People who have anxiety may be better equipped to deal with threatening social situations, according to a new study.
Tests revealed that the brain devotes more processing resources when dealing with dangerous situations.
Interestingly, scientists also discovered that people with anxiety detect threat in a different part of the brain to those who are less anxious.
Anxiety has previously been associated with an oversensitivity to threat signals in social conditions, however this new study proves that the difference could prove useful – particularly in threatening situations.
Researchers from the French Institute of Health and Medical Research monitored the brain activity of 24 volunteers while they looked at pictures of people displaying different levels of behaviour, ranging from threatening to chilled out.
Some of the faces displayed the same expression but with a difference in the direction of their gaze.
Researchers found that participants who were highly anxious processed threats using regions of the brain responsible for action.
Meanwhile people who were not anxious processed threats in sensory circuits, which are responsible for face recognition.
It is the first time that specific regions of the brain have been linked to how we process danger.
According to scientists, a person’s facial expression – particularly the direction they are looking in – is what makes us particularly sensitive to danger.
They found that a person who looked angry and had a direct gaze produced a response in the brain within 200 milliseconds. This was faster than if the angry person was looking somewhere else.
Lead author Marwa El Zein from the French Institute of Health and Medical Research said: “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.”
She added: “Facial expressions can communicate important social signals and understanding these signals can be essential for surviving threatening situations.”
The results of the study were published in the journal eLife.