What makes us alive? Moreover, what makes us dead?

When it comes to death, science is part of the problem as well as part of the solution. Deepening our understanding of the body’s processes and learning how to keep them going longer has complicated and obfuscated the end of life.

There’s a claustrophobic moment in the new film of Stephen Hawking’s life when he describes his wife being given the option to let him die. It was 1985 and A Brief History of Time was a still-unpublished manuscript. Hawking had been hospitalised with pneumonia. He was placed on a life-support machine and put into a drug-induced coma. The doctors asked Jane Hawking if she wanted them to turn off the machine.
 
We can all be glad she said no, otherwise the planet would have been much the poorer for the past 28 years. Nonetheless, the shadow of death hangs over the whole film. One day – and it may not be many years away – Hawking will be no more. His declaration in September that assisted suicide should be possible without fear of prosecution suggests he might be squaring up to the idea.
 
Death seems to be the one thing that sets human beings apart: we are aware, unlike most (if not all) other animals, of our impending demise. Worse – as Jane Hawking knows too well – in this technological age, we have to make fine decisions about death. And here the advance of science seems to offer more hindrance than help.
 
Death is not what it was. Until half a century ago if you couldn’t breathe, you would soon be officially dead. Then someone invented the ventilator. Is a body that needs a machine to operate its lungs still alive? For sure, we now say.
 
It’s no longer the case that the heart has any jurisdiction over whether you’re dead. Remember the Bolton Wanderers footballer Fabrice Muamba? His heart stopped for 78 minutes but then defibrillation got it started again. It’s a testimony to our scientific resourcefulness that we have learned how to choreograph the pulses of electrical current that will kick-start a long-immobile heart. Nonetheless, this, too, has complicated the notion of being “alive”.
 
Even what has been termed “brain death” is not enough. A lack of electrical activity inside your skull is not a sign that your brain cells are all dead. It takes up to eight hours to start dying and you can lose a lot of them before significant damage ensues. What’s more, damage to some cells makes permanent loss of consciousness inevitable. But damage to some others isn’t much of a problem.
 
Perhaps the most extreme technological management of death is among those who have paid to have their bodies frozen. Their hope is that future technologies will be able to defrost them and repair the damage that freezing cells full of water inevitably causes. This is not the last refuge of the frightened fool: plenty of our finest minds, including the MIT professor of artificial intelligence Marvin Minsky, have signed up to be cryo-preserved.
 
So, when it comes to death, science is part of the problem as well as part of the solution. Deepening our understanding of the body’s processes and learning how to keep them going longer has complicated and obfuscated the end of life. That’s why a few researchers have suggested that doctors are no longer qualified to make life-and-death decisions. Robert Veatch, a medical ethicist at Georgetown University, goes further: he thinks you should be allowed to come up with your own definition of death and inscribe it in a living will for others to respect.
 
It would certainly be nice to have a say – especially when you can see it coming. Long live Stephen Hawking. As long as he wants, that is.
Science has complicated death. Image: Getty

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 30 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory Game of Thrones

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Understanding anxiety – my inside view of a debilitating disorder and how to control it

Following a number of recent anxiety attacks, I set out to learn why this happens to me.

As I stepped out of the office one evening after a routine day at work, I found myself glued to the floor. Legs bolted, knees quivering, heart racing – I was cemented into the ground by something paralysing.

I had to work out what was happening, and fast. Was a looming deadline holding me back from leaving? Was an unread message on my phone stopping me in my tracks? Perhaps fatigue had set me on edge. Or that passerby with an unsettling stare caught me off-guard. Maybe it was something more surreal; maybe a sense of dread had taken over, as I started to perceive each onlooker as a potential source of fear. Whether it was all of those things or none of those things, I eventually realised that the sticky situation I had found myself in was the onset of an anxiety attack.

Anxiety is a disorder of varying forms. People may be affected by generalised anxiety disorder – characterised by excessive worrying (often without an identifiable trigger), a specific phobia or panic disorder, in which terror can overwhelm a person without warning. The sufferer experiences physical and mental symptoms of distress that include a feeling of restlessness, shortness of breath, and agitation, exacerbated by the uncontrollable spiralling of their thoughts, which can often be self-deprecating and debilitating.

I had been in this situation before. The rising tension makes for an overwhelming and often paranoid experience, but my awareness of the fact that I was indeed having an anxiety attack was enough to know that this feeling wouldn’t persist for an indefinite amount of time; it would eventually pass, as all anxiety attacks do.

After roughly half an hour of concentrated breathing, conscious changes in thought patterns and eventually moving to a quieter spot, I had managed to calm down.

