Anxiety is usually thought of as a negative thing, since it often gets in the way of our enjoyment of life. However, a new study has found a surprising benefit to anxiety: Those who experience it may potentially navigate threats better than those who don’t. Researchers from PSL Research University and Université Pierre et Marie Curie set out to see how our brain processes threatening sensory information and how that influences our negative emotions. Since anxiety is linked to a higher sensitivity to threats, the researchers wanted to understand how our brain detects them.
For the experiment, participants were shown a variety of different facial expressions, each carrying a weight of emotional strength on a scale of one to seven; then they were asked to make sense of the emotion that was being conveyed. The directions in which the faces were gazing also varied — which wasn’t told to the study participants, although this factor turned out to be crucial in the study’s results. What they found was that the direction of the gaze influenced the subjects’ categorization of anger and fear, which were each understood the most clearly with direct and averted gazes, respectively. They also found that the brain’s processing speed was influenced by gaze direction, which took place more quickly with the direct gaze when displaying anger and the averted gaze when displaying fear. Essentially, this means that the participants’ brains spent more time processing the emotion of the threat, rather than the actual threat itself.
The researchers found that anxious people processed their response to this threat in a different portion of their brain, the motor cortex, than those who don’t have high anxiety levels — the anxiety-less participants used their temporal cortex, which helps us to process to facial recognition. Thus, anxiety can lead to swifter responses to threats. “This pattern of findings suggests that anxiety increases the relative contribution of the motor pathway during the processing of negative social signals,” the researchers wrote in their report, published in eLife.
This study isn’t actually the first to find positive effects of anxiety, so let’s take a look at five more benefits to being anxious:
1. Reduced Stress
Experiencing physical anxiety can lead to a reduction of overall stress. Many studies have shown that putting your body through physically taxing situations, like exercising, can lead to a more concentrated and less stressful state of mind. So, exercising can help you to manage mental anxiety, while also leading to a healthier body — a total win-win!
2. Creating Better Outcomes
Anxiety has been shown in other studies to help us to be more aware of potential dangers, which can lead us to being more prepared and ready to take on problems or challenges that we face in our lives. For example, those who feel anxious about an upcoming exam will probably be more apt to study than those who aren’t worried and go in with little test prep.
3. Getting In Fewer Accidents
A 2006 study found that those with higher anxiety levels as teenagers were less likely to get into fatal accidents than their less anxious peers. Although, those with the higher levels of anxiety were more likely to die in non-accidental ways later in their lives.
4. Being More Trustworthy
Research has shown that being embarrassed can actually lead to people being more trusting of you, since it allows you to appear open and somewhat vulnerable. Anxiety often leads to being more easily embarrassed, which thus leads you to potentially appearing more worthy of someone’s trust than those who just don’t give a f*ck about how they appear.
5. Keeping The Human Race Alive
Studies have shown that intelligence positively correlates with high levels of anxiety, so if you’re anxious, you’re probably also pretty smart. Evolutionary theory also suggests that intellect evolved along with anxiety, which allowed our prehistoric ancestors to process threats and respond to danger, therefore helping to keep them alive. So, think of yourself as being a byproduct of evolutionary genius and helping to better human’s chances of survival.