Anxious people use less suitable section of brain to control emotions

When choosing their behaviour in socially difficult situations, anxious people use a less suitable section of the forebrain than people who are not anxious. This can be seen in brain scans, as shown by the research of Bob Bramson and Sjoerd Meijer at the Donders Institute of Radboud University.

For example, an anxious and a non-anxious person both run into someone whom they’ve been in love with for quite some time. Both of them find this tense and both would like to ask the person out on a date. But do you walk up to that person? Or do you pretend not to see them to avoid embarrassment? Whereas the non-anxious person can put aside this emotion and choose behaviour that allows them to approach the potential lover, this is much more difficult for an anxious person. Bramson: “Anxious people use a less suitable section of the forebrain for this control. It’s more difficult for them to choose alternative behaviour, so they avoid social situations more often.”

Decisions like this demand a balancing act between a possible threat and a reward, a decision that non-anxious people make in the prefrontal cortex. Researchers at Radboud University have now shown that socially anxious people use a different section in the forebrain for decisions like this.

Brain scans

Bramson and Meijer studied brain scans to see what happens in anxious and non-anxious people in a simulated social situation. “Our trial subjects were shown happy and angry faces and had to first move a joystick towards the happy face and away from the angry face. At a certain point they had to do the reverse: move towards an angry face and away from a happy face. This demands control over our automatic tendency to avoid negative situations.”

Anxious people proved to perform just as well as non-anxious people in this simple task, but the scans showed that a completely different section of the brain was active. “In non-anxious people we often see that, during emotional control, a signal is sent from the foremost section of the prefrontal cortex to the motor cortex, the section of the brain that directs your body to act. In anxious people a less efficient section of that foremost section is used.” Other scans showed that the reason for this is probably because the ‘correct’ section becomes overstimulated in anxious people. “This could explain why anxious people find it difficult to choose alternative behaviour and thus avoid social situations. The disadvantage of this is that they never learn that social situations aren’t as negative as they think.”

Treating anxiety

For the first time, brain scans have now shown that the forebrain of anxious people works differently from that of non-anxious people with regard to control of emotional behaviour. The researchers think that the results could be used to develop new treatments for people with anxiety.

Literature reference

Bramson, B., Meijer, S., van Nuland, A., Toni, I., & Roelofs, K. (2023). Anxious individuals shift emotion control from lateral frontal pole to dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. Nature Communications14(1), 1–12. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-023-40666-3 

Contact information

For further information, please contact one of the researchers involved or team Science communication via +31 24 361 6000 or media [at] ru.nl (media[at]ru[dot]nl).