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Anxiety sufferers see the world differently, study finds

A key difference in the brain can cause anxious people to perceive "safe" scenarios as threatening

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Are you one of the 40 million adult Americans who suffers from anxiety? If so, you’ve probably been on the receiving end of such comments as, “Just calm down” or “Don’t sweat the small stuff.”

To others, your heightened sense of dread may seem unwarranted. But what well-meaning friends may not know is that your anxiety can’t simply be switched off -- the way you see the world is different.

According to a study in the journal Current Biology, anxiety is the result of a fundamental difference in a person’s brain. That difference? The brain's plasticity, or its ability to change and reorganize itself by forming new connections.

Researchers from the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel found that this brain difference dictates how a person responds to stimuli. For the anxiety-prone brain, it may be tricky to tell the difference between neutral or “safe” stimuli and threatening stimuli.

Overgeneralizing emotional experiences

The scientists found that those with anxiety experience lasting plasticity even after an emotional experience (or a “stimulus”) ends. In other words, when a person with anxiety comes across a new and completely irrelevant situation, their brains might still be sending “possible threat” alerts; this results in characteristic feelings of anxiety.

Anxious people tend to overgeneralize emotional experiences, the researchers note. This means that even if a new scenario hasn’t yet proved itself a threat, anxious brains will be primed and ready to dish out anxiety, regardless.

Perhaps the most important finding in the study is that anxious people can’t control it. This response is due a fundamental difference in their brain. “It’s a perceptual inability to discriminate,” lead researcher Rony Paz said in a statement.

Destigmatizing anxiety

People with anxiety, depression, and other mental illnesses often report feeling somewhat misunderstood. But Paz says these findings might help shed some light on the fact that people with anxiety aren’t responsible for it and that the response in itself isn’t “bad.”

"Anxiety traits can be completely normal, and even beneficial evolutionarily,” says Paz, "Yet an emotional event, even minor sometimes, can induce brain changes that might lead to full-blown anxiety.”

What can you do if you suffer from anxiety? The Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) recommends the following coping strategies: 

  • Take a time-out. Yoga, music, and meditation are just a few of the relaxation techniques that can help you clear your head.
  • Eat balanced meals. Maintain a healthy diet and don't skip meals. This can help prevent any possible dips in energy.
  • Get enough sleep. The body needs extra rest when stressed.
  • Talk to someone. A problem shared is a problem halved, as the saying goes. Tell family and friends how you're feeling or get professional help by talking to a physician or therapist.

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