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Nicholas Allan, director of the FEAR Lab and assistant professor of clinical psychology in the College of Arts and Sciences, gets suited up in EEG equipment.

FEAR Lab works to study anxiety, loneliness during COVID-19 pandemic

The Factors of Emotional/Affective Risks, or FEAR, Lab employs student researchers and volunteers to study anxiety and the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on mental health. 

Located in Porter Hall, the lab is working to research “emotional distress disorders as well as related conditions,” Nicholas Allan, director of the FEAR Lab and assistant professor of clinical psychology in the College of Arts and Sciences, said. 

Allan said in his work, he mainly researches anxiety and depression but also aspects like suicide and substance use. He said though there are a variety of anxiety and depression disorders, all of them share a core set of risk factors. The lab currently has about eight graduate students and 15 to 20 undergraduate students. 

To fund the lab’s research, Allan said the lab receives grants that fund participant payment, which ends up being the most expensive part. He said keeping the proper equipment up to date can be expensive, but it is not “prohibitively costly.”

“Research into how can we best treat people with these disorders, over the last decade or so — maybe two decades — has kind of changed the focus from treating individual disorders to either components underlying these disorders that we can target,” Allan said. 

He said it was early in the pandemic when he realized COVID-19 would offer a unique yet fitting background for his research. Allan remembers being in disbelief about rumors of nationwide lockdowns and recognized the anxiety the coronavirus pandemic could cause.

“Through some of the work that I had already done, we know that there's a connection between anxiety sensitivity and things like pain as well as chronic illness,” he said. “Once I started seeing some of the symptoms of COVID — things like shortness of breath — it became also pretty obvious that we were going to have people either with elevated anxiety sensitivity who were going to have a difficult time during COVID, or we’re really going to have a build-up where people are just developing higher levels of these risk factors because of how prominent they were in their lives.”

Kevin Saulnier, a graduate student researcher currently completing his pre-doctoral internship, said he has been working with Allan for the past six years with a shared interest in discovering how the brain predicts the development of mental illnesses. 

“When the COVID pandemic hit, we realized that, ‘Oh, wow, these things that predict psychopathology generally are going to keep very ramped up right now,’” Saulnier said. 

Saulnier estimated the lab has recruited 600 to 700 participants throughout the course of research — both students and community members. They have completed longitudinal studies across the course of multiple months, lab-based research and questionnaires.

Allan also said he first didn’t realize how loneliness played a factor into his research during the pandemic.

“It seemed like, ‘OK, 14 days, two weeks,’” he said. “There was a time — it was actually early on — we were putting a study out … and we’re basically like, ‘OK, well, we’re not really going to gather that data. When we get this out, this thing’s going to be over.’ We were terribly, terribly wrong.”

In addition to studying loneliness, Allan said his team studies anxiety sensitivity, or fear of feeling the physical symptoms that arise with anxiety, and intolerance of uncertainty. The lab takes a translational approach to its research, Allan said. That includes both the research and using the research to inform treatments. 

“We collect EEG data, which is basically brain waves, and we’re looking at how, in the lab, people respond to certain stimuli,” he said. “What we’re doing now is trying to design tasks to identify these neural correlates of things like anxiety sensitivity and intolerance of uncertainty.”

Catherine Accorso, a third-year graduate student researcher, said she studies resilience qualities, or qualities that protect against the development of mental illnesses like depression and anxiety.

“I applied here primarily because it’s a great program but also specifically to work with Dr. Allan,” Accorso said. “I know he’s interested in more looking at the etiology of mental health disorders — more broadly, risk factors. I thought that bringing together my focus on resiliency qualities with risk factors and looking at it more holistically would be a great fit.”

She said she has not yet been able to do much research on resilience since the pandemic began but predicts those with more resilience would be less likely to develop risk factors for mental health. 

With the research, Allan said the lab is also trying to develop brief intervention techniques that can be delivered via telehealth services, supplemented with a mobile app.

“Our app essentially works as this aid so that we can present the material on this circumscribed period of time, and then we give people the opportunities to practice and track their practice during their day-to-day lives,” he said. “(It’s) that element where we can really help people in the moment versus doing it just in a therapy session.”

Accorso said volunteers who are part of a grant-funded research study work with the Coping Crew, who provides intervention techniques. While she said those groups do have to meet certain criteria, like above-average levels of loneliness and anxiety, they are hoping to expand it to accept others. 

“We’re seeing that people are struggling with anxiety and anxiety sensitivity … more so than they ever have really been before, especially at the height of the pandemic when it first started,” she said. 


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