Anxiety may be an unpleasant emotion, which can be crippling in excess, but it does exist for a good reason.
Studies show that anxiety affects the sense of smell and balance, how we judge faces and perceptions of our personal space.
Anxiety tells us we’re in danger and we need to do something. It was our anxious ancestors who prepared better for winter and made plans to fight off neighbouring tribes. The relaxed, laid-back guys never made it.
But the effects of anxiety aren’t limited to motivation, they seep through the mind to all sorts of areas…
As people get more anxious, they are more likely to label neutral smells as bad smells ( Krusemark & Li, 2013 ). So, anxiety literally makes the world stink.
The reason, explains Professor Wen Li is:
“In typical odor processing, it is usually just the olfactory system that gets activated. But when a person becomes anxious, the emotional system becomes part of the olfactory processing stream.”
And as people get more anxious they become better at distinguishing between different bad smells ( Krusemark & Li, 2012 ).
Generally, when people get a little exercise they feel less anxiety in their lives. As little as 20 minutes can make you feel calmer right now.
The benefits of a little workout extend beyond the gym, though, into everyday life.
One study has found that although simply resting reduces anxiety, it doesn’t help to protect against stressful events ( Smith, 2013 ).
Exercise, though, seems to have a more lasting effect, helping to reduce anxiety when faced with stressful situations afterwards.
Indeed, many think exercise should be prescribed for depression and anxiety instead of drugs.
Like many things, high anxiety is partly in the genes, but part of the reason anxious people are anxious is because of their parents’ behaviour.
Children are more likely to be anxious when their parents direct criticism at them, display high levels of doubt and are emotionally cold ( Budinger et al., 2012 ).
One of the best ways of reducing anxiety is to think about situations differently.
Instead of an exam; it’s a fun little quiz. And it’s not a scary presentation; it’s a little chat with a few colleagues. It’s not really a job interview; it’s a chance to meet some new people.
Most situations can be re-framed in this way and studies show that people who do this naturally - as opposed to trying to suppress their anxiety - feel less anxious in stressful social situations ( Llewellyn et al., 2013 ).
Highly anxious people jump to conclusions more quickly when judging facial expressions.
A study by ( Fraley et al., 2006 ) suggests that anxious people may have problems in their relationships because they jump to conclusions too quickly about facial expressions.
Professor Fraley explains:
“This ‘hair trigger’ style of perceptual sensitivity may be one reason why highly anxious people experience greater conflict in their relationships. The irony is that they have the ability to make their judgments more accurately than less-anxious people, but, because they are so quick to make judgments about others’ emotions, they tend to mistakenly infer other people’s emotional states and intentions.”
People who experience more severe levels of anxiety also often have problems with their balance. They sometimes feel dizzy for no apparent reason and sway more than others while standing normally.
This often starts in childhood and, because anxiety can be difficult to treat in children, psychologists have started trying to treat the balance problems
Studies have shown that treating the balance problem can help with the anxiety ( Bart et al., 2009 ).
On top of exercise and thinking differently, those experiencing anxiety can also try meditation.
To pick just one of many recent studies ( Zeidan et al., 2013 ), found that four 20-minute meditation classes were enough to reduce anxiety by up to 39%.
We all have an invisible field around us that we dislike other people invading. In front of the face it’s generally about 20-40cm; if others get closer without our permission, it feels weird.
But, researchers have found that for anxious people, their personal space is larger ( Sambo & Iannetti, 2013 ).
So, don’t charge up too close to anxious people, their ‘safety margin’ is larger.
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