People experiencing high levels of anxiety actually perceive the world differently, a new study finds.
When anxious, people find it more difficult to tell the difference between things which are safe and those that are not.
People feeling anxious tend to over-generalise their emotional response to situations which are not in themselves provoking.
This could help explain why some people are more prone to anxiety.
Professor Rony Paz, who led the research, said:
“We show that in patients with anxiety, emotional experience induces plasticity in brain circuits that lasts after the experience is over.
Such plastic changes occur in primary circuits that later mediate the response to new stimuli, resulting in an inability to discriminate between the originally experienced stimulus and a new similar stimulus.
Therefore, anxiety patients respond emotionally to such new stimuli as well, resulting in anxiety even in apparently irrelevant new situations.
Importantly, they cannot control this, as it is a perceptual inability to discriminate.”
The study compared people who were generally quite anxious with control participants.
Both did a task involving gaining and losing money.
The results showed that people who were generally anxious tended to let their losses affect them more than other people.
Brain scans revealed that the amygdalas of people with anxiety reacted differently.
The amygdala is central to how emotions are processed in the brain.
Professor Paz concluded:
“Anxiety traits can be completely normal, and even beneficial evolutionarily.
Yet an emotional event, even minor sometimes, can induce brain changes that might lead to full-blown anxiety.”
The study was published in the journal Current Biology (Laufer et al., 2016).
Image credit: Kevin Gebhardt