Anxiety disorders involve excessive and unrealistic worry about everyday tasks or events and can interfere with daily activities, including work and relationships. A new study, however, investigates the potential neurological upsides to anxiety.

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Are you an anxious person? According to a new study, you may be better equipped to handle external threats.

The study, published in the journal eLife, is led by Marwa El Zein, from the French Institute of Health and Medical Research (INSERM) and the Ecole Normale Supérieurein Paris.

She and her team say the human brain is capable of detecting social threats in specific brain regions in a fast, automatic way, as quickly as just 200 milliseconds.

According to the National Institutes of Mental Health (NIMH), intermittent anxiety is a normal part of life, but when anxiety is more than temporary – lasting 6 months or more – it is typically considered a problem that needs to be evaluated and treated.

Anxiety disorders typically occur alongside other mental or physical disorders – including alcohol and substance abuse – which could conceal anxiety symptoms or make them worse.

Although it was previously believed that anxiety could result in oversensitivity to threat signals, the researchers say being an anxious individual could serve a useful purpose.

They explain that anxious people process threats in brain regions responsible for action, whereas more laid-back people process threats in sensory circuits, which are responsible for face recognition.

Emotion displayed on the face can be cryptic, but the team says they were able to flesh out what it is that makes a person threatening.

It all comes down to the direction in which a person is looking, explain the researchers. For example, a direct, angry face produces a brain response in the viewer that is much faster than if the angry person is looking somewhere else.

“In a crowd, you will be most sensitive to an angry face looking towards you, and will be less alert to an angry person looking somewhere else,” says El Zein.

Fast facts about anxiety
  • Anxiety disorders involve excessive worry about everyday tasks or events
  • They commonly occur alongside other mental or physical illnesses
  • Clinical anxiety is often treated with pharmacotherapies and sometimes exposure therapy.

Learn more about anxiety

Though this may sound a bit obvious – we are more likely to respond to something directed at us – the underlying neurological mechanisms behind why this is have not been well understood until now.

Likewise, if a person gives off a look of fear and looks in a certain direction, the viewer will detect this emotion more quickly than if they were displaying positive emotions.

The researchers say the reason we have such quick reactions in the wake of fear or anger could have served adaptive purposes for survival. They point to predators that can attack, bite or sting, which we have evolved alongside – making a quick reaction vital in avoiding danger.

To further investigate, the team measured electrical signals with an electroencephalogram (EEG) in the brains of 24 volunteers while they decided whether digitally altered faces signified anger or fear.

Some of the faces had the exact same expression, but the team altered their gaze. In total, the researchers conducted 1,080 trials.

Commenting on their findings, El Zein says:

”In contrast to previous work, our findings demonstrate that the brain devotes more processing resources to negative emotions that signal threat, rather than to any display of negative emotion.”

Although it has previously been suggested that non-clinical elevated anxiety could impair how the brain processes threats, the researchers found that non-clinical anxiety changes the neural “coding” of threats from sensory circuits to motor circuits, which produce action.

They say they would like to conduct further research to determine whether people with clinical anxiety also have this beneficial neural shift in the wake of external threats.

Medical News Today recently reported on a study that identified a rat region that, when stimulated by vitamin B3, decreases anxiety.