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Anxiety – Research Sheds Light on Why the Worry

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Anxiety - Why the Worry?

People with anxiety have an extraordinary ability to anticipate potential problems. This makes them great to be with – they are the ones with the plan B, the plan C, the spare batteries, the phone charger and the escape route. Being able to anticipate trouble can be a great strength, but like any strength, too much can cause a metaphorical headache. 

When the anxiety becomes intense, it can lead to avoidance of experiences that would likely bring more joy than trouble. For people who don’t understand anxiety, or for those who cruise through their days with a more laid back connection with the world, it can seem as though this avoidance and other anxiety-driven behaviours are more a matter of ‘playing it safe’. Not so, says new research.

People with anxiety have something in common. Their brains have a unique wiring that is different to people who don’t have anxiety. This causes them to interpret things as harmful, even if they aren’t. The scientists call is ‘overgeneralisation’. Now to explain.

What is it about anxious brains?

We are all wired to notice and respond to threats in the environment. When we notice something potentially dangerous, our body gets us ready to fight the danger or run from it. This is something that happens in all of us, and it’s a healthy, normal thing to do. It’s one of the things that has kept us humans alive, so when it’s happening in the right dose, it’s a great thing.

For people with anxiety, this happens a little too much. An anxious brain is an overprotective brain. It does exactly what healthy, normal brains are meant to do, but more often. What this means is that people with anxiety tend to overgeneralise – their brains and their bodies respond to things as though they are dangerous or threatening, even when they aren’t. 

A recent study explored whether or not this was due to the way people with anxiety perceive things in the environment.

The Research – What They Did

A group of people with anxiety were trained to associate three distinct tones with one of three outcomes: money loss, money gain or no consequence.

Next, participants were asked to listen to one of 15 tones and to indicate whether or not they had heard the tone in their earlier training. If they guessed correctly, they were rewarded with money.

The money was the incentive to discriminate between the tones. If the participants overgeneralised, and weren’t able to tell the difference between the tones, they would mistake tones they hadn’t heard for tones they had, and vice versa. This would mean no money.

What they Found

The study showed that people with anxiety were more likely to mistake a new tone for one they had heard earlier. They had a ‘perceptual inability to discriminate’, which means that they were less able to notice the differences between the sounds. They were more likely to associate a new, unheard tone with money loss or gain.

What it Means

We all own a custom made brain. This is a great thing. Guided by our experiences, our brains develop to be the best brain for our own individual circumstances and needs. Every experience we have changes our brain in some way. These changes will eventually influence future behaviour and experiences. This is referred to as the plasticity of the brain.The brain is plastic in that it is open to influence and change.

The brain’s plasticity (the ability of the brain to change according to experience) allows us to adapt and grow in response to our environment, but it can also lead to changes in the brain that are less helpful.

In people who have anxiety, emotional experiences cause changes in the brain that persist even after the emotional experience is over. These changes cause difficulties in being able to tell the difference between the original experience and subsequent experiences.

What this means is that people with anxiety will have a similar emotional response to new and unrelated or irrelevant situations, even when those situations would not typically warrant the same response. 

These fundamental differences in people with anxiety cause them to perceive the world differently. Rather than assessing the potential harm of things in the environment, people with anxiety tend to overgeneralise and interpret everything as potentially harmful.

As part of the study, researchers used brain imaging to measure brain responses and found that there were noticeable differences in the brains of people with anxiety, and those without. The differences were found in the amygdala, the part of the brain that is responsible for the experience of intense emotion, such as fear and anxiety, and the perception of potential danger in the environment. It is also responsible for the changes that happen in the body as a result of the fight or flight response, the body’s natural response to potential threat or danger. Increased activity in the amygdala has been associated with panic attacks and anxiety.

The researchers stress that the flexibility of the brain that leads to anxiety isn’t ‘bad’. 

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. Rony Paz, Researcher, Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel.

The avoidance that is often driven by anxiety is physiological and is not a choice. It’s not a question of won’t, it’s a question of can’t. If you love someone with anxiety, understanding this will hopefully help you understand those times of avoidance that don’t make sense. The ‘no’ isn’t to you, it’s to a situation or an experience that will trigger the feeling of being in danger. 

For anyone with anxiety, or for anyone who loves someone with anxiety, it is also important to remember that brains can change. Anxious brains are strong brains – wilful, determined, cautious – and as much as brains can change in ways that aren’t helpful, they are also open to changing in ways that are. Mindfulness and exercise are two things that have consistently been shown to strengthen the brain against anxiety. This doesn’t mean that anxiety will completely go away. We all need a little bit of anxiety to predict danger and to keep us safe. It’s about bringing as close as possible to more manageable levelsbut the more we can understand about the workings of the brain, the closer we get to understanding how to influence it in ways that will lead to a healthier, more enriched way of living.

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34 Comments

Sue F

A great article Karen. The following definitely struck a chord with me: “What this means is that people with anxiety will have a similar emotional response to new and unrelated or irrelevant situations, even when those situations would not typically warrant the same response”. I notice that this has happened on occasion with me and I am now more mindful of my reactions. It’s so interesting how there is that “residue” of the original event.

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Kathryn Pearson

Great article Karen. It made me immediately think of High sensitive people again – being hyper aware, hyper vigilant and the fight and flight response kicking fiercely in to protect the individual – regardless of the situation. And I like Sue F’s comment about the event causing ‘residue’… 😉

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Shona

You have such a lovely, non judgemental way of writing. These articles are so useful and beautifully merge the reality and science of being human?

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Melanie

Excellent post! This will be such a great resource to share with others who are often too critical of anxious people and claim they’re just negative in their ways of thinking. Hopefully, this will enlighten and instill compassion in those who don’t understand anxiety and the fact that previous emotional experiences have influenced the anxious person to behave in the way they do. Definitely sharing & pinning!

