Full text of AI engineer Aneysha Bhat’s talk titled “Anxiety: A Cancer of the Mind” at TEDxUIUC conference. In this talk, Aneysha, the co-founder of TenseSense, explores the prevalence of anxiety and how we can stand together to fight the stigma associated with mental health.
Listen to the MP3 Audio here:
Aneysha Bhat – Co-innovator of TenseSense
I’d like to begin by asking you to close your eyes.
Imagine that you’ve just come home from work. You want to relax. You sit down on the couch and just breathe. You look to the side, and you realize that it’s raining.
And then you look again to the window and see that the window is open. You think – at first everything is calm. But then, everything goes haywire.
“What if my floors get damaged? What if the rain damage affects my entire apartment? What if there’s a flood? What if I have to move? What if … “
Your thoughts are blinding. Your mind is racing. Your heart is beating right out of your chest. Your thoughts are just everywhere. And then, you lose it all.
Now, I have something to tell you. Anxiety sucks.
But do you know what the worst part about it is? It’s not the dizziness or the palpitations or the excessive overthinking. No. It’s the stereotype that goes with it.
Mental illness has a stigma associated with it. Think about it. We’re fixated on this idea that mental illness is associated with incompetence, fragility, failure. When a friend or a loved one is having a moment of vulnerability, we say that it’s a “mental breakdown.” When they’re having issues or when they’re having struggles, we call that “crazy.”
And it’s true. Why? Because mental health has a stigma.
We consider mental illnesses to be burdens, traits of people that make them undesirable, less important, less valuable. And this is a huge problem.
If we continue to treat mental health like this, we’ll never be able to understand our loved ones. We’ll never be able to understand those who need our help.
And so when you leave this talk today, I want you to realize one thing. You have the ability to save and impact a life by the way you treat others.
Now, I believe that it’s time to change the way we think about mental health. We have ways to identify glucose levels and pregnancy hormones. But what about anxiety? Why don’t we have a way to detect elevated stress levels? Everybody gets anxious, right?
We get anxious because we don’t know what will happen. We’re afraid. We’re scared. Fear is normal. In fact, it’s evolutionary. But when we worry excessively, when we get so scared, we develop anxiety.
But, okay, everybody gets anxious. Instead of creating a stereotype about it, instead of making a stigma, what if we tried to make a change?
There are 40 million Americans who live with anxiety currently. That’s one-eighth of the population who feels alone, misunderstood, unsure about who to talk to, how to get help.
Do you know what’s worse? 35% to 50% of those cases go undiagnosed. That’s up to 20 million people who don’t get the care that they need.
Now, this is a huge problem. So if we think about biomedical advancements, what’s the first thing that comes to our mind? Cancer. If cancer goes undiagnosed or even untreated, the problems build up on themselves, leading to a cascade of cellular trauma that results in fatality.
Anxiety is a cancer of the mind. It’s something that eats at the conscience. It’s something that weakens the heart and destroys the self, something that leaves you feeling empty, feeling alone, like there’s no one to help you, like there’s no one to understand you.
And it’s about time we fight this problem. It’s about time we find a way to detect anxiety. So research has shown that there are specific biomarkers – or proteins, enzymes and hormones – that float freely in bodily fluids like blood, urine and saliva.
So, basically, what we can do is we can measure these concentrations of the biomarkers and, theoretically, that would allow us to detect anxiety levels. And we can aid in the prognosis, or the clinical identification of anxiety.
So what do I do?
I work with a team of bioengineers here, and we have developed and innovated a way to identify anxiety levels using this: this is TenseSense. This is a biomedical device through which we can detect elevated stress levels. This device can tell you if you have anxiety levels, if you have elevated stress levels, and it can help diagnose anxiety and provide further recommended care, further treatments for patients across the nation.
So why did we create this device?
All right. So we’re going to take a quick poll. Audience participation. All right? Raise your hand if you’re a working individual or if you are a student. All right. Of what I can see, that’s like everyone. All right. Okay.
So now raise your hand if you’ve ever been stressed. That’s like two hands from me and both legs. Look around you. We have different ages, different ethnicities, different backgrounds, different genders. But something unites us all. We all get stressed. We all get anxious. But in different ways.
Dealing with anxiety is no easy feat. And anxiety affects us all but in different ways. What works for you may not work for me. And it’s for this reason that it’s so important to find a way to detect your stress levels, find a way to help you, the patient, and tell doctors what will work for you given your daily routines, your genetic history.
We want to serve you, the patient. Look around you. We are surrounded by some of the brightest minds. I may know the next Nobel Prize-winning physicist, the next revolutionary engineers, the doctor who will cure cancer. In an academic environment like this one, we’re surrounded by inspiration and excellence everywhere we go.
But unfortunately, this comes at a price. There are over 17 million people in this country attending a higher-education institution like this one. And across the board, the most commonly diagnosed mental illness? Anxiety.
Now, as a student, I get stressed. We all get stressed. Amid the deadlines, projects, exams, homework assignments, conferences, we all get stressed, we all get anxious.
Now, the more we get anxious, the more we get stressed, the greater toll it takes on our body. Research has shown that anxiety actually changes the way our brain functions; it changes the brain itself. Anxiety results in changes in the gray and white matter of our brain, changes in the functionality of the amygdala, the center of the brain responsible for emotional cognition and decision-making, two very important things.
Now, your brain is your brain. Your heart is your heart. And that’s why it’s so important for the identification of stress levels to be entirely your own.
Now, the problem with the state of the art is that no current technique exists. There’s no way to real-time detect anxiety levels, no way to tell what your stress levels are at the point of care. And that, too, quantitatively.
So, okay. Why is it a problem? So right now, in the mental health care industry, we spent over $148 billion. And approximately one-third of that total, $42 billion, is spent on anxiety cases alone.
Anxiety patients, according to anxietycenter.org, are three to five times more likely to visit the doctor and six times more likely to be hospitalized for an anxiety-related condition.
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