Researchers from the French Institute of Health and Medical Research (INSERM) found that being in a hyper-vigilant state has its benefits. It seems that anxiety makes it faster for warning signals to reach brain areas responsible for action, resulting in the so-called adrenaline rush and "fight or flight" response.

On the other hand, threat responses from less anxious people are not as quick as those of hyper-vigilant people. When "chill" people sense danger, their brain signals go through a region linked to facial recognition and sensory perception first.

The research team asked 24 participants to look at various photos depicting threatening and placid behaviors. Their brain activities showed how the human brain is capable of identifying threats in the regions in as fast as 200 milliseconds.

French Institute of Health and Medical Research's Dr. Marwa El Zein said the ability to react quickly might have played a crucial role in the human's ability to survive. Humans evolved alongside animal predators that sting and bite. A rapid reaction to treacherous situations could have helped humans avoid danger.

El Zein, the study's lead author, and her colleagues found that anxiety maneuvers the brain's threat "coding" from the sensory circuits (facial recognition) to the motor circuits (fight or flight response).

"The enhanced sensitivity to threat-signaling emotions measured in the motor cortex is only found in high-anxious observers," added El Zein.

Interestingly, the team also found that one's direction of sight affects the length of time the brain needs to produce a reaction. Anger, coupled with a direct gaze, enables the brain to respond in just 200 milliseconds. Therefore, sight direction is the key to enhancing emotional sensitivity. The study findings were published in the eLife journal.

"In a crowd, you will be most sensitive to an angry face looking towards you, and will be less alert to an angry person looking somewhere else," said El Zein.

Debunking Past Notions

In early December, another research found that happy souls don't necessarily live longer than sad ones. Previous studies showed that being in chronic state of alertness can cause a surge in the stress hormone cortisol and damage cells.

Past findings also suggested that a constant state of anxiety can make a person over-sensitive to threats. This could result in a state of permanent anxiety and can interfere with the body's ability to respond quickly. The best example would be when a person becomes "frozen" with fear.

In Britain, almost one-fifth of the adult population suffer from depression or anxiety. According the National Health Service (NHS), over 53 million antidepressant prescriptions were given in 2014 and the numbers continue to grow.

Photo: Holly Lay | Flickr

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