A little anxiety pays sometimes, study shows

Apr 03, 2008

Anxiety gets a lot of bad press. Dwelling on the negative can lead to chronic stress and anxiety disorders and phobias, but evolutionarily speaking, anxiety holds some functional value. In humans, learning to avoid harm is necessary not only for surviving in the face of basic threats (such as predators or rotten food), but also for avoiding more complex social or economic threats (such as enemies or questionable investments).

A team of psychologists at Stanford University have identified a region of the brain, the anterior insula, which plays a key role in predicting harm and also learning to avoid it. In a new study, Gregory Samanez-Larkin and colleagues scanned the brains of healthy adults while they anticipated losing money.

Adults with greater activation of their insula while anticipating a financial loss were better at learning to avoid financial losses in a separate game several months later. Conversely, participants with low levels of insula activation had a harder time learning to avoid losses and lost more money in the game as a result.

For these subjects, higher levels of insula activation helped them to learn to avoid losses months later. However, researchers have found that excessive insula activation might prove problematic. Previous research has shown that people who are chronically fearful and anxious have abnormal patterns of insula activation. So, while people with excessive insula activity are at risk for psychological disorders like anxiety and phobias, higher levels of insula activation in the normal range may allow people to avoid potentially harmful situations.

The findings, which appear in the April issue of Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, point toward an optimal level of anxiety. While a healthy amount of anxiety grants some survival value, too much may lead to excessive worry and clinical conditions. This may help to explain why anxious traits persist in humanity's genetic endowment, even as environmental threats vary over the ages.

Source: Association for Psychological Science

Explore further: Intervention program helps prevent high-school dropouts

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Review provides new insights into the causes of anorexia

Jul 21, 2009

New imaging technology provides insight into abnormalities in the brain circuitry of patients with anorexia nervosa (commonly known as anorexia) that may contribute to the puzzling symptoms found in people with the eating ...

Brain emotion circuit sparks as teen girls size up peers

Jul 15, 2009

What is going on in teenagers' brains as their drive for peer approval begins to eclipse their family affiliations? Brain scans of teens sizing each other up reveal an emotion circuit activating more in girls ...

Imaging study provides glimpse of alcohol's effect on brain

Apr 29, 2008

New brain imaging research published this week shows that, after consuming alcohol, social drinkers had decreased sensitivity in brain regions involved in detecting threats, and increased activity in brain regions involved ...

Recommended for you

Intervention program helps prevent high-school dropouts

Oct 24, 2014

New research findings from a team of prevention scientists at Arizona State University demonstrates that a family-focused intervention program for middle-school Mexican American children leads to fewer drop-out rates and ...

Bilingualism over the lifespan

Oct 24, 2014

It's a scene that plays out every day in Montreal. On the bus, in schools, in the office and at home, conversations weave seamlessly back and forth between French and English, or one of the many other languages represented ...

User comments : 1

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

HeRoze
not rated yet Apr 03, 2008
Has everyone else noticed that most people are more productive when under a bit of stress? Not to in anyway downplay the significance stress disorders, some stress is required to motivate. This stress comes either from internal or external forces. I like the term they use: Optimal Level of Anxiety. If I could bottle that, I would make millions :)