Researchers Discover Unexpected Upside to Anxiety

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Being an anxious person can feel like a burden. You’re always alert, and at least a little on edge. But a new small study has found that there may be an unexpected upside to those feelings: a quicker physical reaction to threatening social cues.

According to New York magazine, researchers at PSL Research University and Université Pierre et Marie Curie in Paris asked 24 young adults to look at 1000 different faces that were digitally altered to express different emotions. When they recorded participants’ neural responses with an EEG, they found that looking at people with angry facial expressions triggered activity in the ventral face-selective and dorsal motor cortices of the brain. While the former helps humans recognize facial expressions, the latter plays a role in our ability to move.

While all of the participants recognized angry faces in a fraction of a second, the researchers found that volunteers who showed a predisposition towards anxiety on a questionnaire had more activity in the dorsal motor cortices of their brain. The researchers extrapolated that those with anxiety were more primed to act in response to angry facial expressions than were their calmer counterparts.

That is, anxious subjects had more activity in the part of their brain that controls action (and reaction), including mechanisms like the "fight or flight" response. Though more research is needed to confirm the link between brain activity and actual physical reaction time, the study suggests that people with anxiety may be able to respond to dangerous social cues—like an angry or fearful facial expression—more quickly.

[h/t: New York magazine]