The Complicated Faces of Anxiety

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image by Doris Reindl

Anxiety has never been something that anyone openly wishes for. But recent research shows that anxious people may have other traits that could make their anxiety a little more bearable.

A small study in 2011 found that people who reported suffering from social anxiety showed greater empathy — an awareness of the mental states and emotions of people around them. Later research, though, found that socially anxious people assigned more meaning and intensity to other people’s emotions than was actually present.

In addition to empathy, anxious people may also be more intelligent. One 2014 study showed that people with generalized anxiety scored higher on tests of verbal intelligence. This also worked the other way around — people with higher verbal intelligence tended to worry more or overthink problems.

This link between anxiety and intelligence is supported by other research which found that people who suffered from the worst anxiety had a higher IQ than those with fewer symptoms. The researchers see this connection resulting from the dangerous world in which early humans developed.

“While excessive worry is generally seen as a negative trait and high intelligence as a positive one, worry may cause our species to avoid dangerous situations, regardless of how remote a possibility they may be,” study author Jeremy Coplan, a professor of psychiatry at SUNY Downstate Medical Centre in New York, told The Telegraph.

Where Does Anxiety Come From?

It’s impossible to tell whether anxiety causes traits like intelligence or empathy, or if they just tend to coincide. But some research shows that children may develop certain types of anxiety in response to their parents’ behavior.

In a study published last year in the Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, researchers observed nearly 300 children at age three and six as they worked on puzzles, while their parents looked on.

Researchers also measured a predictable electrical pattern in part of the brain — the medial prefrontal cortex — that activates whenever we make a mistake. This error-related negativity (ERN) serves as a warning sign — a signal that a mistake has occurred and needs to be corrected.

Some parents in the study displayed (or reported) more control and less warmth in their interactions with their children. These children with punitive parents were more likely to have larger ERNs. They also displayed greater signs of anxiety during their second visit.

In an interview with Scientific American, the researchers suggest that children whose parents dole out harsh criticism may start to internalize their parent’s negative comments. This could turn up the ERN so high that it leads to anxiety as they are always on the lookout for mistakes.

As with most psychological traits, anxiety occurs along a continuum. At the most severe end, it can impact how well we function in life. But it can also serve as a useful tool that we can use as part of our daily lives and for personal development.

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“Anxiety, heartbreak, and tenderness mark the in-between state. It’s the kind of place we usually want to avoid. The challenge is to stay in the middle rather than buy into struggle and complaint. The challenge is to let it soften us rather than make us more rigid and afraid.”

~ Pema Chödrön, The Places that Scare You: A Guide to Fearlessness in Difficult Times

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