Brain activity reflects differences in types of anxiety

All anxiety is not created equal, and a research team at the University of Illinois now has the data to prove it. The team has found compelling evidence that differing patterns of brain activity are associated with each of two types of anxiety: anxious apprehension (verbal rumination, worry) and anxious arousal (intense fear, panic, or both).

Their work appears this month online in Psychophysiology.

"This study looks at two facets of anxiety that often are not distinguished," said U. of I. psychology professor Gregory A. Miller, co-principal investigator on the study with psychology professor Wendy Heller. "We had reason to think there were different brain mechanisms, different parts of the brain active at different times, depending on what type of anxiety one is facing."

According to a recent national survey, anxiety disorders are the most commonly reported psychiatric disorders in the U.S. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders classifies nearly a dozen different anxiety disorders, from acute stress disorder to obsessive-compulsive disorder to panic attack and PTSD. But those who study and treat patients with anxiety disorders do not always differentiate the patients who worry, fret and ruminate from those who experience the panic, rapid heartbeat or bouts of sweating that characterize anxious arousal. These two kinds of anxiety may occur alone or in combination, with potentially important implications for treatment.

To test whether neural activation patterns supported the hypothesis that these two categories of anxiety are distinct, the researchers selected 42 subjects from a pool of 1,099 undergraduate college students, using psychological tests to categorize them as "high anxious apprehension," "high anxious arousal," or neither.

Other psychological assessments standardized the pool of participants by removing those with mood disorders or other complicating factors.

The researcher

Contact: Diana Yates
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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