If you suffer anxiety, chances are you’re more highly attuned to threats, and find it difficult to manage heightened emotion when you feel unsafe. New research shows that anxious people don’t just follow the “better safe than sorry” rule. It’s the way their brains work when it comes to discriminating between what’s threatening and what’s safe that’s the issue. In short, they ‘overgeneralise’
Researchers from the Weizzman Institute of Science in Israel asked people with anxiety to associate three different sound tones with three different outcomes. One was money loss, one money gain, and one was no consequence. They then heard new tones and had to decide if they’d heard the tone before. If correct, they won money. Anxious people were more likely to believe they’d heard one of the new tones earlier – and were more likely to mistake that tone for one associated with money loss or gain. No participant had a hearing issue, and so the difference in perception was due to linking differently to an emotional experience. In the real world, this means that anxious people don’t or can’t differentiate between new and old stimuli, and they can over-generalise an emotional experience whether it is new, old or threatening.
Study lead Rony Paz said: “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.”