Anxious People Aren’t Just ‘Playing It Safe’

March 6, 2016

The brains of anxiety sufferers may have completely different wiring than people who don’t have the mental disorder, according to a new study out of the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel. People with an anxiety disorder may have already felt somewhat like a worrisome outsider to the average laid-back person, but the research backs this up by delving into the brain mechanisms that make them feel “different.”

It turns out that something known as overgeneralization is to blame for the unique brain of anxiety sufferers. Humans and animals are wired to respond to stressful stimuli or potential dangers as a survival mechanism, but overgeneralization occurs when a person can’t differentiate from a stressful stimuli and a neutral, non-stressful one.

An anxious person’s response to something as innocent as coming across a mysterious gifted cupcake on their work desk would typically be one of stress and worry. The cupcake is seen as a mild threat, sending their brains into a spiral of paranoid thinking. Why would someone put a cupcake there? Is someone trying to poison me? Where has this cupcake been? A non-anxious person, meanwhile, will eat the cupcake without a stressful thought, and perhaps even see it as a pleasant stimuli. As the authors of a 2015 study wrote, “the overgeneralization of fear to harmless stimuli or situations is a burden to daily life and characteristic of post-traumatic stress disorder and other anxiety disorders.”

Perceptual Inability To Discriminate

In the latest study, the researchers came to a similar conclusion after watching participants distinguish between different sounds of tones, finding that anxious people had a “perceptual inability to discriminate.” A group of participants with anxiety were trained to associate three different tones with either money loss, money gain, or no consequence. Afterward, they were asked to listen to 15 different tones and distinguish whether they had heard any of the tones during the training. If they were right, they were given money as a reward.

People with anxiety were more likely to associate a new tone with a previous tone that had some level of emotional response attached to it — either money loss or gain. As a result, anxiety sufferers tended to associate more new tones with money loss or gain, choosing poorly compared to non-anxious subjects. During the experiment, the researchers also measured brain responses with functional magnetic resonance images (fMRIs).

They found that anxious people had different responses in the amygdala than non-anxious people. In the past, increased activity in the amygdala, which is involved in the regulation of anxiety, emotional behavior, and motivation, has been associated with panic attacks and anxiety disorders.

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