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Feeling Anxious Makes It Harder to Read Others' Emotions

The way you see the world changes when you're all wound up.

by Jesse Hicks
Jun 5 2017, 2:00pm

Russell Johnson / EyeEm / Getty Images

Anxiety can have a lot of negative effects. It can make dating harder. It can fuel unhealthy coping mechanisms, such as binge drinking. Extreme cases—full-blown anxiety disorders—can reduce life to a whirl of fear and negative thoughts. (Anxiety can also sometimes make you a better person.)

New research adds to that list, suggesting that feeling anxious can make people worse at recognizing emotions in people around them. It's a shortcoming previously associated with other psychiatric disorders, but previously researchers weren't sure if simply being in a temporary anxious state had a similar effect. "We were specifically trying to answer the question: How does our current level of anxiety influence how we see the world, and in particular emotions in faces?" Marcus Munafò, professor of biological psychology at the University of Bristol and a co-author of the new study, told The Guardian .

In their study, published in the journal Royal Society Open Science, the researchers wanted to focus on state anxiety—that's feeling anxious in the moment, rather than having what's called "high trait anxiety," a higher general tendency toward negative emotions. To produce anxious participants, they fitted 21 people with face masks. Participants breathed either normal air or air with a slightly higher concentration of carbon dioxide. That elevated CO2 level increased heart rate and blood pressure, and made subjects tense and worried.

Researchers then showed them images of a man's face. Each picture showed degrees of six emotions: anger, sadness, surprise, disgust, fear, or happiness. Participants twice saw 15 images for each emotion and were asked to identify one of the six emotions. Then they were presented with another 45 images of 15 faces and again asked to identify those emotions. Finally, another group of more than 40 people was put through the same experiment.

Examining the results, researchers found that people breathing the carbon-dioxide enriched air were 8 percent worse at identifying emotions they saw in the pictures. That's even after adjusting for differences in age, sex, and levels of general anxiety. The anxious subjects also skewed toward identifying anger in ambiguous facial expressions; that association proved weaker with the larger group of participants, though.

More research needs to be done, particularly in separating out the potential effects of dispositional anxiety versus situational anxiety—the difference between being an "anxious person" and being in an anxiety-producing situation. And as Tim Dalgleish, a clinical psychologist and director of the Cambridge Clinical Research Centre in Affective Disorders, told The Guardian, "The main problem is that we don't know if [the link between anxiety and emotional face recognition] is anything to do with emotion recognition at all or just when you are more anxious you are not as good at doing other tasks."

Still, the research provokes interesting questions about how our emotional states affect our perception of others. Hopefully it won't give anxious people one more thing to worry about.

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