Though I had managed my anxiety attacks before via similar means, I was curious to know – what exactly was happening during my attacks? What can specifically be done while they’re happening? And could the panic and jitters of anxiety ever be beneficial?

The biology of an anxiety attack

The biological basis of an anxiety attack is tied to the actions of the body’s autonomic nervous system – a division of our nervous system that, without conscious control, regulates our bodily organs and systems.

When stimulated, the autonomic nervous system kicks into gear, causing the release of adrenaline into the bloodstream. And that’s when things flare up.

Pulses of adrenaline are produced in response to a stimulus  one that causes the body to kick into a defensive fight-or-flight mode. With anxiety, these stressful stimuli include excessive thoughts, heightened worries, trauma triggers and objects posing as threats. Even subconscious phenomena have been proposed as provokers; it is known that sufferers may wake up from a night’s sleep in a bout of panic. The stimuli add to the existing level of distress, making a person’s breath shallower, often inducing profuse sweating, and initiating a dark foreboding, all in the space of a moment.

Combating anxiety

According to the NHS, there are a number of techniques that can be employed to manage the distressing symptoms of an attack. Staying in a fixed spot, deep breathing and actively issuing a challenge in your mind to the fears on which you may be fixating are crucial things to do in the immediate stages. I wasn’t sure whether in my latest case I had done this instinctively or out of habit from past struggles. Either way, the methods were relieving.

The end of an attack is reached through an eventual depletion of adrenaline, which tells the body that it no longer needs to be on high alert. It brings with it tiredness but a welcome passing of the crisis. However, without a longer-term, pragmatic approach to tackling the disorder, it’s almost certain that an individual will face another intense period of anxiousness. So how should anxiety sufferers manage the issue over a longer period of time?

This is where therapy can be an extremely useful form of intervention. Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is the most common form of therapy for the disorder, with research demonstrating its effectiveness in treating the closely related disorders under the umbrella of anxiety. CBT focuses on a reconfiguring of thought patterns, shifting perceptions and a redefining of negative sources of fear.

Recently, I spoke to David Potts, a CBT therapist, to discuss how therapy can be of benefit. He said: “In therapy we'd work on specifics. It would involve telling yourself what the triggers are. Often people have very negative views about what's happening to them [during an attack]; they'll think I'm having a heart attack or I'm going to die and those kinds of thoughts form a vicious cycle and the panic gets worse.”

According to Potts, being attuned to the occurrence of an anxiety attack is essential in taking active steps to overcome it. It can facilitate the process of calming down, allowing the person in the midst of an attack to separate the thoughts in their mind from the reality of a particular situation.

Therapy can also offer an individualised approach to understanding a person’s anxiety. Potts told me: “Often, from a therapy perspective, we are considering what’s happening to them [the patient] in their lives that lead them to be more anxious than other people. It could include things they’ve experienced in childhood, it could be ways that families are, or it could involve ways that they’ve learnt to manage different emotions.”

Beyond therapy, medication is available to aid anxiety. Appropriate to a disorder that can affect people in various ways, there are different types of medication. Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are the most common form of medication. SSRIs are antidepressants that seek to increase levels of serotonin in our brains – a neurotransmitter thought to be central to the maintenance of mood. Other drugs available (in case of side effects from SSRIs) include serotonin and noradrenaline reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs), pregabalin and benzodiazepines. Though alleviating, medication is something that should supplement forms of therapy, as the pills themselves won’t solve the social triggers and problems that cause anxiety.

As people have increasingly moved towards holistic lifestyles, emphasis on exercise and dietary intake has been elevated. Eating healthier has been linked to reduced symptoms of anxiety, while exercise has been proven to reduce levels of stress in the long run. Reduced stress equates to a reduced risk of an anxiety attack.

Changes to the brain from exercise have been documented too. Researchers at Princeton University found that physical exercise generates excitable new brain cells in the hippocampus – an area of the brain involved in emotional responses. Though the excitability of the neurons would generally be unfavourable (priming the brain for anxiety), researchers found that the impact of exercise was one which had a calming effect, as the exercise was able to switch off the newly-generated, excitable neurons at times when they weren’t required.

When just a ten-minute walk has been shown to offer benefit, there seems to be very little to oppose the implementation of exercise as a form of therapy for anxiety.

Living with anxiety

Perhaps surprisingly, anxiety can be harnessed as a tool of empowerment for some. When it occurs at a smaller scale, it can serve as an informative warning against stressors, and help an individual focus and pinpoint their attention.

As a sufferer, acknowledgement of anxiety seems to be the key to unlocking the resources that can dull its impact. With carefully paid attention, responsibility and mindfulness, the waves of anxiety threatening to drench you can be reduced to smaller, more manageable ebbs and flows.