Anxiety is not a conscious choice.
Actually, all mental health conditions are much more than just being “in a person’s head.” They can actually change someone’s perception of their surroundings to such an extent that it could affect their hearing and other senses.
In fact, a new small-scale study published in the journal Current Biology proves that anxiety stems from a variance in a patient’s brains, dictating their response to different stimuli.
Scientists from the Weizmann Institute of Science, the Jerusalem Mental Health Center and Hebrew University in Israel have discovered that people with anxiety might not be able to distinguish between threatening and non-threatening situations on a neurological level, which makes them more likely to feel apprehensive and unsafe.
The researchers analyzed the effects of anxiety on perception by conducting a two-phase sound experiment on 28 subjects diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) and a controlled group of 16 that did not suffer from the mental condition.
In the first round, they made the participants listen to three distinct tones and associate them with money loss, money gain or no consequences. Then, they played 15 different tones and asked the groups to identify the sounds they heard during the first part of the experiment.
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The results showed the subjects who did not suffer from anxiety had little problem differentiating between the original sounds and the new ones than those with GAD. The study suggest this phenomenon stems from “overgeneralization,” which in psychology refers to someone who associates one frightening experience to all other similar experiences.
“Our study suggests that people with anxiety cannot discriminate, at the most basic level, between stimuli that have an emotional content and similar mundane or daily stimuli,” said lead author Rony Paz of the Weizmann Institute of Science. “This in turn might explain the anxious response that they exhibit to scenarios that seem regular, normal or non-emotional to anyone else – their brain cannot discriminate and responds as if it is the anxious stimulus.”
Moreover, brain scans of the participants showed differences as well.
The MRIs of those with anxiety showed higher activity in the amygdala (the part of the brain associated with anxiety and fear) and in the areas of the brain that process sensory information.
While scientists still have a long way to go before they figure out if anxiety affects other senses as well, this particular study is proof that mental disorders shouldn’t be taken lightly or considered trivial compared to physical illnesses.