For the nearly 36 million Americans who experience panic attacks, the coronavirus pandemic is a potentially significant new trigger, a recent story in the Washington Post reported.
For panic attack sufferers facing these new anxieties, there is little recourse. Medication is minimally effective and has side effects. Cognitive behavioral therapy doesn’t work for nearly two-thirds of panic sufferers. And bio-feedback, which has shown promise, is cumbersome and impractical to use outside a laboratory or clinical setting.
A new app developed by faculty at the University of Vermont, PanicMechanic, may be part of a solution. The app adapts biofeedback-like monitoring so it can be used on a mobile phone. The app can work at any time and in any location, the first technology to do so for panic.
PanicMechanic is meant to be used as a supplement to professional clinical care.
“The challenge with panic attacks is that they’re episodic,” said one of the app’s developers, Ellen McGinnis, an assistant professor at the University of Vermont’s Center for Children, Youth and Families at the University of Vermont and a trained clinical psychologist.
“That means they’re not only difficult to treat in a traditional therapy setting, because a panic attack is hard to induce, but also that the one intervention that does seem to work for people—biofeedback—isn’t available when it’s needed.”
PanicMechanic uses the camera on a cell phone to measure the body’s panic response, using an approach similar to photoplethysmography
“Activating the app, then holding your finger against the flash can give you an objective measure of your reaction to stress,” said Ryan McGinnis, assistant professor of Electrical and Biomedical Engineering at the University of Vermont, and a co-developer of the app.
The concept for the app is grounded both in decades of research showing that enabling panic sufferers to observe their body’s reaction to stress reduces panic, and in the clinical practice of Ellen McGinnis.
“I’ve used a low tech version of this technique with a dozen patients,” she said. ‘The panic attack sufferer used just a pen, paper and timer to take their own heart rate and plot it on paper during the panic attack. It was very effective in helping patients manage, take control of and overcome their panic.”
The explanation? Intervening with objective information targets a driving dynamic of panic, she says.
“Panic takes hold and you feel like you’re out of control of your body. By showing someone their patterns of physiological arousal, it helps them gain a sense of mastery over their panic response.”
The app also works because it gives the panic sufferer something to do during an episode.
“One of the worst aspects of a panic attack is that you feel helpless,” Ellen McGinnis said.
In addition to displaying an objective measure of the body’s panic response, the app also asks, in a sequence of screens, “how much sleep and exercise you’ve had, what you ate, what your anxiety level is, and if you’ve consumed drugs or alcohol,” she said.
The screens both occupy the panic sufferer and serve a useful purpose, providing data on behaviors and triggers associated with the attack that could be avoided in the future.
The app also predicts how long the panic attack will last, based on past attacks.
That’s key, Ellen McGinnis said, because one of the most frightening aspects of a panic attack is that “it seems like it will never end.”
PanicMechanic employs machine learning to make sure the data gathered by the user on heart is accurate.
“Our beta testing showed that people can’t always put their finger on their cell phone in free living settings and get an accurate reading of their heart rate,” Ryan McGinnis said. The machine learning functionality corrects for faulty finger placement. In a study that will be published later this year, Ellen and Ryan McGinnis and their collaborators demonstrate that data obtained by the app was as accurate as that obtained in a lab setting.
“PanicMechanic helps panic attack sufferers learn to understand their panic attacks,” Ellen McGinnis said. “When they do that, working in partnership with their therapist, they’ve gone a long way toward stopping them.”
The team that developed PanicMechanic includes Steve DiCristofaro of Synbrix Software, LLC., in addition to Ellen and Ryan McGinnis.
The PanicMechanic app is available at the Apple App store.
When Giving Thanks, Don’t Forget Yourself
As we give thanks at the holidays, it’s easy to overlook someone important: your past self.
While it’s well documented that gratitude toward others can improve wellbeing, two University of Florida scientists find that gratitude toward your past self also has benefits.
Does thanking yourself seem a bit…selfish? The researchers, UF psychology professor Matt Baldwin, Ph.D., and undergraduate student Samantha Zaw, think not.
