After witnessing the war in Iran, Mandana Ahmadi decided to create an app that would help others understand themselves and break free from anxiety
Imagine a world where the war becomes normality. A world where the sound of missiles goes unnoticed and airstrikes become routine. This was Mandana Ahmadi’s life in Iran until she was eight years old.
“That was all I knew,” she remembers. “Then, one day I woke up and I was terrified, because everybody was suddenly so happy that it almost scared me. I didn’t know what was happening until I was told the war was over.”
To say it was hard for an eight-year-old to understand what was going on, would be an understatement. “What struck me the most was how people’s state of mind can influence their lives,” Mandana explains. “They were extremely happy when, in reality, nothing had changed. We were living in the same space, in the same environment, in the same state, with the same people and the same amount of money. But suddenly, everybody was happy. It felt like an alternative universe and it was the very first time in my life when I realised that it doesn’t matter what’s around you. What matters is what you think you can do with your life.”
That is when Mandana became interested in how the brain works and how our mindset impacts our everyday life. After she experimented with pharmacology, she was introduced to computational neuroscience – a branch of science that involves studying brain function through computer modelling and mathematical analysis. “I realised that was what I was looking for,” she adds. “I was offered a scholarship in Denmark where I did three months of research and then, because I was unable to afford an actual university, I went to a community college in the US.
“But even though I loved doing research, I realised that we were not doing anything with that knowledge. I didn’t want my work to be buried in papers.
“So, there was this turning moment in my head when I was not happy with the status quo and the way people are sometimes left to their own devices,” Mandana adds. “If you’re not lucky to be born into a family, or social background, or even a country where there is some level of understanding, compassion and support, no matter who you are, you will break. If things keep bashing at you, and you’re not valued, at some point, you will break. Nobody is born broken. The environment breaks you.”
Along with her co-founder, she created Alena, an app that aims to bring science closer to people and help them overcome social anxiety. Alena uses simple games to assess the brain’s cognitive processes and based on the results, provides personalised behavioural therapy.
“Social anxiety is an important function in our life,” says Mandana. “We are social creatures and for that reason, it matters that we’re socially aware. But because it is so inherently natural to who we are, people just accept it as it is, and most of the time, it doesn’t occur to them that something might be wrong. We’ve got so used to saying that someone’s an introvert or shy or self-critical when those are very often signs of social anxiety.
“We see more awareness around conditions like depression, but what we don’t realise, is that depression can sometimes be a consequence of untreated social anxiety.
“Think of it like tanning,” she laughs. “If you get tanned people say: ‘Oh, it’s natural’. And unless it becomes cancer, it doesn’t raise awareness.”
Studies have shown that socialisation and hormonal differences make women twice as likely as men to experience depression. So how could Alena make a difference?
“I’m hoping that it will give people the support that they need,” the co-founder says. “I met a lot of wonderful people who supported me and believed in my potential, regardless of what I had been through. I want Alena to make people believe in themselves and to bring that level of hope and happiness in their lives by helping them understand themselves.”
If it passes the regulatory approvals, Mandana hopes that the app will be available by summer. “It’s deep science,” she adds. “For that reason, I hope it will have the power to really make a difference.”
To find out more about the app visit alena.com.
Eight steps for coping with a chronic illness diagnosis
By Dr Becky Spelman, psychologist and founder at Private Therapy Clinic
A chronic illness diagnosis can disrupt every aspect of someone’s life.
Emotionally, a diagnosis may cause fear, anxiety, sadness, and frustration. Physically, it can lead to changes in a person’s daily routine, limitations in activities and the need for ongoing medical assistance.
Socially, it may result in isolation, as the person may feel misunderstood or unable to take part in certain activities. Financially, the cost of treatments and medications can add additional stress to individuals and families.
Increasingly, younger women are being diagnosed with long-term conditions, such as chronic fatigue syndrome, endometriosis and autoimmune diseases, which occur far more in women than men.
Coping with the psychological effects of a chronic illness, however, is just as important as managing the physical symptoms. Here, we explore some healthy ways that may help.
Knowledge is power
Take some time to research your condition, its symptoms and treatment options. You can ask your medical provider to provide you with the relevant information and head to reputable websites such as the NHS website. Understanding your chronic illness can help you to alleviate anxiety and gain a sense of control
Be kind to yourself
It is essential to show yourself kindness and compassion when you’re living with a chronic illness. Know that it is okay to have bad days and that you are doing your best. Make time for self-care activities, rest when you can and be patient with yourself as you adjust to your new reality.
Surround yourself with support
You don’t have to go through this alone. Call on trusted friends, families or a therapist who can provide you with emotional support at this time. Tell them about the diagnosis and any worries you have, it can be therapeutic to express your emotions to others.
Make time for self-care
Self-care, such as exercise or mindfulness, can help you to cope with a chronic illness by promoting emotional wellbeing, reducing stress and providing a sense of control and empowerment.
Journaling is a great way to acknowledge and process the emotions surrounding your diagnosis. It can help to prevent them from becoming overwhelming and impacting your mental health.
Manage your expectations
You may have to alter your goals and manage your expectations after being diagnosed with a chronic illness, and these should align with your capabilities and limitations.
Accept that some tasks may take longer to complete, and celebrate every achievement along the way. This will help you to stay motivated as you navigate life after a diagnosis.
Therapy can be immensely beneficial for someone coping with a chronic illness diagnosis. A therapist can provide a supportive and non-judgmental space for you to process your emotions, fears and anxieties related to the condition.
They can also offer coping strategies, tools and techniques and diagnose any underlying mental health concerns that may arise, such as depression or anxiety and provide further guidance.
