• A team from Yale University and Weill Cornell Medicine say that using a “safety signal” can help people ease their stress levels.
  • Researchers learned that a safety signal alleviated anxiety by activating a specific brain network.
  • They found an increase in activity in specific portion of the brain called the hippocampus that supports emotional memory.

Turns out that the advice “think happy thoughts” may be an effective way to diffuse your anxiety, according to new research.

A team from Yale University and Weill Cornell Medicine found that using a “safety signal” can help people who otherwise wouldn’t respond well to anxiety treatments to ease their stress levels.

When researchers tested the use of a symbol or sound in humans and mice, both had anxiety reduction. In fact, the safety signal alleviated anxiety by activating a specific brain network. Their report recently appeared in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

For as many as 1 in 3 people, non-dangerous situations can trigger fear and panic. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), including gradually exposing the person to the perceived threat, is used along with or without antidepressants to treat anxiety. But the treatments don’t work for all people.

In the research, mice were exposed to different non-threatening sound tones; they heard a tone with a mild foot shock to denote a threat. People were conditioned to associate one shape with a threat and another as non-threatening.

In both experiments, humans and mice were then later exposed to the threatening and non-threatening shapes or tones. Brain imaging studies noticed that the safety signals activated a different neural network than expected.

This meant it didn’t activate the brain to perceive a threat and therefore cause anxiety.

Using a safety signal works differently than exposure therapy, which can be used as part of CBT to gradually expose a person to a perceived threat with the hopes that it allows them time to realize they are not in danger.

Exposure-based therapy relies on fear extinction. This involves forming a safe memory where the person realizes they are not in danger. This safe memory can compete with the perceived threat rendering it ineffective for some people, explained Dr. Dylan Gee, assistant professor of psychology at Yale.

But there can be an issue if the fear-based memory can overcome the new safe memory.

“This competition makes current therapies subject to the relapse of fear, but there is never a threat memory associated with safety signals,” Gee said in a statement.

Paola Odriozola, a PhD candidate in psychology at Yale and co-first author, explained understanding certain neural circuits were key.

“We identified a neural circuit that was specifically related to a reduction in fear-related reactivity and behavior during the safety signal,” said Odriozola.

By using a functional MRI (fMRI) of the subjects’ brain, the researchers could see if the fear response was lessened thanks to a safety signal. They found certain parts of the brain appeared to have an increase in activity in areas of the brain that deal with emotions and complex behaviors.

They found an increase in activity in specific portion of the brain called the hippocampus that supports emotional memory.

They also noted a significant connectivity between two key areas of the brain, the hippocampus and the prelimbic prefrontal cortex. The prelimbic prefrontal cortex at the frontmost part of the brain is important for controlling complex thoughts and behaviors.

What was really notable was finding evidence of similar results across both species, Odriozola said.

“This is novel because this is a different brain pathway for the reduction of fear than what is known to be involved in typical extinction learning, the method used for reducing fear in CBT,” she added.

Researchers already knew that the regions activated were involved in emotional memory. That is, they can provide contextual information about the level of threat or safety in the environment. They can control complex thoughts and behaviors.

“What we didn’t know is whether they would also be involved in safety signal learning,” Odriozola said.

She hopes more research can shed light into whether activating those brain pathways can reduce fear in the presence of safety.

“We are now exploring whether this same neural circuitry is targeted by safety learning in anxious adults, and during childhood and adolescence, as the next steps in this line of research,” she told Healthline, admitting that more work needs to be done to validate the findings and better understand how it works.

“The need for alternatives for those suffering from anxiety-related disorders is great,” she added.

Odriozola said the findings could mean that therapist rethink about implementing safety cues, as they could change outcomes if used during specific stages of treatment or for specific individuals. “The present study does not provide any evidence for the specifics of implementing safety signals in treatment, but is a first step towards rethinking safety as potentially beneficial in treatment,” she said.

Anxiety treatments already backed by evidence, including CBT, often focus on eliminating a patient’s reliance on a safety signal. Using safety signals could reduce fear enough to provide initial relief that may help patients to then utilize existing treatments including exposure therapy.

Using a safety signal could be helpful for many, as we are in the midst of the holiday season and probably already stressed out.

Should you start using this technique — and how can you do it?

“A safety signal could be a musical piece, a person, or even an item like a stuffed animal that represents the absence of threat,” Odriozola explained.

More research needs to be conducted before people use safety signals, as doing so may not provide long-lasting relief, she said.

“We do not yet know which types of safety signals might work best, but there is some existing evidence showing that social support figures could help to reduce fear,” she said.

Again, using signals may eventually be encouraged at different times in CBT so patients that may not have been able to benefit from it can actually do so.

Dr. Shoshana Bennett, a psychotherapist from California not affiliated with the research, has used safety signals effectively with clients in the past.

“Safety signals can be used to strengthen and augment successful CBT, medication, or other treatments,” she said.

Though you can use one signal for all anxiety-producing situations and thoughts, she said people should talk to a psychotherapist to ensure that the safety signal you choose is pure and isn’t related to anything negative.

“The signal needs to be ‘pure’ — not tainted at all with even a bit of negativity,” Bennett told Healthline. “A psychotherapist can help tease out whether or not the signal chosen will be successful.”