“Despite the fact that past gratitude is self-focused, it reminds people that they’re part of a bigger story and that they have the power to grow,” Baldwin said. “It’s possible this promotes a pay-it-forward type of mentality.”
Gratitude is what psychologists call a self-transcendent emotion, one that lifts us out of the everyday and expands our perspective, which can help us get along with each other better. In a recent experiment, Baldwin and Zaw asked participants to write brief gratitude letters. The first group thanked someone else, the second thanked themselves, while a third, the control condition, wrote about a positive experience they’d had. Zaw and Baldwin then surveyed the participants about their self-perception after writing the letter. Although the results are not yet published, early analysis shows that the exercise gave the other- and self-focused gratitude groups a sense of redemption and helped them feel they were morally good people. However, the group that wrote to themselves scored higher on both measures.
The past-self group also saw a benefit the others didn’t: an increase in the self-awareness measures of clarity, authenticity and connectedness.
“Unlike gratitude toward others, being appreciative of ourselves carries an added benefit of truly understanding who we are and feeling connected to ourselves,” said Zaw, a McNair Scholar who has been working with Baldwin since her freshman year as part of UF’s Emerging Scholars Program.
Zaw and Baldwin’s research — the first known data gathered on past-self gratitude — was inspired by a Reese’s cup. When Baldwin’s co-worker, boredom researcher Erin Westgate, returned to the office after pandemic lockdown, she was delighted to discover a peanut butter cup she had squirreled away in her desk.
“She texted me like, ‘Oh my gosh, my past self left my future self a Reese’s,’” Baldwin recalled. “I was like, ‘Wait a second. You’re expressing gratitude towards something your past self had done. We have to study this.’”
As Zaw and Baldwin dug into previous studies, they found plenty on gratitude toward others and a few on self-compassion, but nothing on past-self gratitude. They designed the letter-writing experiment to test its effects, presenting their findings at the Society of Southeastern Social Psychologists in October and at the upcoming meeting of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology in February.
If you’re curious about the benefits of self-gratitude, Zaw offered a way to try the experiment at home, maybe as a new Thanksgiving tradition. Take a few minutes to write a thank you message to someone else, and another to yourself for something you did in the past. Sharing what you wrote could foster connections between loved ones, she said, but the exercise can also pay dividends if you try it on your own.
“At Thanksgiving and Christmas, we focus on other people, but self-care is really needed too, especially if we want to feel more clear about ourselves,” she said. “Maybe it can even lead to a better vision for ourselves for the next year.”
A Lifeline for Primary Care Amid a Crisis in Youth Mental Health
Most mental health care in America doesn’t happen in psychiatrists’ offices – especially when it comes to children, teens and young adults.
Instead, young people with depression, anxiety and more turn to the same people they already go to for all kinds of other health issues: their pediatricians, family doctors, school-based clinics and other primary care providers.
But where do those providers turn when they need more help in handling the mental health concerns of their patients – especially more serious issues that they’re not trained to handle?
If they’re anywhere in Michigan, they can turn to the team at MC3.
For nearly a decade, the MC3 program has helped thousands of primary care providers throughout the state care for the mental health needs of young people up to age 26. It also aids providers caring for pregnant women and new mothers of any age who have mental health needs.
More than 16,000 times since 2012, MC3’s psychiatrists and pediatric behavior specialists from the University of Michigan have connected directly with more than 1,800 primary care providers by phone, for consultations about their patients.
Together, they’ve mapped out plans for handling ADHD in young children, suicide-prevention safety planning for teens and symptoms that might signal schizophrenia in young adults.
There’s no charge to providers or their patients, thanks to the program’s funding from state and federal grants.
For providers whose patients recently had a mental health emergency or are waiting for an appointment with a child psychiatrist or a psychiatric inpatient bed, the service can literally be a lifeline: one in five of the consults involve a patient who has expressed suicidal thoughts or harmed themselves.
