Does Feeling Anxious Make It Harder To Read Emotions?

(The Guardian) Feeling anxious makes it harder to read the emotions of others, claims study

Participants in study also tended to see anger rather than happiness in faces when anxious, say researchers

Being in a state of anxiety makes it harder to read the emotions of others, researchers have claimed.

Difficulties in interpreting the facial expressions of others have previously been linked to a number of psychiatric disorders, while people with a greater tendency to be anxious have been found to have a greater sensitivity to faces showing fear.

However, it was not clear whether such effects existed among people who experience a situation that triggers anxiety.

“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?” said Marcus Munafò, professor of biological psychology at the University of Bristol and a co-author of the new study.

To tackle the conundrum, Munafò and colleagues from the University of Bristol looked at the impact of an anxiety-inducing situation on the ability of 21 healthy participants to interpret emotion in facial expressions. The participants’ general tendencies to worry about situations varied, but none had anxiety disorders.

The participants were each fitted with a face mask delivering either normal air, or air enriched with carbon dioxide – an approach known to induce worry and tension, as well as a raised heart rate and blood pressure. After completing each part of the study, the participants repeated the experiment breathing the alternative type of air.

In the first part of the study, the participants were shown images, one at a time, of a man’s face expressing various levels of anger, sadness, surprise, disgust, fear or happiness. The 15 images for each emotion were shown to the participants twice. The participants were asked to assign each face to one of the six emotions.

In the second part of the study, participants were each presented with 45 images featuring 15 faces that showed an emotion somewhere between the two extremes of anger and happiness and asked to judge the expression.

Both experiments were then repeated with a further group of more than 40 participants.

The results, published in the journal Royal Society Open Science, reveal that after adjusting for factors such as age, sex and whether participants were generally more anxious, individuals were 8% worse at accurately identifying the correct emotion of a face when breathing in the carbon-dioxide rich air.

“We do know that anxiety can essentially take up cognitive resources and so it is perhaps not surprising that we see this general deficit,” said Munafò.

The team also found that, when anxious, participants more often saw anger than happiness when presented with ambiguous facial expressions, although the association was weaker when the experiment was carried out with the bigger group of participants.

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