I have a lot of clients who complain of anxiety. The techniques to deal with this are well known, but what clients don’t understand it that sometimes, worrying might actually be good for them!
True, anxiety is something to be avoided because of the impact it can have on mental and physical health. But anxiety is also part of the survival strategy. High anxiety levels change how our brains deal with dangerous and threatening situations. Anxious people respond better to danger, especially if the anxiety comes at the right moment! High levels of anxiety change the way we spot danger, which makes us better able to respond to threats. Anxiety is the switch that activates fight or flight mode.
In particular, anxious people detect threats in a different region of the brain from those who are permanently laid back – they process social threat signals in the sensory circuits in the temporal region of the brain. Coincidentally, these are the same areas responsible for facial recognition.
This difference may allow anxious individuals, such as those who are hypersensitive to threat detection, to take faster action when they feel like they are in danger.
Daily annoyances, from being stuck in traffic to badly behaved computers can make us irrationally stressed and angry. However, older adults who have already survived a major stressful event, such as a war or serious car accident, are better able to cope with the ups and downs of day-to-day stress.
Older people often get used to stress and develop strategies to help themselves cope with it. But when stress returns after a long absence, it can be just as debilitating as before. In other words, constant day-to-day stress is easier to deal with than rare or sporadic stress events.
In a recent experiment, volunteers were shown a selection of angry or menacing faces in order to determine individual’s ability to detect stress. The researchers noted that the direction the person in the photograph was looking played a key role in enhancing sensitivity to threat assessment, irrespective of whether volunteers were suffering from high levels of anxiety or not.
Anger coupled with a direct gaze produced a response in the brain in only 200 milliseconds, but if the angry person was looking elsewhere, the response was slower. This is because the brain automatically and instinctively devotes more processing resources to negative emotions that signal threat, rather than to any other display of negative emotion.
The brain was also able to detect other negative emotions, such as fear, more quickly than positive emotions. Again, a very useful skill when it comes to survival strategy. Walk through any British city centre late on a Saturday night and you’ll know what I’m talking about.
Each volunteer had their anxiety levels measured before each experiment. Those with high anxiety levels tended to have more activity in the areas of the brain that govern movement and fight and flight mechanisms and were thus more ready to spring into action.
So brief periods of anxiety might not be such a bad thing after all. It stopped our ancestors from being devoured by the odd sabre-tooth tiger and it can save us from the odd angry drunk whilst waiting for the ambulance. Sorry, taxi.