So, you know how telling anxious people, “What's the worst that could happen?” often doesn’t actually help them feel any better about whatever it is that's making them anxious? It turns out that there’s a scientific reason for that. Anxious people aren’t worried about loss, according to a new study — or at least, they’re not worried about loss any more than non-anxious people are. What anxious people are worried about is risk — and as someone who happens to be anxious, this revelation explains so much about myself to me.
For the study, which was published in the journal Biological Psychiatry, researchers had 25 participants who had been diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder, but who were not medicated, and 23 participants with no anxiety disorders complete a modified version of what's called the Iowa Gambling Task — a psychological task originally developed in 1994 that is often used in studies to simulate real-life decision making. For each trial, participants were shown either a pair of faces or a pair of objects and given three seconds to memorize their location. Then, they were instructed to choose either a sure option or a risky gamble — although what constituted “sure” or “risky” varied depending on the trial.
In a mixed gamble trial, the sure option was £0 (meaning that choosing it wouldn’t result in any loss should the participants lose), while the risky option involved a 50 percent chance to win a monetary amount in green and a 50 percent chance to lose a monetary amount in red. In a “gain-only” gamble trial, however, the sure option guaranteed that the participant would win a small amount of money, while the risky option was made up of a 50 percent chance to win a greater amount of money and a 50 percent chance to get £0.
Lastly, the participants were shown one of the faces or objects from the pair they had previously seen and asked to recall its location. Once the correct answer was revealed, they got their payout depending on the option they had previously chosen.
Why include both mixed gambles and gain-only gambles? Because that’s what allowed researchers to distinguish between risk aversion and loss aversion. And the results were fascinating: Anxious people and healthy people both displayed similar levels of loss aversion, but anxious people displayed higher levels of risk aversion. Said study author Dr. Caroline Charpentier of University College London’s Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience according to Science Daily, “In other words, everyone is loss averse, but anxious people are more reluctant to take risks than non-anxious people.”
You guys. This explains so much about why I act the way I do when I’m anxious about something. The study shows that anxious people don’t display avoidance behavior because they’re stuck on all the potentially negative outcomes that might arise from a given situation; rather, avoidance behavior manifests as a result of an aversion to actually taking risks in the first place.
What’s more, the implications of this study are pretty big in terms of how we might best treat anxiety disorders, particularly with regards to cognitive behavioral therapy aimed at reducing avoidance behavior. Said Dr. Charpentier, “It suggests that we should focus on encouraging individuals to increase their tolerance of risk rather than dampening down their sensitivity to negative outcomes.” By this logic, instructing an anxious person to imagine what the worst thing that could happen in a given situation is — with the goal being to identify that the worst thing isn’t actually that bad — probably won’t work as an effective coping mechanism; however, performing relatively simple tasks aimed at getting more comfortable with taking risks — striking up a conversation with a stranger, going speed dating, taking a last-minute trip to somewhere you’ve never been, and so on and so forth — might.
Not going to lie: I’m curious about whether anxious people who have a strong aversion to risk taking also have difficulty dealing with uncertainty — and whether their brains have larger striatum, in line with what a recent study on why some folks find it harder to cope with uncertainty than others found. For me, at least, the reason that risks are so anxiety-inducing is precisely because the outcome is uncertain, so I feel like there might be a connection there worth exploring.
The current study is available to read online for free, so check it out if you’re interested. As always, avoid self-diagnosing — but if any of this sounds familiar to you,it might be worth visiting a mental health professional. They’re there to help — and who knows? It could be the first step in making your life a whole lot easier to live.