In the Anxiety Research and Treatment Lab, we study the causes, correlates and treatment of anxiety and related disorders, which include problems in which anxiety, fear, and avoidance cause significant distress and impairment in day-to-day functioning. Based on the current classification system (DSM-5; American Psychiatric Association, 2013), anxiety-related problems fall into several broad categories, including anxiety disorders, obsessive-compulsive and related disorders, trauma and stressor-related disorders, and somatic symptom disorders.
Some of the anxiety-related disorders that we study in the lab include:
Hoarding disorder involves a persistent difficulty discarding possessions, regardless of their value. People who hoard accumulated significant clutter in their living areas, to the point of experiencing distress or impairment in functioning. Hoarding is often associated with excessive acquisition of objects that are not needed, despite a lack of space. Our lab recently finished recruiting participants with and without hoarding problems for a study using virtual reality to examine information processing and emotional similarities between people who do and do not have hoarding problems. We also completed a study on the ways in which family members of people who hoard accommodate their hoarding behaviours. Finally, data collection is now complete for a study on digital hoarding.
Agoraphobia is an extreme fear of situations in which escape might be difficult or help unavailable in the event of experiencing panic-like symptoms or other incapacitating or embarrassing symptoms. People with agoraphobia typically avoid situations such as using public transportation (e.g., automobiles, airplanes, trains), being in open spaces (e.g., markets, bridges), being in enclosed places (e.g., theatres, small rooms), crowds and long longs, and being outside of the home alone. Agoraphobia usually occurs in the context of panic disorder (see below). We are currently conducting a study examining the extent to which people with agoraphobia fear and avoid the agoraphobic situations listed in DSM-5, and their reasons for avoiding these situations.
Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD)
GAD is associated with persistent and excessive worry about a number of events or activities (i.e., work, family, finances), resulting in a variety of symptoms, such as restlessness or feeling “on edge”, fatigue, difficulty concentrating due to worry, irritability, muscle tension, and sleep disturbance. The worry is frequent, difficult to control, and persistent (lasting at lease 6 months). People with GAD report that the worry is distressing or leads to interference in their day-to-day lives. We are currently completing a study (in collaboration with colleagues at York University and the University of Massachusetts, Amherst) on the impact of motivational interviewing and cognitive-behavioural therapy for the treatment of GAD.
Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)
OCD is characterized by the presence of obsessions and/or compulsions, causing significant distress or impairment in day-to-day functioning. Obsessions are recurrent or persistent thoughts, images, or urges that are experienced as intrusive and unwanted; examples include concerns about being contaminated, repeated doubts, a need to have things in a particular order, aggressive impulses, and sexual imagery. Compulsions are repetitive behaviours or mental acts that are performed to prevent or reduce distress or prevent harm; examples include excessive washing, checking, ordering, praying, counting, or repeating actions. Recent projects from our lab in this area include a study on the nature of insight in OCD and another on the relationship between religiosity and OCD symptoms.
Social Anxiety Disorder (SAD)
The hallmark feature of SAD is an a persistent fear of one or more social situations in which one could be humiliated, embarrassed, or scrutinized by others. Types of situations that individuals with SAD typically fear include: performance situations (e.g., public speaking, participating in meetings or classes, eating or drinking in front of others) and/or social interaction situations (e.g., going to a party, initiating a conversation, maintaining a conversation, being assertive). Recent studies from our lab have investigated the impact of interpretation training in SAD, the effects of mindfulness training and cognitive restructuring on postevent processing in SAD, feedback seeking behaviours in SAD, and the effect of social anxiety on satisfaction in romantic relationships, to name a few.
Specific phobias are characterized by a marked and persistent fear of a specific object or situation, such as animals or insects, storms, heights, water, blood, injections, flying, driving, enclosed places, or other specific situations. The fears cause significant distress or interference in a person’s life, and last at least 6 months. Recent studies from our lab have investigated the impact of safety behaviours on exposure-based treatments for specific phobia, as well as the extent to which different types of stimuli (i.e., live vs. pictures) elicit fear and disgust for different animal phobias (i.e., dogs vs. spiders).
Other Anxiety-Related Disorders
Our lab is also interested in problems associated with health anxiety (e.g., Illness Anxiety Disorder, Somatic Symptom Disorder), other Obsessive-Compulsive and Related Disorders (e.g., Olfactory Reference Syndrome, Trichotillomania, Excoriation Disorder), and related problems.