Anxiety Increases Sensitivity to Emotional Expressions

One of the ways in which people base their emotional responses to others is by assessing the facial expressions of those around them. If a person is confronted with an angry facial expression, they may respond with fear and worry. In contrast, when confronted with a neutral facial expression, an individual may have little or no emotional response. This technique of eliciting emotional response through facial expressions is one that is widely used in the research of psychological issues such as depression and anxiety. It has been shown that people with mental health challenges are often unable to accurately assess the expressions of others. Further facial expression research could help to untangle the factors that lead to maladaptive responses.

To better understand how facial expressions impact responses in people with anxiety, Oliver Langner of the Behavioral Science Institute at Radboud University Nijmegen in the Netherlands recently conducted a study that evaluated how people responded to low spatial frequencies (LSFs) as compared to high spatial frequencies (HSFs). LSFs refer to the facial expressions a person makes, while HSFs refer to the intricate details of a person’s face, such as the shape of the face and fine lines and wrinkles. In the study, Langner enlisted 39 college students, half of whom had been diagnosed with social anxiety. He created hybrid faces designed to elicit different emotional reactions on both LSF and HSF levels. The participants were instructed to rate the facial expressions and also to assess them during a learning experiment.

Langner discovered that the participants with social anxiety had more negative reactions to the LSF data than the nonanxious individuals. In addition, the anxious participants exhibited increased levels of sensitivity to the expressions of the hybrid faces during the learning task. Although all of the participants were aware of the HSF nuances, neither group demonstrated any noticeable impairment as a result of HSF specifics. The LSFs, the expressions of anger or ambiguity, were what drove the responses in the participants. These findings suggest that facial expressions influence the early emotional reactivity of individuals with anxiety but that the effects of HSF are less evident. Langner added, “Consequently, future research is needed that combines stimulus variations in spatial frequencies with varying tasks that are more sensitive to early processing stages.”

Langner, O., Becker, E. S., Rinck, M. (2012). Higher sensitivity for low spatial frequency expressions in social anxiety: Evident in indirect but not direct tasks? Emotion. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0028761

Related articles:
The Birth of Anxiety
Social Anxiety Can Be a Hidden Problem in College
Exploring the Effects of Anxiety

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  • Suzie


    July 23rd, 2012 at 4:12 PM

    Do you think that those with social anxiety read a lot more into what they are seeing from others, putting emotions there that may not really be there?

  • Oliviaan


    July 24th, 2012 at 4:15 AM

    When you see someone looking angry at you, then I think that your natural instinct is to get your guard up and go on the defensive. The same can be said if someone looks at you kindly and with a smile. It’s true that these smiles can be contagious! With my husband though, sometimes his stony neutral face is what can really make me angry, because in the heat of the moment I don’t necessarily read that as neutral but indifferent, and that kind of drives me a little crazy. I try to get him to engage and show some emotion but I guess I should know by now that that’s not his style.

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