How it Works
MC3 also offers video-based telehealth appointments to connect patients of participating providers with psychiatrists. U-M and Michigan State University experts have also created a wide range of training options for professionals available on the MC3 website.
Though the demand has grown in recent years thanks to the pandemic, the program has room for more Michigan providers to join the network and get access to its services.
Each connection starts by contacting one of the trained professionals in MC3’s network of Behavioral Health Consultants, located throughout the state. MC3 also works closely with the state-funded Community Mental Health agencies across the state.
“Only about 3% of the children, teens, young adults and moms that our participating providers have consulted with us about are in treatment with a psychiatrist. We’re providing access to specialist-informed care to young people who wouldn’t otherwise have it,” said Sheila Marcus, M.D., who heads the pediatric component of MC3 and is a professor of psychiatry at Michigan Medicine, the University of Michigan’s academic medical center.
“The reality is that no matter where they live and no matter what their family’s income level, most of these patients would not have easy access to a specialist because of the critical shortage of such providers,” she added. “In some counties, there are no local providers trained to provide this level of care.”
Primary care providers inside and outside Michigan can also access MC3’s free online resources, even if they’re not enrolled in the program.
These include prescribing guides for mental health medications and online provider education, to equip them to provide diagnosis and care that might not have been part of their formal professional training. Much of that training offers continuing education credits that can help physicians, nurse practitioners, physician assistants and certified nurse midwives keep up their license.
“For me, MC3 has been a game changer,” said Lia Gaggino, M.D., who first interacted with the MC3 team through her pediatrics practice in Portage, Michigan and now is the team’s consulting pediatrician. “Since its inception I have used their services for children and teens who presented with very complicated mental health concerns. I wished I had had a psychiatrist to help me and then MC3 appeared and offered me a lifeline. Their services changed my prescribing practices and improved my skills and I am so grateful for their advice and support. I encourage my colleagues to sign up and call –MC3 is there to help us!”
Local Care Amid a National Emergency
As the nation grapples with a national emergency of rising mental health concerns among young people, MC3 and similar programs in other states are expanding access to critical psychiatric services at a time when demand is soaring.
The national organizations that declared that emergency in October called for more support of mental health care in primary care settings, as well as efforts to overcome the national shortage of mental health specialists for young people, especially in rural and low-income areas.
That shortage is what drove the creation of MC3 in the first place.
Michigan is third from the bottom among all states in supply of mental health professionals for young people. Only Washtenaw County, where the University of Michigan is located, meets national population-based criteria for having enough mental health providers specializing in children and teens.
The pandemic has made matters worse across Michigan and the United States. A national report from November 2020 showed that anxiety and depression in pregnant women have more than doubled, and emergency department visits for mental health concerns in children had risen by double digits since the pandemic began.
Joanna Quigley, M.D., another MC3 consulting psychiatrist from Michigan Medicine, recently presented data at a national meeting showing that 30% of MC3 consults during 2020 focused on pandemic-related concerns.
The pandemic has prompted MC3’s team to plan to offer extra training to help providers identify the needs and handle the concerns of children traumatized by experiences they or their families have had during COVID-19.
Trauma-informed care is also important for children who even before the pandemic experienced very disruptive life events.
Terri Rosel, NP-C, a nurse practitioner at Cherry Health in northern Michigan, wrote to the MC3 team: “I work in a small student health center in Cedar Springs and am the sole provider in the office. Since starting this job four years ago I have had the pleasure of seeing so many students with mental health concerns. I felt ill-equipped at times to help them with my degree as a family practice nurse practitioner. I would utilize MC3 often to help with treatment plans for these wonderful kids who needed help but could not get into psychiatric services soon enough.”
As the program continues to grow, it will partner more with schools through a direct connection with the TRAILS program that offers mental health awareness and support services.
Positive Feedback from Providers
The MC3 team has surveyed participating providers and found that 99% agreed with the statement that “following phone consultation(s) I felt more confident that I could effectively treat patients’ behavioral health problems.”
