Researchers recruited 96 college students, including 32 people with generalised anxiety disorder and 34 people with major depressive disorder. First, the participants were taken through a series of relaxation exercises. Then, they were made to watch videos that elicited fear or sadness and answer a list of questions designed to measure how sensitive they were to changes in their emotional state. (e.g. how quickly they moved from a calm mindset to a negative one.) Next, the researchers led the participants through a second relaxation session and followed this up with another survey to measure their anxiety levels.
The researchers found that people with generalised anxiety disorder were more likely to be sensitive to sharp spikes in their emotion. Additionally, they were more likely to feel wired during sessions intended to chill them out. So what gives?
The study’s authors put it down to a subconscious - but strategic - choice by the brain to resist relaxation and continue worrying in case something bad does in fact happen.
“The theory revolves around the idea that people may make themselves anxious intentionally as a way to avoid the letdown they might get if something bad were to happen,” Michelle Newman, professor of psychology explains. “This isn’t actually helpful and just makes you more miserable. But, because most of the things we worry about don’t end up happening, what’s reinforced in the brain is, ‘I worried and it didn’t happen so I should continue worrying.’”
The fix? Lean into these shifts in your mindset – no matter how scary it feels.
“The more you do it, the more you realise you can do it and it’s better to allow yourself to be relaxed at times. Mindfulness training and other interventions can help people let go and live in the moment.”