Daniel Pine, M.D., studies how differences in our brains can affect our mental health.
Through their work at the National Institute of Mental Health, Dr. Pine and his team want to know how anxiety develops over our lifetime and how we can best treat it. He spoke to NIH MedlinePlus Magazine about his current research and about the need to reduce stigma—especially for men with anxiety.
Why did you decide to study mental health?
I’m very interested in how the brain works. I’m also interested in how we can use that information to improve how we treat anxiety conditions.
In terms of behaviors that relate to danger, we respond similarly to other mammals. If we want to use what we know about the brain to help people in the area of behavior, studying responses to danger, like fear and anxiety, is a good place to start.
I also decided to study mental health because I’m moved by both the suffering that people experience when they have problems with fear and anxiety and by the courage that people like Kevin Love have to come forward, speak about it, and encourage others to get help.
Tell us about your current research
We are researching three main areas. The first involves changes with age and how problems with fear and anxiety manifest. Most of these problems have roots in childhood and adolescence. They’re quite common, but most kids grow out of them. We are trying to understand why some kids do and others don’t.
Next are the differences between fear and anxiety and how they relate to differences in the brain. This is related to reactions we have that can be quite rapid, like when you pull your hand off a hot stove. Your reaction happens before you’re aware of it. We are not completely aware of how this response to danger happens. If we can better understand why people have the reactions they do, we can help them overcome their problems.
Finally, we are working to understand how our treatments for fear and anxiety actually work. This will help us develop better, more effective methods to treat people who suffer from anxiety disorders.
What new findings have you discovered?
We have had the most success in research that looks at attention. This includes discoveries about what people notice and how the brain determines what we should monitor in more or less detail. That information is giving us ideas for potential new treatments.
Could you talk about the stigma around men’s mental health?
Society says it’s not tough or masculine for men to have feelings and reactions to stressful events. People don’t like to recognize how serious and significant problems are in the area of men’s mental health. But they’re every bit as important as any physical health problem.
We need to treat mental health disorders as real health problems and encourage people to open up and discuss them.
What advice do you have for people who are concerned about their own mental health?
If you have a medical professional that you trust and are comfortable speaking to, seek out their help and talk about your experiences. It could be a primary care physician, a nurse, or a pediatrician.