Riding on the success of a previous study they conducted in 2009, Stanford scientists will evaluate cognitive behavioral therapy and mindfulness mediation as treatments for social phobia. Creating public awareness of the psychiatric condition, which often goes unrecognized, is an additional goal of the project, with research associate Philippe Goldin, Ph.D., noting that the condition and its symptoms are most easily calmed when treated early.

Goldin also highlighted the team's underlying mission to find alternatives to drug therapies. Such a need arises from drug side effects such as weight gain and bleariness that negatively impact patients' lives and deter them from seeking help.

What is Social Anxiety Disorder?

Social anxiety disorder, or SAD, afflicts approximately 7 percent of American adults, with the condition often arising in childhood. It is characterized by feelings of extreme anxiety in social settings caused by intense fears of being judged harshly. Sufferers may experience physical symptoms such as a pounding heart, shaking, breathing difficulties and sweating when in feared situations and may dwell on upcoming events incessantly. Many try to alleviate their stress by avoiding gatherings, crowds, and work and school settings, though such avoidance leads to a terribly restrictive and limiting lifestyle. SAD impairs personal and professional relationships and results in missed opportunities, making sufferers prone to loneliness, depression, suicide, and alcohol abuse. The condition, however, is highly treatable with different forms of psychotherapy, medications that increase neurotransmitter activity in the brain, or a combination of the two.

Measuring the Efficacy of CBT and Mindfulness Meditation

In the upcoming Stanford study, funded by a $2.5 million grant from the National Institute of Mental Health, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and mindfulness meditation (MM) will be compared by providing participants with one of the two non-drug treatments and evaluating the treatments' success in alleviating the subjects' anxiety.

Both treatments involve mental training but have been found to stimulate different brain regions. Brain scans from earlier studies show the prefrontal cortex more engaged in responding to emotions arising from the amygdala after CBT. MM, on the other hand, triggers greater activity in the posterior cortical region of the brain, which is responsible for regulating attention.

As with medications, people react differently to the same treatment, underscoring the importance of discovering several techniques to treat the same condition, Goldin said.

In CBT, patients are encouraged to reevaluate their negative thoughts and feelings that cause poor self opinions, and they are gradually encouraged to confront anxiety-provoking settings. Such activities boost confidence as people experience positive social experiences; they also help break deep-seated avoidance habits.

The meditation therapy trains people to focus their thoughts on the present and resist allowing their minds to wander. The practice directs individuals to maintain a calm awareness of their physical and mental state by focusing on breathing in a soothing, quiet environment. By requiring concentration, patients become more absorbed in the moment and less focused on negative and distorted views of themselves.

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