Could Anxiety Fundamentally Alter a Person’s Perception?

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Anxiety can do a lot more than just make a person uncomfortable. It can cause severe social deficiencies, make it difficult to build lasting and meaningful relationships, and even affect a person’s ability to perform in school or work. Now, new research says anxiety may even fundamentally change how a person perceives the world.

A new study, published in the journal Current Biology, indicates that people diagnosed with anxiety are less capable of determining whether stimuli is neutral or “safe.” The findings may also provide insight into why some people are more prone to anxiety than others.

For the study, patients were trained to associate three specific tones with one of three results: gaining money, losing money, or no consequence. The participants were then played a variety of new sounds and tones to see if the participants could correctly identify tones from the first part of the study.

According to the results, people diagnosed with anorexia were notably more likely to make a mistake by identifying a new sound as one that had already heard earlier in the experiment.

“We show that in patients with anxiety, emotional experience induces plasticity in brain circuits that lasts after the experience is over,” co-study author Rony Paz of the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel said in a university release. “Such plastic changes occur in primary circuits, and these later mediate the response to new stimuli. The result is an inability to discriminate between the experience of the original stimulus and that of a new, similar stimulus. Therefore anxiety patients respond emotionally to the new stimuli as well and exhibit anxiety symptoms even in apparently irrelevant situations. They cannot control this response: it is a perceptual inability to discriminate.”

According to the team, the findings of the new study indicate people with anxiety are more likely to overgeneralize because they perceived tones heard in the first part of the study differently than healthy participants heard them. The team believes the association between emotional activities such as winning or losing money may affect the perception.

The report also suggests these results may explain why some are more likely to develop anxiety disorders.

“Anxiety traits can be completely normal; there is evidence that they benefitted us in our evolutionary past. Yet an emotional event, sometimes even a minor one, can induce brain changes that can potentially lead to full-blown anxiety,” Paz concluded.

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