While trying to pinpoint the brain changes caused by anxiety disorders, Offir Laufer, David Israeli and Rony Paz, researchers from the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel, found that people diagnosed with anxiety are less able to tell the difference between a neutral or safe stimulus and one that was previously associated with a threat.
In their study, these researchers trained people with anxiety to associate three distinct sounds or tones with one of these outcomes – money loss, money gain, or no consequence. Then these participants were presented with one of 15 tones. They had to identify if they’d heard that tone before or not. They were rewarded with money if they were correct. Interestingly, the subjects with anxiety were more likely than the healthy control group to think a new sound was one they’d heard earlier. Why?
Rony Paz explains: “We show that in patients with anxiety, emotional experiences induce plasticity in brain circuits that last after the experience is over. Such plastic changes result in an inability to discriminate between the originally experienced stimulus and a new similar stimulus. Therefore, anxiety patients respond emotionally to new stimuli, resulting in anxiety even in apparently irrelevant new situations.”
What does this mean? People with an anxiety disorder associate a new experience with an old emotional response that lingers in their brain. The previous anxious feelings are now attached to the new and often unrelated experience. So even though there’s no reason for anxiety, their brain tells them that there is. This behavior is known as over-generalization.
Functional magnetic resonance images (fMRIs) of the anxious brain versus healthy brains showed response differences in the amygdale and in the primary sensory regions of the brain. These results support the theory that emotional experiences cause changes in sensory representations in anxious brains. This reaction isn’t something that an anxious person can control, because it’s a fundamental brain difference.
Anxiety can be a completely normal and beneficial emotion when it alerts you to potential danger. However, full-blown anxiety can keep you from leading a full and happy life. Thankfully there are a variety of treatments that can help you cope with your anxiety and drastically minimize its impact on your life. If you live near Portland, OR/Vancouver, WA and would like to learn how to deal with your anxious brain, please contact my office and schedule an appointment.
Read more on my website: Coping with Anxiety Disorders.