Inside an Anxious Brain: Anxiety Changes Our Perception of Reality

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Anxiety and fear change the way the way our mind, body, and soul react to the world around us. In the midst of anxiety, we oftentimes can make emotional decisions that we later on regret.

What exactly is it that causes us to lose our grasp on rationality when faced with anxiety?

It is easy to feel like that we could or should have reacted differently in the midst of an anxiety crisis. However, we need to realize and remember that those who are struggling with generalized anxiety disorder will sense a threat from harmless things or people unconsciously. 

Generalized Anxiety Disorder, or GAD is the most commonly diagnosed form of clinical anxiety.  According to the ADAA GAD is defined as “Generalized anxiety disorder is characterized by persistent, excessive, and unrealistic worry about everyday things.”

Anxiety is a normal reaction or symptom of the design of our society. We have busy lifestyles to maintain, with jobs that are stressful, and constantly changing social demands. Emotionally, we are disconnected as a collective and exist in a system that ultimately oppresses us.

Humans are naturally wired to focus more attention towards negative stimuli or things that would cause us to feel afraid in our environments, This is what researchers call the “better safe than sorry” approach to thinking.

Is Over-generalization the Problem?

28 people who had been previously diagnosed with GAD and 16 people with no history of anxiety were used by researchers in a study consisting of 2 different parts.

The people were trained to learn the difference between various tones. One was positive and earned a monetary reward, the second was a negative outcome of losing money, and the last was a neutral sound that caused nothing to happen.

In the second part of the phase the subjects would hear 15 different sounds with directions to press a key if they recognized the tone as one of the 3 from the first part. If correct they would win money, but if they were wrong they would lose money.

Since money lost or gained is an emotional trigger for people the study began separating those with anxiety from those without it. Calmly, those without anxiety would wait until they recognized one. The people with a predisposition to anxiety were a tad bit trigger-happy, second guessing their memory, and under the assumption they had heard many of the 15 tones before. Those with an anxious brain would see all of the tones as relevant which created an over-generalization effect. The researchers performed brain scans in the testing phase to monitor what was happening inside the minds of the subjects. The subjects that had a calmer demeanor had brain scans appearing relatively normal, while those with anxiety had activity occurring all over the brain including the centers associated with fear and worry.

"We show that in patients with anxiety, emotional experience induces plasticity in brain circuits that lasts after the experience is over," says Rony Paz of Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel. "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." 

Being able to be vigilant and aware of danger at all times is definitely a useful trait to have, but constantly being in danger and survival mode can be quite exhausting, as well as being extremely stressful. Our day to day life is not typically very dangerous and filled with threats, and having to walk around constantly on eggshells due to anxiety can be a nightmare that the anxiety patient has no control over. If over generalization causes an inability for anxiety patients to view the world as safe, then in order for us to begin making the world a better place, a good start would be by coming up with new and improved methods of helping people overcome their anxiety.


Written by Danielle


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Inside an Anxious Brain: Anxiety Changes Our Perception of Reality