Brain-Activity Data Clarify Contradictions In Earlier Anxiety Research

October 03, 1997

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- Psychologists need not worry about years of confusing research regarding anxiety. With emotional response broken into two aspects -- worry and panic -- a distinct pattern of activity arises in the brain, researchers say.

The new findings, reported by University of Illinois researchers, show that panic attacks, or excessive psychophysiological arousal, are reflected in people who worry by increased electrical activity in the right posterior of the brain during times of environmental stress. While at rest, worriers in the study showed more activity in the left frontal section of the brain.

As a result of the findings in this study -- reported in the August issue of the Journal of Abnormal Psychology -- and subsequent work, the researchers have begun a project measuring brain activity in combat veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome.

In the study, 40 students were split into groups based on levels of reported trait anxiety, which is associated with a tendency toward anxious arousal and panic. As the students listened to narratives that depicted pleasant, unpleasant, arousing or non-arousing events, researchers measured brain activity.

Previous research on anxiety has yielded often contradicting and unexplainable results, with electrical activity fluctuating between the brain's left and right hemispheres. The new findings, said U. of I. psychologist Wendy Heller, may clear up the confusion.

"Worry seems to be associated more with verbal ruminating, obsessing or making up stories in your head," she said. "Panic is much more a physiological state of alertness in which a person responds to a perceived threat with heart pounding, hands sweating, light-headedness and/or dizziness.

"It's been right there in the literature. Most of the studies that found more right-hemisphere activity were looking at panic or some kind of stressful state," she said. "Most of the studies that found more left-hemisphere activity were looking at worry. Now we have a possible explanation for this very bizarre pattern in the literature."

A clearer picture of right-hemisphere involvement in emotional responses to the environment is emerging, Heller said. "It also may turn out to play a role in anxiety disorders in general. In post-traumatic stress, for example, a person becomes hypervigilant. We know the threat system is activated. The puzzle is coming together, allowing us to begin looking for the mechanism."

The findings in Abnormal Psychology were reported by Heller, doctoral students Jack B. Nitschke and Marci A. Etienne, and Gregory A. Miller, a professor of psychology. A related study, done by Heller, Nitschke and Dr. Dana L. Lindsay, a U. of I. medical student who now is at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, appeared in the journal Cognition and Emotion. Heller also detailed a subsequent, unpublished study at the Fourth Laterality and Psychopathology Conference in London in June. The work was supported by the National Institutes of Mental Health.
-end-


University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Related Mental Health Articles from Brightsurf:

Mental health strained by disaster
A new study found that suicide rates increase during all types of disasters -- including severe storms, floods, hurricanes and ice storms -- with the largest overall increase occurring two years after a disaster.

The mental health impact of pandemics for front line health care staff
New research shows the impact that pandemics have on the mental health of front-line health care staff.

World Mental Health Day -- CACTUS releases report of largest researcher mental health survey
On the occasion of 'World Mental Health Day' 2020, CACTUS, a global scientific communications company, has released a global survey on mental health, wellbeing and fulfilment in academia.

Mental illness, mental health care use among police officers
A survey study of Texas police officers examines how common mental illness and mental health care use are in a large urban department.

COVID-19 outbreak and mental health
The use of online platforms to guide effective consumption of information, facilitate social support and continue mental health care delivery during the COVID-19 pandemic is discussed in this Viewpoint.

COVID-19 may have consequences for mental health
The COVID-19 pandemic appears to be adversely affecting mental health among hospitalised patients, the healthcare professionals treating them and the general population.

Mental health outcomes among health care workers during COVID-19 pandemic in Italy
Symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder, depression, anxiety and insomnia among health care workers in Italy during the COVID-19 pandemic are reported in this observational study.

Mental ill health 'substantial health concern' among police, finds international study
Mental health issues among police officers are a 'substantial health concern,' with around 1 in 4 potentially drinking at hazardous levels and around 1 in 7 meeting the criteria for post traumatic stress disorder and depression, finds a pooled data analysis of the available international evidence, published online in Occupational & Environmental Medicine.

Examining health insurance nondiscrimination policies with mental health among gender minority individuals
A large private health insurance database was used to examine the association between between health insurance nondiscrimination policies and mental health outcomes for gender minority individuals.

Mental health care for adolescents
Researchers examined changes over time in the kinds of mental health problems for which adolescents in the United States received care and where they got that care in this survey study with findings that should be interpreted within the context of several limitations including self-reported information.

Read More: Mental Health News and Mental Health Current Events
Brightsurf.com is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.