Anxious? Relax. It's Good For You.

I don't know about you but I don't like when I have knots in my stomach.  Or my hands get clammy, or I start to sweat a lot.

But did you know those signs of anxiety could actually help you?

A new study says feeling anxious in a crisis could be good for you.

New findings by French researchers show that the brain devotes more processing resources to social situations that signal threat than those that are benign, according to

The results explain the apparent "sixth sense" we have for danger. This is the first time that specific regions of the brain have been identified to be involved in the phenomenon. The human brain is able to detect social threats in these regions in a fast, automatic fashion, within just 200 milliseconds.

It was previously thought that anxiety could lead to oversensitivity to threat signals.

But now researchers are saying it's a good thing, and it goes all the way back to the dinosaurs.  Well, practically.

Being anxious can sometimes alert us to danger.  

Even more surprising for the scientists was the discovery that anxious individuals detect threat in a different region of the brain from people who are more laid-back. It was previously thought that anxiety could lead to oversensitivity to threat signals.

However, the new study shows that the difference has a useful purpose. Anxious people process threats using regions of the brain responsible for action. Meanwhile, "low anxious" people process them in sensory circuits, responsible for face recognition.

Facial displays of emotion can be ambiguous but the researchers managed to identify what it is that makes a person particularly threatening. They found that the direction a person is looking in is key to enhancing our sensitivity to their emotions. Anger paired with a direct gaze produces a response in the brain in only 200 milliseconds, faster than if the angry person is looking elsewhere.

"In a crowd, you will be most sensitive to an angry face looking towards you, and will be less alert to an angry person looking somewhere else," says lead author Marwa El Zein from the French Institute of Health and Medical Research (INSERM) and the Ecole Normale Supérieurein Paris.

Similarly, if a person displays fear and looks in a particular direction you will detect this more rapidly than positive emotions. Such quick reactions could have served an adaptive purpose for survival. For example, we evolved alongside predators that can attack, bite or sting. A rapid reaction to someone experiencing fear can help us avoid danger.

It has often been theorized that elevated anxiety, even in a non-clinical range, could impair the brain's processing of threats. However, researchers instead found that non-clinical anxiety shifts the neural "coding" of threat to motor circuits, which produce action, from sensory circuits, which help us to recognize faces.

So, back to those dinosaurs.  I don't think they ever needed a Xanax but I'd bet an adasaurus would be a bit nervous hearing a tyrannosaurus stomp through the forest (they have exceptionally tiny hind claws). The next time you're feeling anxious?  Think of the dinosaurs.



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