Got an above-average dose of anxiety in your personality? It turns out, according to a new study, that it might actually give you an edge when it comes to picking out threats and escaping them effectively. The study, from the French Institute of Health and Medical Research (INSERM), looked at 24 (yes, only 24) volunteers and how they reacted to various social threats, and made an interesting conclusion: not only do anxious people respond very quickly, but their brains process threats in an entirely different way than non-anxious people.
Anxiety has actually been linked to a series of positive benefits, including a lower likelihood of dying in a car crash and higher levels of trust from other people (who sense you're feeling neurotic in a social situation). Anxious people are even believed to be smarter than the non-anxious. But this new discovery goes to a deeper truth about anxiety: why it may have evolved as part of human psychology. Anxiety, some psychologists theorize, actually appeared in human consciousness because it's sometimes a very good idea to feel anxious about uncertain, unsafe situations. And this latest study seems to back up the idea that a little anxiety can help you make a speedy getaway.
But the science is a little more complex than just "be anxious, escape bank robbery, pass go and collect $200". It involves facial recognition, how different parts of our brain react to threats, and what "social threats" actually look like in the real world. And it's not as straightforward about clinical anxiety, either. Let's dive in. Cautiously.
Why A Little Anxiety Might Be Useful In A Crisis
The study looked at a bunch of facets of anxiety and social threats, so we need to unpack it a bit. The first thing the scientists identified was what our brains might find threatening in a social situation: a person looking angry or terrified, while gazing straight at us. Result: an increased likelihood that somebody was going to do something that might hurt us, and a justifiable sense of panic. But that's not what we're really interested in. We're after the next bit of the experiment: what happened to the brains of the anxious and non-anxious volunteers when this social threat happened to them.
It turns out that people who are a bit anxious naturally process these kinds of threats in a different part of their brains to people who are more chilled out. "Normal" people looked at the social threats and processed them in the bits of their brain used for facial recognition, as they sorted out precisely what the expressions might mean. Anxious people, however, also processed them in parts of the brain focused on action. In other words, they weren't interested in parsing the threats; they were ready to spring into action, get out of the way, defend themselves, or run for the hills at a second's notice.
It wasn't all threats, the scientists found: the anxious people "selectively encoded threat signals that were relevant to them in motor specific systems," which basically means they picked up on social threats that they're particularly sensitive to, and sent those straight to the "action" bit of the brain. So naturally anxious people took the stuff that they were personally afraid of (an angry face, for example) and turned their brain into full AUGH RUN AWAY mode.
... And Why There Are Limits To Anxiety's Helpfulness
Here's an important caveat: The study only focused on people who weren't clinically anxious; in other words, they were a bit anxious, but didn't suffer from anxiety attacks or have an anxiety disorder. And that's an important distinction to make.
Most experts now agree that anxiety in general is a good thing, and helped us evolve as a species by keeping us on our toes when threats popped up. Being completely laid-back is not a good outlook when you're in a threatening world as a nomadic people. It's fine, even productive; this study shows that a tendency towards anxiety may have served us pretty well in our history. But anxiety disorders are a different barrel of (sweaty, panicking) monkeys entirely.
When it comes to anxiety disorders on a clinical level, the brain's functions are actually impaired. One study showed that clinically anxious people can't control their emotions in a normal way; and one of the most recent reviews of brain science and serious anxiety, from January 2016, has the pretty devastating conclusion that "pathological anxiety and chronic stress lead to structural degeneration and impaired functioning of the hippocampus and the prefrontal cortex". So a little anxiety seems like it helps, but too much is definitely a serious, structural drawback in the brain.
The scientists behind the INSERM study have said they'd be interested to see what happened if the same sort of study was conducted on people with serious, clinical anxiety. But the evidence suggests that while being a little bit anxious may be good for you, feeling anxious all the time definitely isn't.
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