Anxious people perceive things differently: Study

Anxious people perceive things differently: Study

Individuals suffering from anxiety sometimes cannot harness things, situations or people as they actually are; they start viewing them as they want to see, perceive, or infer. A study, published in the Cell Press journal Current Biology in March 2016, claimed that people with anxiety perceive the world in an entirely different manner. They are not capable of distinguishing between a neutral, “safe” stimulus (in this case the sound of a tone) and the ones that are threatening, for example, some money loss.

Brain can adapt to changes and can reorganize itself by forming new connections. The changes in the brain are responsible for dictating a person’s response to stimuli, whether positive or negative. The study by researchers from the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel found that people who were suffering from anxiety, experience plasticity in the brain circuits even after an emotional experience, i.e. stimulus ended long before.

Lead author of the study Rony Paz said, “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.”

Study details

For the study, the researchers experimented a conditioning session with the participants in which three well-separated pure tones were assigned as conditioning stimulus. Paz and his colleagues trained the people to associate the three distinct tones with one of the three outcomes: money loss, money gain or with no consequence.

The next phase of the study involved the presentation of one of the 15 tones that were shown to the participants. They were asked to identify if they had heard that particular tone in the training or not. If they were successful with the right answer, they were rewarded with money.

The researchers wanted to see if people mistook the new tone for the one they had heard during the training sessions. They found that people who had anxiety were more prone to accept that the new tone was the one they had heard in the training session as compared to the healthy controls. The act signifies that they were more likely to associate a new tone with money loss or gain.

The results were not based on the differences in a person’s hearing or learning abilities, but were based on the simple perception of sounds that were previously linked to an emotional experience differently.

The researchers also performed functional magnetic resonance images (fMRIs) on the brains of the participants. The fMRIs of the brains of people with anxiety in comparison to the healthy controls showed marked difference in brain response. The difference resided mainly in the amygdala, the brain region related to fear and anxiety, and also in primary sensory regions of the brain. The results indicate that changes in sensory representations in anxiety patients’ brains are actually induced by emotional experiences.

Highlighting the findings, Paz said, “The findings might help to explain why some people are more prone to anxiety than others, although the underlying brain plasticity that leads to anxiety isn’t in itself bad.” He added that anxiety traits could be normal, but sometimes even a minor emotional event is responsible for creating brain changes which might be a causal factor for a full-blown anxiety disorder.

Road ahead

There are evidence showing mental illnesses like anxiety can have their source in the brain regions. They might have genetic and biological footings that are responsible for mental instability. It is ironic that in spite of so many ongoing researches, social stigma still prevails around mental health problems, obstructing a person to receive treatment.

If you or your loved one is reeling under bouts of anxiety, don’t hesitate to seek treatment to lead an anxiety-free life. You have the right to live a normal life and we, at the Anxiety Treatment Centers of California, can provide you the help you need to recover from your present state. Chat online with our expert or call at 855-972-9459 to seek the best anxiety treatments in your vicinity.

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