No one likes feeling anxious, but scientists are starting to discover some surprising upsides to anxiety. The latest in this line of thinking comes from researchers at PSL Research University and Université Pierre et Marie Curie in Paris, who found that people with higher levels of anxiety were able to detect threatening faces more rapidly than the comparatively sanguine. That’s perhaps not so surprising, as anyone with even a low level of anxiety knows the feeling is a little like being on high alert for potential threats, all the time. But, intriguingly, this study also showed that highly anxious brains responded somewhat differently to these threats, potentially enabling them to respond more quickly, according to a new study in eLife.
The French psychologists recruited 24 healthy young adults and presented them with more than 1,000 different faces digitally morphed to display varying levels of fear and anger, including several neutral faces. The participants’ neural responses were recorded using EEG, and their current and overall general levels of anxiety were assessed using questionnaires.
The EEG data revealed that two regions of the brain responded to these social threats (represented by the fearful and angry faces) in just a fraction of a second. The two brain regions, the ventral face-selective and dorsal motor cortices, play a role in our identification of faces and our ability to move and act, respectively. Activity in these regions allows a person to recognize a threat and then, importantly, do something about it, such as run away or prepare to fight.
When the researchers divided the participants into higher- and lower-anxiety groups, however, they got a surprise. Although both groups responded in the same amount of time, those with higher anxiety showed increased activity in the dorsal motor cortex, suggesting that they were more primed to respond to the potential threat.
The authors point out that none of the participants had been diagnosed with a clinical anxiety disorder, such as generalized anxiety, social phobia, or obsessive-compulsive disorder, and it isn’t clear whether levels of anxiety that can interfere with daily functioning provide a similar benefit. Still, they say, these results add to the growing body of literature that, at least in a crisis, anxiety really can be our friend.