How The Brains Of Anxious People See The World Differently

I suffer from mild anxiety. It’s exacerbated by the fact that I write novels for a living, which basically means I invite people to critique and belittle me on a daily basis, not to mention my whole reason for being depends on other people’s opinions.

I am not alone.

The more we understand about mental illness, the more we realize how common it is, and how important it has become to destigmatize the people who suffer from different disorders on a daily basis. Learning how people can see the world differently due to alternative brain makeup can go a long way in helping others understand and interact with them in the most positive way possible.

That’s where this study, published recently in Current Biology, comes in.


Photo Credit: Namipasco

The study’s findings state that people who suffer from anxiety disorders unconsciously label harmless things as threats, which only serves to heighten their stress.

The most common form of anxiety is known as generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), and simply means that a person may feel worried or anxious even when there’s nothing specific to worry about. It stems from a process called overgeneralization that causes people to lump safe and unsafe things in their environment into the same category. Also called the “better safe than sorry” approach to life, it makes sense that if anxious people perceive more threats around them, they’re going to be more anxious on a daily basis about facing them.

In an experiment to learn more about overgeneralization and how it might be involved in anxiety, 28 participants with GAD were recruited, along with 16 participants without anxiety issues. In the initial “training” phase, participants were exposed to three tones – one that was positive (if you heard it, you would win money), one negative (you would lose money), and a neutral (neither).

 Health Define

Photo Credit: Health Define

In the “testing” phase, a series of tones were played for the participants and they were to press a button if they thought they had heard it before. If they guessed right, they would win money. If not, they would lose money. The conservative approach, of course, is to not press the button very often since chances are higher that the tone will not be one that you’ve heard before.

It turned out, though, that anxious participants were trigger-happy. They pressed the button a lot, because winning money had made a strong emotional impression on them during the training phase, and it led to increased overgeneralization of new information as relevant.

The brain scans that were also administered during the testing phase showed that non-anxious brains were focused on processing new information while anxious minds showed more brain activity in places associated with fear and worry.

“We show that in patients with anxiety, emotional experience includes plasticity in brain circuits that lasts after the experience is over,” senior co-author Rony Paz shared. “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.”

Now, in dangerous circumstances, having this sort of perception and response to the world could be a good thing. The problem is, of course, that most situations aren’t inherently dangerous.

“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.”

Greg Burdine

Photo Credit: Greg Burdine

Basically, if you’re like me and experience anxiety on occasion (or more regularly), your brain just perceives more threats in the everyday world around you. If there’s nothing you can do to change that, it’s best to understand that it’s not your fault, and you should talk to your doctor about how to best manage the fallout from the facts of your brain chemistry.