According to a new study, anxious people have a huge advantage over others as their brains have a different reaction to danger, which, in fact, could be life-saving.

An anxious personality can be viewed as a negative characteristic. I know that’s what I’ve always encountered, being diagnosed, in part, with an anxious disposition. With that being said, the anxious personality is showing a whole new face, or acquiring a new reputation. This new view of anxiety stems from the brain’s reaction to danger.

The fight or flight instinct – this quick reaction to trouble can save lives. Before the fight or flight reaction, however, we must rely upon our sixth sense. That is where anxiety, surprisingly, comes into play. Listen closely.

Trusting our trouble alert

In the journal eLife, results explain how the sixth sense works. Apparently, certain regions of the brain detect threats in a fast and automatic reaction-about 200 milliseconds! Wow! This was surprising to scientists, but even more astonishing was the fact that anxious people experienced the sensory response in completely different areas of the brain from those who are rather “laid-back”.

What’s the difference?

Basically, anxious people process threats in regions of the brain that govern action. Others process these threats in sensory circuits responsible for face recognition. For instance, a calm person will recognize a threat by the way someone looks at them, or rather IF they are looking at them – with an angry expression. While an angry expression, dead on, is threatening, the same angry expression may not mean much if the person is looking away. This is the “laid-back” approach to recognizing threats.

Marwa El Zein from the French Institute of Medical Research and the Ecole Superieurein Paris says,

“In a crowd, you will be more sensitive to an angry face looking toward you but less alert to an angry person looking somewhere else.”

These basic reactions have proven useful in survival, but more – so when used in action. A rapid action can make the difference between life and death, hence the positive aspects of the anxious personality – sixth sense traits.

“In contrast to our previous work, our findings demonstrates that the brain devotes more processing resources to negative emotions that signal threat, rather than any display of emotions,” says El Zein.


1800 trials were carried out to measure the reaction of emotions. Electrical signals were measured on 24 volunteers who were asked if digitally altered faces expressed anger or fear. In each image, the direction of the gaze was altered, and some of the images were duplicates.

One of the most interesting findings in the trials was the truth about anxiety. It was previously thought that non-clinical anxiety impairs the brain’s ability to recognize threats. After the trials, scientists found that anxiety actually heightened the ability. Non-clinical anxiety shifts neural coding from sensory circuits to motor circuits. This move produces action!

It would be interesting to find out if this rings true with those in the clinical range of anxiety. Now, aren’t you glad you took a moment to read this? Maybe your anxiety will not seem like such a crutch anymore, and maybe, just maybe, you can save someone in the process!


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