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Different Kinds of Anxiety Affect Different Parts of the Brain

Almost everyone suffers from anxiety at one time or another. It plays a role in helping us stay safe and empathize with people around us. But for some people, anxiety can be crippling, keeping them from doing what they want and need to do.

University of Illinois Psychology professor Greg Miller says that there are different forms of anxiety that are often not distinguished from one another. For example, he says, some people experience anxious apprehension. They worry excessively, chewing things over and over in a way that consumes them.

"We distinguish that from anxious arousal, which is more like going to red alert, right now," Miller says. "You know, the spider's on your nose, the snake's in the room, the gun's nearby. Something is pretty imminent. And worrying in terms of words is not what you need to be doing; you need to think about some immediate action to protect yourself or to protect people that are important to you. Those are two big distinctions."

To determine if there is a physical distinction as well, Miller recruited subjects with both forms of anxiety, and had them look at words on a computer screen as their brains were being scanned. Some of the words described emotions, like anger or fear or happiness. The words were printed in different colors and he asked the subjects to say the color of the word rather than the word itself.

Miller says he expected that would be distracting, especially for the people with anxious apprehension. "These people tend to worry a lot, and do that in kind of mental words. And we looked at their brain during this word task and, lo and behold, the area in that left frontal brain lit up much more than other people when they were trying to do this task." The left frontal lobe plays a role in controlling mood and emotion. Miller says a different part of the brain was activated in the people with anxious arousal.

"If we can show that there are different kinds of anxiety, different brain mechanisms associated with them, and those brain mechanisms are susceptible differently to different types of treatment," Miller explains, "the very next step is better treatment recommendations and being able to help people more often and more quickly."

Doctors already have medications and therapeutic treatments to help patients, but frequently they must try several different approaches before finding what's right for each patient. Miller says if he can further define what parts of the brain are helped by these different therapies, it could help doctors pinpoint the right anxiety treatment for each patient. His research appears this month in the online journal Psychophysiology.