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Hey Sigmund

Thanks very much Melanie. Anxiety can be so hard to understand from the outside and it can too easily be dismissed as a choice. If only it was a choice! It just makes things so much harder for the people with anxiety. Hopefully as we understand more about it this will change. (And thank you for sharing the article!)

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Lela

Great article Karen! I have about 20 relatives I’m sending it to so they can understand people with anxiety better because they think anxious people are negative, don’t want to have fun, avoid things that mean “nothing”. Love the quote: “Yet an emotional event, even minor sometimes, can induce brain changes that might lead to full-blown anxiety”

Thank you!

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Deborah

I agree with Shona- this was beautifully explained without any judgement.
If possible, I would like to see an expansion on the concept of mindfulness and it’s application with this condition.
Thanks for all your insight.

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Sue F

Deborah, I found a link to mindfulness on Karen’s article. It’s highlighted in blue in the last paragraph. Hope this helps.

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Wendy

Thanks again for another very helpful article! Being hyper sensitive, also called Sensory Defensive, and often anxious, I found this article to be reassuring that I am not crazy for experiencing life differently from my family and friends:) I plan on sharing this with my grown children in hopes it will help them understand me better! Thanks again!

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Hey Sigmund

You’re welcome Wendy. There is such a good reason for the way you feel – definitely not abnormal and definitely not crazy! I’m pleased the article was able to give you some reassurance.

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Amy

Thank you for this straightforward article! I have so many friends and relatives who completely misunderstand our daughter’s anxiety, which just makes it tougher on her! I will be sharing with all those who say she just needs to pull up her bootstraps and get over it!! Thank you!

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Hey Sigmund

Amy you’re welcome. If only anxiety was a case of ‘getting over it’. I wish this was an unusual response but there’s still a lot of misunderstanding around anxiety, even in the most well-meaning people. We’re working on that though.

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Steve

Some of the things I did when I was young left me with anxiety that was hard to deal with every time I walked in to a new job. Being an electrician in the lumber industry my jobs have changed a lot. Thanks for the good information I’m finally starting to recover from severe anxiety. Mostly after I discover that the people around me are not going to turn on me. (Generally speaking)

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Hey Sigmund

You’re very welcome Steve. Your experience with anxiety and changing jobs makes sense. I’m pleased you’re starting to find a way through. Keep moving forward.

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Kat

This helped me understand myself better. I struggled with things more after a riding accident & had to really push myself to do things around horses that I used to enjoy & found that upsetting & frustrating. I really did look for ways to avoid related things all together. I never expect that as I now have a much suitable horse. Your article explained why. Thanks for posting

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Hey Sigmund

Kat, it takes courage and strength to come back after a frightening accident and it sounds as though you have plenty of both. I’m pleased this information has helped you to get some clarity.

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Tersea Gouws

I wish I could share this article with ever synical disbeliever and every person with anxiety. So many facts and so much empathy.

As a Type A personality, I used to lose consciousness after a panic attack. Only when I developed colon cancer and experienced trauma upon trauma, followed by chemotherapy, did I finally get to a place where I thought: “It honestly cannot get any worse than this… panic attacks, compared to what I’m going through now, are nothing. This is real life or death stuff.”

I haven’t had a panic attack since.

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Rose

Hi Karen, I’m wondering what you think about anxiety and genetic predisposition. Is anxiety entirely environmental – caused by experience that develops into patterned behaviour or are there links to the physical make up of the brain and the experiences of the parents, grandparents etc.
thanks in advance for your thoughts.

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Amber

And my apologies I agree that this is a great article with empathy and information. It has been a long time since I was touched by a writer. Thank you so much.

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Hey Sigmund

Hi Rose,

So far there hasn’t been an ‘anxiety gene’ found, but there does seem to be some sort of genetic vulnerability. What’s likely is that both genes and environment play a part. Anxious parents might be more likely to model anxious behaviour, for example. This might not make a difference to some children, but if might if the child has a more sensitive temperament, it might.

This in no way means that parents are to blame for their child’s anxiety – I really want to make that clear. The same parent who models anxious behaviour would also likely model brave behaviour, resilience, good decision making, emotional intelligence. Anxiety seems to be a complicated mix of environment, behaviour, genetics, history and temperament.

The important thing to remember is that even if there is an ‘anxious gene’, genes aren’t destiny. We have learned over the last decade or so that we have a remarkable capacity to change our brain – anxious brains too. What this means is that it’s possible over time to strengthen a brain against anxiety through lifestyle factors and behaviour. It might not necessarily mean that the anxiety goes away, but you can ‘nurture the nature’ and make it less intrusive.

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Grace

Thank you! Great article an eye opener for educators dealing with anxious children.

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Hey Sigmund

Thanks Grace. ]Educators have such an important role in relation to kids with anxiety (and all kids of course!) and they can really make a big difference.

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Dr Mixs

Wonderfully written… what I love is not that it’s being made simple… but that the science behind it actually quite straight forward and there is no reason to judge because it is honestly “just” the brain.

Understanding the basics of the brain can be so liberating and so powerful and I’ve seen it with clients over and over again. It takes so much pressure off to know how one of our major organs actually work.

I also love that, in a way, you point out that anxiety is possibly even sourced in a person’s strength. When that strength (like a unique way of thinking or an inability to discern, which could be fantastic and maybe even linked to greater empathy, getting along with all types of people etc.,) is un-managed it can become a weakness.

These articles inspire me… thank you.

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Hey Sigmund

Thank you! I’m pleased this resonates with you. You’re so right – it’s such a powerful thing to understand what drives the things we do.

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