The team published other findings from its survey of providers, and responded to feedback by making changes.
The quotes they received from providers are equally compelling.
“This service has been absolutely ‘practice- changing’,” said one. “As we have more and more patients with mental health issues and limited local resources- we are essentially the only option for these kids. Having MC3 support helps us make good treatment decisions and is also ‘on the job training’ which we can apply to future patients.”
In fact, MC3 data show that 25% of the interactions help the patient avoid a higher-level of care that may be difficult to access, such as a psychiatric hospital bed or emergency psychiatric visit.
One of the maternal health providers who joined MC3 recently said, “I can’t even express how this service has enhanced the care I can provide. In the past, we’d screen and diagnose and then send moms out. We’d place referrals and hope that folks could navigate the complex system. Now, with MC3, I can collaborate with psychiatry, start meds or treatment, and access community resources that I am confident they will be able to access. It’s really been invaluable.”
America Has an Anger Problem – Can Better “Mental Nutrition” Fix It?
America is a pretty angry place these days. Formerly respectful spaces like school board meetings have become bitter battlegrounds. Some people are harassing healthcare workers and threatening restaurant staff for enforcing COVID protocols. Others are openly furious with the vaccine-hesitant. Everyone, wherever they stand on the (deeply divided) political playing field, is outraged about something.
Sure, anger is part of the human condition, but have things always been this bad? Elaine Parke thinks not—and she has a plan to get America the anger management tools it needs.
“We’ve stopped listening to one another because we’ve become addicted to our own narrow and sometimes selfish points of view,” says Parke, author of “The Habits of Unity: 12 Months to a Stronger America…one citizen at a time” (Outskirts Press, 2021, ISBN: 978-1-9772-4276-1, $21.95, www.12habits4allofus.
“It’s way past time for us to take a collective deep breath and treat others with dignity, respect, and civility—and listen to them—whether we agree or not,” she adds. “It’s urgent that we make this shift now.”
Dialing down our ire is easier said than done. We are living in extraordinarily stressful times. But there’s more at play. Parke says we are shaped by the messages we consistently consume—and in today’s connected world, a lot of those messages come from our digital diet.
“Social media isn’t solely to blame for stoking our emotional flames—in fact, it was designed to be a source of information and to bring people together,” Parke clarifies. “But if your newsfeed is making you an angrier person, it’s on you to either log off for a few days or reassess the kind of content you’re engaging with. When we choose to focus on stories that are positive and nourishing, we go a long way toward resetting our emotional equilibrium.”
Parke’s “The Habits of Unity” is her attempt to help people take charge of what she calls their “Mental Nutrition.” Much in the same way that we (hopefully) approach the food we eat, we need to develop the discipline to make more nutritious mental choices every day. Her book’s 365 “one-magic-minute-a-day” motivationals make it easy to hardwire these choices into habit.
With her simple, doable framework for uplifting ourselves, boosting our mental health, and practicing unity, Parke hopes to get everyone focused on the same branded behavior each month. The idea is that the sheer force of all that concentrated positive energy sparks a unity revolution that rises from the ground up and sweeps the nation.
Yet, until that happens, we can leverage the power of “The Habits of Unity” on a personal level by forming one good habit per month:
January: Help Others
February: You Count
March: Resolve Conflicts
April: Take Care of Our Environment
May: Be Grateful
June: Reach Higher
July: Become Involved
August: Know Who You Are
September: Do Your Best
October: Be Patient and Listen
November: Show a Positive Attitude
December: Celebrate Community, Family, and Friends
Those who’ve tried it say the plan is easy to put into practice. It feels good, so you’ll want to keep doing it. And there’s a ripple effect. As you become more positive, centered, and respectful, others will be drawn to you and your relationships will improve.
“As these ripples expand, they will improve the emotional climate in our country and make it easier to seek common ground, instead of lashing out,” says Parke. “But we can’t sit around waiting for others to take action. Each American must recommit to making our country a welcoming, affirming melting pot—instead of a stewing pot.”
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