Fear and anxiety have a huge effect on our mind, body and perception of the world. When we are feeling anxiety, it is common to make mistakes that we later regret. While we think that perhaps we should have acted differently at the time, in the end, we have to remember that we do not perceive the world accurately when we are in this survival driven state.
To better explain what I mean I want to show you the findings from a study published in the journal of Current Biology. This study found that people who are struggling with generalized anxiety disorder will perceive harmless things or people as threats on an unconscious level. This, unfortunately, will often cause the anxious person to filter everything through a lens of fear.
If you have ever struggled with fear or anxiety you know how slippery the slope can be and without a good set of rebalancing tools, you can quickly spiral out of control and end up feeling depressed.
Anxious People Tend to worry When There’s “Nothing to Worry About”
“a psychological disorder characterized by excessive or disproportionate anxiety about several aspects of life, such as work, social relationships, or financial matters.”
“extreme worrying almost every day for six months or more may signal generalized anxiety disorder”
How Scientists Found Overgeneralization to be the Problem
Researchers found 28 people who had previously been diagnosed with GAD and 16 other people who had no history of anxiety for the study. This particular study had 2 different parts to it.
First they would train people to learn the difference between 3 tones. One tone was positive and would lead to a money reward, the second was a tone that represented a negative outcome where the person would loose money, and the last tone was neutral and nothing would happen.
The second part of the study was the testing phase where the subjects would each hear 15 different sounds and they would have to press a key if they recognized the tone as one of the 3 from before. If they were correct then they would win money, but if they were wrong then they would have some of the money taken away.
Loosing and gaining money is an emotional trigger for people so it quickly started to separate the people with anxiety from those who didn’t have it. The people who didn’t have anxiety would assume most of the tones were new and would calmly wait until they recognized one.
What the researchers noticed right away was that the people who were predisposed to anxiety where a bit trigger-happy and would second guess their memory assuming they had heard many of the 15 tones before. In the anxious brain a person would see all of the new tones as relevant creating an overgeneralization effect.
The testers also used brain scans during the testing phase so they could see what was happening on the inside. The difference in brain activity was huge between the two groups. While the calmer individuals showed relatively normal brain activity the people with anxiety had signs of activation all over their brain including the areas associated with worry and fear.
“We show that in patients with anxiety, emotional experience induces plasticity in brain circuits that lasts after the experience is over,” Author Rony Paz said in a press release.
“Such plastic changes occur in primary circuits that later mediate the response to new stimuli, resulting in an inability to discriminate between the originally experienced stimulus and a new similar stimulus. Therefore, anxiety patients respond emotionally to such new stimuli as well, resulting in anxiety even in apparently irrelevant new situations. Importantly, they cannot control this, as it is a perceptual inability to discriminate.”
While having a more generalized and hyper-vigilant mind, which is common in people with anxiety, can be helpful in times of danger and survival it is generally a burden when functioning in everyday life. The fact of the matter is that most of our day to day life isn’t very dangerous.
“Anxiety traits can be completely normal, and even beneficial evolutionarily,” Rony Paz said ”Yet an emotional event, even minor sometimes, can induce brain changes that might lead to full-blown anxiety.“
If fear really does change our whole perception about life then perhaps in order to help create a better world we need to begin by helping people overcome their anxiety.
What do you think about this study? Does a mindset of overgeneralization make a difference in our ability to perceive a safe world? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.