Stress

A Distorted Reality? How Anxiety Alters Our Perception of the World Around Us

July 31, 2020

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Over the course of evolution, humans have retained certain attentional reactions as well as fear responses to potentially threatening stimuli in the surrounding environment. However, for people with anxiety, these types of reactions can actually be exaggerated and even occur in response to non-threatening stimuli or events. 

As research continues to be conducted to look deeper into how anxiety affects our perception of the world, scientists have begun to notice differences in how anxious individuals determine whether or not something is threatening or emotionally arousing. As it turns out, anxiety can actually cause our brains to undergo certain changes in the neural circuits that respond to fear and stress. Ultimately, it means that compared to non-anxious individuals, individuals who suffer from anxiety actually experience the environment differently and have altered attention to particular stimuli and events around them. 

How Does Anxiety Affect Our Perception and Discrimination Between Different Stimuli ?

There are fundamental differences in how anxious individuals perceive the world compared to non-anxious individuals, and it has to do with overgeneralization. 

According to a recent study, people with anxiety fundamentally have a different perception of the world. More specifically, anxious individuals have a more difficult time distinguishing between neutral, “safe” stimuli and emotionally-charged or threatening stimuli. In this particular research study, these types of stimuli were defined by auditory sounds, or tones, that were either neutral and not associated with any emotional events or associated with the threat of money loss or money gain. 

Participants in the study were trained to make associations with the tones. So, the researchers trained them to associate three distinct tones with one of three different outcomes: losing money, gaining money, or no consequence. The participants were later exposed to 15 different sounds, and they had to determine whether or not they previously had heard that sound in their training sessions. If they gave the correct answer, they received a monetary reward. 

In an experiment like this, the researchers noted that in order to be successful, the participants had to not mistake one of the new tones for the original ones, which in other words is considered to be “overgeneralization.” Over-generalization is a behavioral phenomenon in which we apply one of our experiences, often negative, to all experiences that seem similar in the future, which leads to an inability to discriminate between emotional experiences. In this experiment, the anxious group was more likely to think that one of the new tones was an original tone that they heard, thinking that these new tones were associated with money gain or money loss, when in fact they were not. 

Essentially, the researchers determined that for people with anxiety, emotional experiences can actually rewire our brain circuits in a way that the plasticity lasts even after the experience is over. Therefore, when new stimuli are presented, anxious individuals cannot necessarily discriminate between the new experience and the previous emotional one, leading to an anxious or emotional response in potentially irrelevant situations. More importantly, this is something that they lack control over due to the changes in perception that have already occurred. 

The researchers also noted that brain imaging techniques revealed functional differences in the brains of anxious versus non-anxious individuals, and that these differences were seen specifically in the response of the amygdala. The amygdala is a region related to fear and anxiety. Overall, the research found that although some types of fear and anxiety responses can be beneficial to our survival, others that result from anxiety disorders are possibly due to our tendency to overgeneralize stimuli and misinterpret their threat. 

A man sits at a table appearing to be distressed and anxious, a reaction that can occur when we overgeneralize.
When we overgeneralize, we tend to make emotional associations to stimuli that may not even warrant an emotional response. Because of our past experiences, we overgeneralize in a way that elicits a fearful or anxious response to something that is actually neutral. This tends to happen more for individuals who suffer from an anxiety disorder.

How Does Anxiety Affect Our Attention? 

Anxiety can cause us to lose some control over how we direct our attention and result in certain hypersensitivities. 

Another function that has been essentially programmed into us as a result of evolution is the response of our visual attention system to threatening stimuli: objects that look like weapons, spiders, fearful facial expressions, or body language. We tend to be biased toward directing our immediate attention to these stimuli simply for our own safety or survival. 

However, though this type of threat detection benefits our self-preservation, anxiety can actually cause this threat detection system to become hypersensitive. In other words, anxious individuals may find that their attention is more easily grabbed and directed toward stimuli that do not necessarily pose threat. When we only find that our attention is focused on potential threats, it can lead to a vicious cycle that not only dampens our general disposition, but it results in the loss of focus on potentially more important events or stimuli. 

If anxiety tends to bias our attention toward the negative and ignore the positive, this is yet another way that anxious individuals really can perceive the world around them to be different from reality. Situations can be interpreted as far more negative and threatening, when in reality they are not. This can obviously result in a lot of distress in the lives of those who suffer from anxiety disorders. 

A woman sits with her arms wrapped around herself appearing to be afraid. Sometimes we can be threatened by things that aren't actually threatening when we overgeneralize.
Anxiety can cause us to direct our attention in a way that is biased toward negatively-interpreted stimuli. It is possible that a lot of what our threat detection system perceives to be threatening is actually not threatening, and that our incorrect perceptions are a result of hypersensitivity. 

Should I Be Worried That I Am Out of Touch With Reality or That Something is Wrong?

Knowing how anxiety affects your perception and understanding some ways you can manage this can improve your quality of life.  

It is important for you to know that feeling as if you’ve lost touch with reality can be a symptom of many health conditions. The good thing is, if you consciously recognize this, you probably aren’t actually out of touch with reality in a severe way. Severe dysfunctions in the perception of reality are often not consciously recognized and are continued to be considered normal by the person who experiences these distortions (i.e. schizophrenia). It is of course important, however, to always seek medical attention if you are extremely concerned or worried about your mental health. 

The distorted perceptions and reality that are a consequence of anxiety are not always necessarily dangerous. The perceptual distortions we have discussed in this article are actually not considered permanent, nor are they expected to be gradual or to occur in extensive ways outside of full-blown anxiety attacks or panic attacks

Fortunately, if you do feel that your anxiety is distorting your perception a bit more dramatically, there are a few things that you can do in the present moment to help you feel like you are pulling yourself “back into reality.” These suggestions center around “grounding” exercises, which direct you to focus on an in-the-moment activity and what sensations you immediately feel as a result. Examples of grounding exercises include: 

  • Counting a specific type of object in a room
  • Picking an object in your environment and describing it to yourself with your various senses
  • Running your hands under cold water and focusing on the resulting sensations

Bringing your thoughts to the present moment is the most immediate solution that you can attempt to ground yourself back in reality. In general, it is important to remind yourself that anxiety itself tends to distort our realities in ways that negatively impact how we live. If you are currently undergoing treatment and exploring ways to manage your anxiety symptoms, you are already taking an important step in reducing the impact that it has on your daily life. 

Pictured is a sink with the cold water running. One great grounding exercise for bringing yourself back into the present moment is to run your hands under cold water.
It is important to know that the varying perceptions we may experience as a result of our anxiety are not inherently dangerous. If you are ever in a situation where you find yourself increasingly out of touch with reality, grounding exercises such as running your hands under cold water can help you bring yourself back into the present moment. 

Anxiety certainly has the capability to alter how we respond to and perceive the world around us. Research has already begun to show that there are fundamental differences in our abilities to discriminate between threatening and non-threatening stimuli if we suffer from an anxiety disorder. Luckily, these distortions tend to be on the milder side, and they mostly result in an overgeneralization of emotional responses to events or situations that don’t necessarily require them. Finding ways to better understand how your anxiety affects your perception is important for managing your symptoms and improving your overall well-being. 

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