What Anxiety Does to Your Brain
Anxiety exists on a spectrum, from normal, healthy, dodged-that-bullet anxiety, to a life-limiting and debilitating condition.
Oli Robinson, from UCL's Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, believes we are failing those with anxiety disorders, by diagnosing and treating them based on their symptoms, and not fully recognising the influence of the brain. As he explained in his recent talk at the ICN's Mind the Brain conference, you wouldn't say a cough was a cough disorder. You would say it was the flu, a cold, tuberculosis, pneumonia, cancer - and therefore you certainly wouldn't treat them all the same. By doing so, you probably wouldn't help and you might indeed do a person harm.
In a series of experiments, Oli Robinson threatened participants with electric shocks - a bit out there, but he assured us no one got hurt. By monitoring their brain activity, he narrowed in on the 'anxiety circuit', the amygdala, in our brain, which switches on when we perceive threat, and switches off when we feel safe. In healthy participants, this mechanism was efficient and adaptable, switching on when threatened with the electric shock and off when the participants were told they were safe. In participants with diagnosed anxiety disorders, not only did the circuit fail to respond as effectively as in a healthy person, but indeed in some people it was stuck on active. This could perhaps give us some indication of just how debilitating anxiety disorders can be; imagine trying to go about your day to day business, always hyper-vigilant, cautious and expecting the worst?
While the participants were being threatened with electric shocks, they were also asked to identify emotions portrayed in photographs of human faces. In both healthy participants and those with anxiety disorders, people were much quicker to identify emotions such as pain, fear, disgust, sadness when they felt threatened. So when we feel anxious or fearful, we are much more likely to pick up on negative or threatening signals from our everyday environment, and from the people we meet along the way. This is called negative affective bias and it can certainly make the world seem like a miserable, scary place.
Research like this could be vital, supporting medical and mental health professionals better tailor their treatment to the individual. You can learn more about anxiety here.