How Having Anxiety Could Give You A Social Advantage

Photographed by Nina Westervelt.
While people generally try to avoid feeling anxious, there might just be situations in which it gives you an advantage. In fact, a new study suggests that people with higher levels of anxiety may react better and more efficiently to threatening situations.

For the study, published in the journal eLife, researchers had 24 adults answer a questionnaire to assess how anxious they were. Then, they had participants view photos of facial expressions — either neutral, angry, or fearful — and asked them to press specific buttons to pick which emotion they thought the image portrayed. While participants looked at images, the researchers observed signals in their brains to see which areas were active as they deciphered the photo subjects' emotional states. They also measured how rapidly participants interpreted each facial expression.

After analyzing the results, the researchers found that anxious people were better at detecting negative emotions in others, suggesting that those with anxiety notice threats faster, and can react accordingly.

Even though all study participants were able to recognize and feel threatened when viewing the images of angry expressions, those with anxiety were found to do so more efficiently. They not only detected threatening expressions faster, but they also used a different section of their brain — the part associated with physical action.

According to the researchers, this anxious advantage has perks. Detecting a threat faster than others, even by a few milliseconds, can help trigger "survival mode" (a.k.a. our fight or flight instincts) more effectively — which is a skill commonly associated with general anxiety disorder. Not to mention, when you're naturally more attune to potential dangers, you'll be faster on the draw in personal interactions.

Keep in mind, however, that this study only looked at 24 people, which is a pretty tiny sample. More research needs to be done to determine if anxious people truly do have superior emotion-deciphering skills. But here's hoping this suggested advantage kicks in the next time you cut the Starbucks line during the morning coffee rush and notice someone's angry gaze.
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