Most of the time, anxiety is just there: A feeling of helplessness, worry, and nervousness that often makes it that much harder to function in our super-stimulated world. But according to a new study in the journal eLife, there’s one side effect of anxiety that isn’t necessary a bad thing — the ability to detect and react to threats better.
In a study conducted on 24 subjects, researchers at two French universities asked subjects to self-report their anxiety levels. Then, the subjects were shown different images of peoples’ faces and asked to pick a facial illustration that matched the expression. Unbeknownst to the subjects, the researchers had created a sliding scale of illustrations, ranging from fearful to angry, direct gaze to averted one, and timed how long it took a subject to assign a caricature to a real face. In effect, they were measuring a person’s ability to “read” people, which is a useful skill to have when gauging a potentially dicey situation.
Their results came back showing that people who reported feeling higher anxiety were faster at reading peoples’ expressions. While that itself doesn’t hold many stakes in an experiment setting, in real-life dangerous or uncertain scenarios, being able to tell what’s a serious threat and not is important. Perhaps this is a leftover instinct from evolution, but there’s probably other stuff at work.
Speaking just for myself, when I’m feeling really anxious, I think EVERYONE is mad/disgusted/freaked out by me, and so I’m more paranoid and distrusting around others. Considering that the study only investigated 24 people, there’s probably an element of basic fear of people in play here. That said, maybe that in itself is a heightened version of the cautious phenomenon researchers observed.
Parse the full study for yourself here; we’re curious as to what other insights about anxiety will be uncovered in the new year.
Image via Shutterstock.