfortable thoughts and sensations characteristic of anxiety disorders may have a small group of cells in the brain to blame, according to a new study. As NPR reports, a team of researchers has identified a class of brain cells that regulates anxiety levels in mice.

The paper, published in the journal Neuron, is based on experiments conducted on a group of lab mice. As is the case with human brains, the hippocampus in mouse brains is associated with fear and anxiety. But until now, researchers didn't know which neurons in the hippocampus were responsible for feelings of worry and impending danger.

To pinpoint the cells at work, scientists from Columbia University, the University of California, San Francisco, and other institutions placed mice in a maze with routes leading to open areas. Mice tend to feel anxious in spacious environments, so researchers monitored activity in the hippocampus when they entered these parts of the maze. What the researchers saw was a specialized group of cells lighting up when the mice entered spaces meant to provoke anxiety.

To test if anxiety was really the driving factor behind the response, they next used a technique called optogenetics to control these cells. When they lowered the cells' activity, the mice seemed to relax and wanted to explore the maze. But as they powered the cells back up, the mice grew scared and didn't venture too far from where they were.

Anxiety is an evolutionary mechanism everyone experiences from time to time, but for a growing portion of the population, anxiety levels are debilitating. Generalized anxiety disorder, social anxiety disorder, and panic disorder can stem from a combination of factors, but most experts agree that overactive brain chemistry plays a part. Previous studies have connected anxiety disorders to several parts of the brain, including the hippocampus, which governs memory as well as fear and worry.

By uncovering not just how the brain produces symptoms of anxiety but the individual cells behind them, scientists hope to get closer to a better treatment. There's more work to be done before that becomes a possibility. The anxiety cells in mice aren't necessarily a perfect indicator of which cells regulate anxiety in humans, and if a new treatment does eventually come from the discovery, it will be one of many options rather than a cure-all for every patient with the disorder.

[h/t NPR]

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What Pop Culture Gets Wrong About Dissociative Identity Disorder
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From the characters in Fight Club to Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, popular culture is filled with "split" personalities. These dramatic figures might be entertaining, but they're rarely (if ever) scientifically accurate, SciShow Psych's Hank Green explains in the channel's latest video. Most representations contribute to a collective misunderstanding of dissociative identity disorder, or DID, which was once known as multiple personality disorder.

Experts often disagree about DID's diagnostic criteria, what causes it, and in some cases, whether it exists at all. Many, however, agree that people with DID don't have multiple figures living inside their heads, all clamoring to take over their body at a moment's notice. Those with DID do have fragmented personalities, which can cause lapses of memory, psychological distress, and impaired daily function, among other side effects.

Learn more about DID (and what the media gets wrong about mental illness) by watching the video below.

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