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How Our Brains Transform Remote Threats Into Crippling Anxiety

November 26, 2014 in Blogs

By Kevin LaBar, The Conversation

The bombardment of fear we receive from the news has left us paralyzed.

Modern life can feel defined by low-level anxiety swirling through society. Continual reports about terrorism and war. A struggle to stay on top of family finances and hold onto jobs. At the heart of issues like these lies uncertainty – the unknown likelihood of how ongoing crises will evolve over time.

Worries Knocking on the Door

When unpredictability or uncertainty prods us to consider the prospect of a bleak future, it fuels a state of apprehension that scientists study in the form of anxiety. Anxiety sits along a continuum of defensive behaviors we use when threats are somewhat remote from our current experience. It’s less extreme than the full-on fear elicited by direct, acute situations like an immediate physical attack.

Anxiety triggers the release of stress hormones and reorganizes our priorities to prepare for a future threat. Cognitive effects include repetitive worries, hyper-vigilant scanning for signs of trouble in the environment, and attentional and memory biases toward threat-related material.

In our age of terrorism, for instance, people worry about flying. When they do fly, people are prone to take particular notice of fellow passengers whose ethnicity resembles that of terrorist group members, and thoughts of prior terrorist attacks are likely to spontaneously come to mind.

At mild levels, anxiety can be beneficial for problem-solving and stimulating response actions to a future threat – think of Ebola preparedness drills at hospitals. Anxiety can motivate group action that will benefit society, such as fast-tracking some medical treatments or enacting a line of defense to prevent the spread of disease.

However, higher levels of anxiety hijack cognitive resources needed for other important tasks. In a laboratory study, we investigated how anxiety affects performance on a visual search task that emulated airport weapon screening procedures. We cast participants in the role of security screeners and asked them to look for “T” shapes amidst others on a screen. When we made them anxious by issuing a few unpredictable shocks, people tended to miss seeing a second “T” in the display. This effect was strongest in individuals …read more


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