A positive mindset, including focusing on gratitude, can also help to enhance your overall mental health and quality of life.
The diagnosis of a chronic illness can profoundly impact a person’s life. Regularly utilising strategies to navigate the emotional journey of living with a chronic illness can significantly improve a person’s life.
Dr Becky Spelman is a psychologist and founder of Private Therapy Clinic.
Women on the pill less likely to report depression, study shows
A new study has shown the prevalence of major depression amongst pill users was significantly lower
Women taking the oral contraceptive pill are less likely to report depression, researchers have found.
The research, which analysed data from 6,239 US women aged 18-55 years old, found that the prevalence of major depression amongst users of the oral contraceptive pill (OCP) was significantly lower, at 4.6 per cent, compared to former OCP users (11.4 per cent).
The study, published in the Journal of Affective Disorders, was led by researchers at Anglia Ruskin University (ARU), alongside experts from the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston and University of California, Davis.
The researchers have suggested two possible explanations for their findings, which are contrary to a commonly held belief that OCP can cause depression.
One is that taking the pill can remove concerns about unwanted pregnancy, therefore helping to improve the mental health of OCP users.
It is also possible the results could be influenced by “survivor bias”, where women who experience signs of depression while using OCP stop taking it, moving them into the category of former users.
“Contraception is a crucial component of preventive health care,” said lead author, Dr Julia Gawronska, postdoctoral research fellow at Anglia Ruskin University.
“Most women tolerate taking the oral contraceptive pill without experiencing depressive symptoms but there is a subset of women that may experience adverse mood side effects and even develop depression, and the reasons are not entirely clear.
“Unlike some previous studies, we found that women currently taking the oral contraceptive pill were much less likely to report clinically relevant depression compared to women who previously took the pill.”
She added: “Taking the pill could provide positive mental health benefits for some women, simply by removing their concerns about becoming pregnant. The ‘survivor effect’ could also play a part, with women who experience symptoms of depression more likely to discontinue taking it, placing them into the group of former users.
“However, stopping taking the pill without a suitable alternative increases the risk of unintended pregnancy.
“It is important that women are fully supported, provided with full information, and offered alternative forms of contraception if necessary.”
The cross-sectional study used data collected by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention in the US.
In both users and former users, researchers found that widowed, divorced or separated women, obese women or those with a history of cancer were more likely to report depression.
In former users, depression was more commonly reported in Black or Hispanic women, smokers and those with lower levels of education or experiencing poverty.
Maternal depressive symptoms could start in early pregnancy, study finds
Maternal depression can negatively affect a child’s nutrition, physical health, cognitive functions and socioemotional development
Maternal depressive symptoms could begin from early pregnancy and last up to two years after childbirth, a large-scale international study has shown.
While health professionals often emphasise the postpartum stage after childbirth as a high-risk period for the onset of depression, this latest research has found that maternal depressive symptoms can appear from early pregnancy.
The study, led by researchers from A*STAR’s Translational Neuroscience Programme of the Singapore Institute for Clinical Sciences (SICS) in Singapore, involved seven prospective observational cohorts across the UK, Canada and Singapore.
The researchers analysed the maternal depressive symptom trajectories of 11,563 pregnant women, spanning multiple decades in the largest such analysis to date. Each cohort included depressive symptoms measured at multiple perinatal time points and analysed independently.
The data was based on prospective maternal self-reports of depressive symptoms, eliminating the potential bias collected from retrospective reports.
The study showed three distinct clusters of mothers with stable low, mild, and high symptom levels over the perinatal period – the period from the beginning of pregnancy up to two years post-birth. The trajectories of depressive symptoms were present for all mothers.
This was true even in the case of those who met clinical cut-offs for probable depression indicating that more serious instances of depression in women begin prior to the birth of the child.
“Several recent studies, including one conducted locally suggest that maternal depressive symptoms may begin before conception, which is why interventions, guidelines for care, and public health policies aimed at alleviating maternal depressive symptoms should target as early as preconception, at least during pregnancy, in addition to the postnatal period, for more effective outcomes,” explained Dr Michelle Kee, research scientist at A*STAR’s SICS and first author of the paper.
Professor Michael Meaney, the director of the translational neuroscience programme at SICS, said: “The medical media continues to refer to maternal depression as ‘postnatal depression’, implying that the onset of symptoms occurs following the birth of the child.
“This extensive analysis shows that the onset of symptoms is in the prenatal period and remains largely stable thereafter. This is true for women in the community as well as for those experiencing more severe symptom levels.”
He added: “The results of this study point to the early antenatal period as a crucial time point for the identification of stable trajectories of maternal depressive symptoms and emphasises the critical importance of prenatal intervention.”
Associate Professor Helen Chen, senior consultant, department of psychological medicine at the KK Women’s and Children’s Hospital, said: “This study provides strong evidence across populations that it is crucial to address depression during pregnancy so that mothers are well and ready to receive their babies, rather than to wait until the postnatal period, for postnatal depression has traditionally been the focus.
“Given what we know about the impact of perinatal depression on child development and health outcomes, the paper will help to inform healthcare systems to direct resources upstream to the antenatal period.
“This will benefit our mothers and their children, and population health of future generations.”
Previous findings from the Growing Up in Singapore Towards healthy Outcomes (GUSTO) project showed that prenatal maternal mental health plays a significant role in the brain development and health of babies.
Research found that maternal depressive symptoms can negatively affect a child’s nutrition, physical health, cognitive functions, socioemotional development and academic achievement, in some cases increasing the risk of ADHD and depression.
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