Overwhelming work stress, intense family drama, or just turning on the news can make anyone feel anxious. Come on, you know you've had that horrible feeling. You feel like you are stuck underwater, you can't breathe and there is no way out.
Some people suffer from anxiety here or there or only feel it on a case by case basis. Others live their lives suffering from anxiety, and no matter how good or bad things may be in their lives at the moment, they feel an overwhelming sense of anxiety underneath it all.
Generalized anxiety disorder, or GAD, is the most common of the many different types of clinical anxiety. A new study published in March in the online journal, Current Biology, shows that people who are affected by GAD are suffering partly because they see harmless everyday things as threats, which eventually leads to more anxiety. Those who suffer from GAD often feel worried or anxious over things that any regular non-anxiety-suffering-Joe would see nothing to worry about.
Some past studies suggest that anxiety is a cause of overgeneralization, or the "better safe than sorry" approach. This is where the brain lumps safe things in with unsafe things and makes you think that everything is painfully unsafe.
It is natural for the brain to harp on or focus on negative or threatening information in general, so if people who suffer from anxiety see more threats in the world around them, it makes sense as to why they would be anxious all the time.
In the study, researchers wanted to find out if overgeneralization was occurring with their subjects who suffered from anxiety. Their participants were made up of 28 people who suffered from GAD and 16 people who didn't suffer from any forms of anxiety.
In the first part of the experiment, the training part, the participants learned three different sounds that were tied to different outcomes. They could press a key with a positive tone which could lead to them winning money, a negative tone which could lose them money or a neutral tone which wouldn't lead to anything at all.
In the second part of the experiment, the testing part, the researchers played 15 different sounds and the subjects were told to press a key when they heard one of the sounds that they heard in the first phase. If they guessed correctly, they would win money, but if they were wrong the researchers would take money away from them.
Because their actions could lose them money, the safest bet for the participants would be to not press any of the buttons at all, because most of the sounds that they were going to hear would be new sounds. But the anxious participants could not help themselves and went to town pressing the buttons over and over again because they believed that they had heard the sounds before. The first phase of the experiment affected them so much emotionally that it led them to overgeneralize all the new sounds.
During the experiment, the subjects wore brain scans, and researchers were able to see major differences in the brain activity between the anxious and non-anxious brains. The anxious subjects showed more brain activity, including activity in the amygdala, which is the part of the brain that is tied to worry and fear.
Senior co-author Rony Paz explained in a press release, "We show that in patients with anxiety, emotional experience induces plasticity in brain circuits that lasts after the experience is over... 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."
Paz also noted that in dangerous situations, someone who suffers from anxiety would actually benefit because they are so hyper aware and always on guard. However, unsafe situations are rare and the fact that their anxiety creeps into all situations, whether they are considered safe or not, is the real problem.
"Anxiety traits can be completely normal, and even beneficial evolutionarily," he said. "Yet an emotional event, even minor sometimes, can induce brain changes that might lead to full-blown anxiety."