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Saturday, Aug 30, 2014

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Justin Weeks

Justin Weeks is the founder of Ohio University's Center for the Evaluation and Treatment of Anxiety (CETA).

Photographer: Rick Fatica

CETA

Psychology graduate student Jennifer Kowalsky assists with the research conducted at CETA.

Photographer: Rick Fatica

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OHIO clinic equips clients to face fears

Region's sole specialty anxiety center prepares for opening


"Do you always look so run down?" 

It's just one of many tactics used by Ohio University's Center for Evaluation and Treatment of Anxiety (CETA), which will soon serve as the region's sole specialty anxiety clinic. And according to founder Justin Weeks, the intent is to make subjects squirm, if only temporarily.

"What you really want to do in anxiety treatment is to help the person to experience some anxiety, but not so much that it causes them to want to avoid the situation," said Weeks, CETA director and an assistant professor of psychology at Ohio University.

Research suggests that more than one in 10 people will experience clinically severe social anxiety disorder during their lifetime. Through CETA, Weeks plans to offer relief through assessment, counseling services and empowering social simulations designed to put coping mechanisms into practice. The clinic will be conducting preliminary research studies this fall and will begin treating patients for social anxiety during winter quarter.

According to Weeks, the hybrid nature of the center – as a clinic and research lab with specialized experimental measuring equipment – is what sets CETA apart from many of its counterparts. But in a university setting, he said, the cross-functionality is logical.

"Because my research interests are so clinically embedded, they both reinforce each other," he explained. "You can apply what you're learning through research to the treatments, and you can also evaluate whether what you're applying is enhancing those treatments."

This year, CETA will employ the help of nine undergraduates and four graduate students. The undergraduates will primarily assist as role players in social simulations and other research experiments, while the graduate students will assist Weeks as clinicians.  

The opportunity to be involved with state-of-the-art interventions for people who suffer from social anxiety disorders will greatly enhance the training opportunities available to doctoral students, according to Christine Gidycz, director of the graduate program in clinical psychology.

"At the same time, we live in area where there are limited options for individuals who need mental health care," Gidycz said. "Thus, it is very exciting because Dr. Weeks' clinic will provide empirically supported interventions for underserved individuals in our community."

Surveillance plays a large role in CETA's operations – hence the three hidden cameras and one-way mirror, which are discreetly placed in CETA's main reception area. But Weeks and his counterparts are looking for more than sweaty palms in their observations.

One study analyzes vocal pitch, breaking down subjects' sound waves using a spectrograph to determine if vocal pitch elevates among socially anxious individuals. In a second experiment, Weeks observes the body language of subjects in socially stressful situations. But perhaps the most advanced technology within CETA's domain is the eye-tracker, which utilizes infrared light rays and facial recognition software to monitor eye-contact.

"It's pretty unusual," said CETA graduate assistant Devin Zibulsky. "We are doing things that haven't been published in research and applying these technologies differently."

Week's innovative approach has also captured the attention of the professional community, according to Gidycz.

"His use of technology allows for the measurement of critical indices of social anxiety symptoms," she explained. "His findings from the lab will result in the development and implementation of state-of-the- art interventions to treat people who suffer from social anxiety disorder." 

One might think it a challenge to attract willing participants to social anxiety experiments, but so far Weeks has had no trouble drawing a crowd. All of CETA's experiments are fully consensual, and most are worth class credits for undergraduate psychology majors.

"Sometimes students participate strictly to satisfy a course requirement, but it can also be if they're interested in learning more about an area or if they have a concern," explained Zibulsky.

A major component of Weeks's current research focuses on the differences between positive and negative evaluation.

"If someone is socially anxious, it used to be thought of as it must be because they are afraid of looking bad or making a mistake or something to that extent," he said. "My research is focused much more on the possibility that social anxiety could really be a fear of evaluation in general."

CETA complements a handful of counseling centers within Ohio University, including the Psychology and Social Work Clinic and Counseling and Psychological Services.

Weeks is hopeful that CETA's new treatment phase will prove to be a community resource as well. He plans to use pamphlets and word of mouth with private practitioners to attract local clientele, in addition to university-affiliated patients.

As a third-year faculty member at Ohio University, Weeks has no shortage of ambition. And as a former understudy to Temple University's Richard Heimberg, a leading authority on social anxiety disorder, his confidence is well warranted.

"These are research ideas that I've been formulating since I've been in training so I had some sense of what I was hoping to be able to accomplish when I got my doctorate and became a professor," said Weeks. "I was very happy to join the department here because they really provide excellent resources for their incoming, new professors."

Now it's just a matter of opening CETA's doors. 

 


Those interested in assisting with CETA's research studies may contact the laboratory at (740) 597-3299.

Thursday's Health Alerts to focus on anxiety, among other mental health issues

For more information on anxiety in college settings, among other mental health issues, check out the next edition of OHIO's Health Alerts, coming Thursday.