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 levels, but 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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