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Accentuate the Positive: With ACTRI Support Taylor Explores Positive Emotion Strategies to Treat Anxiety and Depression

February 27, 2018 | Patti Wieser

Charles Taylor, PhD

Charles Taylor, PhD

Performing an act of kindness may be good for your health. So could the sweet anticipation of a reward and keeping a journal of things for which you are grateful. Results from a pilot study conducted by Charles Taylor, PhD, and supported by ACTRI, indicate that doing good deeds and finding the positive in daily life can actually make one happier.

Taylor, an assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry at UC San Diego, examined the effects of interventions to increase positive emotions in people with anxiety and depression. The study, which integrates neuroscience with clinical psychiatry, also evaluated their neural responses to rewards.

“We asked people to keep a gratitude journal. People who are anxious and depressed tend to focus on negative things. The journal helped them shift to positive things they had in their lives,” Taylor said. Another intervention encouraged participants to do up to five acts of kindness in one day such as holding the door for someone or bringing a co-worker his or her favorite cup of coffee or tea.

Developed in collaboration with UC Riverside researcher Sonja Lyubomirsky, PhD, the pilot study was primarily tailored to elicit positive emotions, and was also successful in alleviating negative emotions, including anxiety and depression. Interventions centered on behavioral and cognitive strategies. Study volunteers participated in 10 talk therapy sessions and were encouraged to perform tasks throughout the week using the strategies, which have been shown to be effective in non-anxious, non-depressed people.

Taylor’s findings were published last year in the journal Depression and Anxiety and led to a two-year $1M National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) grant with the potential to receive additional funding.

“Dr. Taylor is highly deserving of the NIMH grant to continue his research into a therapy to help people with depression and anxiety disorders,” said Murray Stein, MD, MPH, director of the ACTRI Pilot Project Program. “The ACTRI pilot funding provided critical early support, which enabled Dr. Taylor to begin his study, a fascinating area of research that is at the forefront of the neuroscience of positive psychology.”

Treatment effectiveness was measured through volunteers’ self-report and brain scans. “Brain imaging is a complimentary outcome measure that helps us identify people who have responded well to the intervention, and why they responded well,” said Taylor, whose research adopts a multi-level assessment approach, including measures of brain function, cognition, motivation, behavior, and emotion. “Also, there may be people who tell us they are feeling better, but their brain is telling us something different.” Prior to brain scans, volunteers were told they could receive a small monetary reward based on their performance on the task. The scans measured brain activity when volunteers anticipated receiving the reward.

Neural Correlates

The neural results backed up the clinical trial. “The brain imaging was really icing on the cake because it showed that we actually shifted some very basic neurological functions that are important for generating positive emotions and perceptions of well-being,” Taylor said. “We hope that through brain imaging we can identify more precisely who may benefit most from this sort of treatment.” Those who don’t benefit should receive additional or other kinds of treatment, he added.

At the conclusion of the study, Taylor and his team found that the participants’ level of positive emotion was comparable to people in the general population, which previous negative-emotion-based treatments had not been able to accomplish. What’s more, the positive emotion interventions seemed to have enduring effects – lasting through the 6-month follow-up period.

The NIMH grant will continue the research, with a larger sample, modified treatment plan and longer study. Taylor and his research team are refining the protocol by testing if half as many therapy sessions are as effective. “If we could really isolate the core components and get the subjects to do those core strategies over and over again, it might be as helpful as doing the full 10 sessions,” he said.

They are also exploring the effects of positive emotions on life satisfaction and well-being, and the treatment’s ability to strengthen social connections. The latter is an important area in the anxiety and depression clinical world that has, for the most part, been neglected since most treatments are symptom-focused.

“When people are making assessments about how happy they are in life and how satisfied they are, positive emotions play an important role, above and beyond the absence of negative emotions,” Taylor said. “They also help build and strengthen our connections with other people, serving as emotional glue, and can buffer us in times of stress.”

Taylor was thankful for the support he received through the ACTRI pilot project grant program. “A small clinical trial with brain imaging is not something you can do without support. The ACTRI funds helped create a new line of research for me that I’ve been very excited about for a long time,” he said. The researcher also worked with ACTRI Community Engagement manager Rodney von Jaeger to use ResearchMatch for recruitment and for creating a partnership between ResearchMatch and the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. ResearchMatch is an NIH-sponsored, online registry designed to match researchers and study volunteers.

Researchers and volunteers alike found the pilot study protocol a refreshing approach. “It was a relief to the volunteers not to have to constantly focus on negative things,” Taylor said.

So the next time you are rushing out the door, pause and open it for someone else. This simple act of kindness just might improve your life.

Read the Depression and Anxiety publication, “Upregulating the positive affect system in anxiety and depression: Outcomes of a positive activity intervention.”

Read the abstract for Taylor’s 2014 ACTRI Pilot Project, “Positive Valence System Enhancement Treatment for Anxiety and Depression: Clinical Efficacy and Neural Changes.”

To learn more about anxiety and depression, visit Anxiety and Depression Association of America


Dr. Taylor is an Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at the University of California San Diego and Director of the Positive Emotion & Anxiety Research Laboratory (PEARL). His expertise lies at the interface of experimental psychopathology and treatment outcome research in anxiety and depression. He received his BSc in Psychology at McMaster University (Hamilton, ON Canada) and PhD in Clinical Psychology from the University of British Columbia (Vancouver, BC Canada). His research has been published in top tier scientific journals, including the Journal of Abnormal Psychology, Emotion, Clinical Psychological Science, the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, and Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience. Read more

About UC San Diego Altman Clinical and Translational Research Institute:

UC San Diego Altman Clinical and Translational Research Institute (ACTRI) is part of a national Clinical and Translational Science Award consortium, led by the National Institutes of Health National Center for Advancing Translational Science. Established in 2010, ACTRI provides infrastructure and support for basic, translational and clinical research throughout the San Diego region to bring discoveries from the laboratory to the bedside, and facilitates training and education of the next generation of researchers. ACTRI carries out its activities in collaboration with institutional and corporate partners and currently has more than 1,500 members.