Researchers recently learned that people suffering from high anxiety have problems not only adjusting to uncertainty in their environments, but also in making decisions when uncertainty presents itself.

This new research could provide valuable insight into what happens in the brains of people who suffer from anxiety disorders.

Anxiety disorder is the most common mental illness in the U.S. and affects around 40 million adults 18 years and older. Those suffering from anxiety disorders are six times more likely to receive hospitalization because of their illness.

However, we still don't really understand the brain's mechanisms that trigger in certain people that causes it.

This new research, though, shows promise. Researchers at the University of California Berkeley had 31 volunteers take tests to measure their probabilistic decision-making skills. These are the skills that require using logic based on historical information when presented with new and uncertain situations.

"Our results show that anxiety may be linked to difficulty in using information about whether the situations we face daily, including relationship dynamics, are stable or not, and deciding how to react," says Sonia Bishop, assistant professor of psychology at UC Berkeley. "It's a bit like being Alice in Wonderland, trying to work out if the same rules apply or if everything is different and if so, what choices you should make," she added.

Researchers had volunteers play a computer game while measuring their pupil dilation (a dilation usually happens when the brain notices changes in the environment that require more readiness). In the game, volunteers chose between two shapes with one of those shapes resulting in an electrical shock.

At first, avoiding the shock was simple, because it was usually linked to one particular shape. However, as the experiment went on, researchers changed the shape more frequently that delivered the shock. After that, researchers noted that those people determined as highly anxious had more trouble than their peers in keeping track of the shape that did not result in shock.

Perhaps more interesting is the volunteers' pupil responses while playing the game. Those highly anxious volunteers had less pupil response during the latter part of the game, when the shape with the shock changed often. However, normally, the pupil dilates when presented with new information, suggesting that those with high anxiety are having trouble processing those uncertain details, or perhaps don't even recognize them.

"Our findings help explain why anxious individuals may find decision-making under uncertainty hard as they struggle to pick up on clues as to whether they are in a stable or changing situation," says Bishop.

Photo: David Goehring | Flickr

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