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People With Anxiety Issues See The World Differently

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People who suffer with high levels of anxiety perceive the world differently to those who are calmer, according to a new psychological study.

The differences in perception may account for why some people are more prone to anxiety than others (the inference being that the differences in perception trigger anxious responses, rather than anxiety itself leading to differences in perception).

The research indicates that those diagnosed with anxiety are less able to distinguish between a neutral, “safe” stimulus and an unsafe one. This was demonstrated using tones. Researchers used one tone to be associated with safety and a second tone associated with gaining or losing money.

The conclusion was that with “emotionally-charged experiences”, those with anxiety demonstrated a behavioural issue called “over-generalization.”

The psychological responses suggested a physical change to the brain. This was confirmed by functional magnetic resonance images (fMRIs) being conducted on the brains of people with anxiety compared with so-called “healthy controls.” The data showed differences in the activity of several brain regions. The differences were clustered in the amygdala (a region related to fear and anxiety.)

Speaking with Laboratory Roots, the lead researcher, Professor Rony Paz who is based at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel, said:

“We show that in patients with anxiety, emotional experience induces plasticity in brain circuits that lasts after the experience is over.”

These changes to brain plasticity affect future responses to new stimuli. Those affected develop an inability to discriminate between the experience of the original stimulus and that of a new, similar stimulus. This can often lead to anxiety symptoms when certain life events occur.

The research is published in the journal Cell Biology, and it is titled “Behavioral and Neural Mechanisms of Overgeneralization in Anxiety.”

About the author

Tim Sandle

Dr. Tim Sandle is a chartered biologist and holds a first class honours degree in Applied Biology; a Masters degree in education; and has a doctorate from Keele University.