New Study Suggests Anxiety Inhibits Emotional Perception

Researchers from the University at Albany, SUNY, conducted a study to determine if anxiety causes a decrease in one’s ability to perceive rapid emotion in visual presentations or if this effect is a result of mood problems in general. Research has shown that depression and anxiety both contribute to challenges with emotional regulation, and some studies have suggested that attention is compromised in people suffering with these issues as well. The researchers enlisted 129 students from the University of Albany and evaluated them for depression using the Center of Epidemiologic Studies Depression Scale and gauged their anxiety by categorizing them into high anxiety (HA) and low anxiety (LA) groups. They measured the positive and negative affect of each participant at the onset of the study.

For their study, led by Nicholas T. Van Dam, the team presented a series of facial images in rapid sequence to the participants using a technique called Rapid Serial Visual Presentation (RSVP),. The participants were asked to identify the emotion on the faces as they viewed them. The researchers found that the participants with anxiety had more difficulty perceiving the emotion in the time allotted. Additionally, the researchers found a direct link between the deficit of perception and the level of anxiety. They said, “Notably, HA individuals showed deficits (where LA individuals showed benefits) when the same emotion was presented twice.”

The team hopes that their results will help clinicians better understand and emotional intelligence issues in people with anxiety. “This finding is particularly important as it may suggest that rapid emotion processing alterations in anxiety and depression may be more related to anxiety than depression.” They added, “Examination of new ways of modifying these deficits (e.g., attentional modification training, meditation) in conjunction with more traditional treatment approaches for anxiety may also prove important to overcoming treatment-resistant anxiety.”

Van Dam, N. T., Earleywine, M., & Altarriba, J. (2011, August 22). Anxiety Attenuates Awareness of Emotional Faces During Rapid Serial Visual Presentation. Emotion. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0024648

© Copyright 2011 by By John Smith, therapist in Bellingham, Washington. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • andre


    September 4th, 2011 at 11:54 AM

    so people wit anxiety would have trouble gauging other people’s emotions?thats not surprising because when i am anxious i am not able to go about the basic things,reading people’s faces is a long distance away.

  • Abby Buchanan

    Abby Buchanan

    September 4th, 2011 at 2:54 PM

    That’s intriguing. I know when I’m highly anxious that’s true certainly for me. My ability to read people’s faces diminishes greatly. In fact, I hadn’t made the connection between the anxiety and that until now. Thanks for sparking that insight!

  • Constantine


    September 4th, 2011 at 4:02 PM

    I think it’s because when you’re highly anxious it dampens down your perception of everything else that’s going on around you, not only recognizing facial cues. I can’t seem to register anything in my brain properly when I’m like that. It just doesn’t sink in.

  • Jodie Burke

    Jodie Burke

    September 4th, 2011 at 4:52 PM

    Anxiety definitely makes it harder to make judgment calls, especially smart, logical ones. When I feel extremely pressured I no longer attempt to fight my way through it and continue working or doing whatever I would be doing usually, like I used to.

    I give the remainder of the day up as a lost cause in that respect and do my best instead to address the root of the anxiety. Nine times out of ten, I’m the problem and have been too pigheaded to see it.

  • T.Foster


    September 4th, 2011 at 10:28 PM

    Anxiety makes a person worry within himself,no chance whatsoever to recognize anything about others…When your mind is pre-occupied then even the most basic tasks seem like a big effort to make.

  • Jameson


    September 5th, 2011 at 12:56 PM

    Have any readers here tried the suggestion for meditating to help relieve anxiety?
    I have tried it and it has made me much more calm and better able to deal with just about anything that comes my way that would have at one time caused serious anxiety in my life.

  • vincent


    September 5th, 2011 at 1:09 PM

    Anxiety always leads to making mistakes.and this includes perceiving other’s emotions.anxiety does not let your mind concentrate on any one thing and continues to keep you disturbed.

  • W.MK


    September 5th, 2011 at 10:36 PM

    I’ve suffered from anxiety all my life and I dont know why but when I’m overtly anxious the slightest of things can trigger panic attacks in me.It can be a crowd or just somebody shouting at a distance but it really makes me sick.

    Coming to emotional perception,I have never really observed about it on the dot but know well that anxiety inhibits my ability to interact with people and makes me worry about unnecessary things.I’m unable to keep a conversation going if I’m anxious.

  • Janie Few

    Janie Few

    September 6th, 2011 at 3:57 PM

    There are so many people who suffer from anxiety attacks and the like in their lives I would have hoped that by now some better and more useful treatment methods would have come along for them.

    I know that for so many of them this is debilitating to the point where they cannot even leave their homes anymore.

    I would hope that no one would have to live this way.

  • P.S. Lucas

    P.S. Lucas

    September 6th, 2011 at 6:28 PM

    If you were anxious wouldn’t you be more aware of other people’s emotions? It makes sense to me that you would be worried about offending them every time you open your mouth and watching them like a hawk.

  • D. Mack

    D. Mack

    September 6th, 2011 at 10:18 PM

    @P.S.Lucas-Anxious, yes. Depressed? I don’t know so much. It would be completely different and you probably wouldn’t care about the feelings of any other soul but yourself during your depressed period. And that’s making a big assumption that you would care about yourself at all when you’re depressed.

    On the other hand, when I myself am anxious I’m a superstar when it comes to how well I read body language. Go figure.

  • Leona Hoskins

    Leona Hoskins

    September 6th, 2011 at 11:17 PM

    Well, the research does show that highly anxious students do have a hard time telling what the emotion is. However looking closer at the nature of the experiment itself, I think I’d find too that adjusting to the new faces displayed in rapid sequence and speaking aloud would be a very tough thing to do-and I’m not highly anxious and already under stress!

    It makes me wonder if there wouldn’t be a better avenue to go down to test this theory.



    September 6th, 2011 at 11:57 PM

    Although I try not to show my anxiety and try to show that I am calm at all times,the anxious feelings inside me never let me be the complete ME. They always influence me and yes,I agree that they inhibit you from doing a lot of things including emotional perception.I’m a much better person to talk to when i’m not anxious and can go on and have a great conversation when I’m not.But when anxiety is present it is a different thing altogether.

  • Nina J.

    Nina J.

    September 7th, 2011 at 7:58 PM

    I tend to go into a type of blind panic when I’m highly anxious if I feel pressured and that’s what’s happening to those participants. I’m sure it is. It’s very hard to pick up non-verbal cues in that high anxiety state.

    I need things spelled out for me when I’m like that, plainly and clearly.

    Say you’re unhappy with me, don’t just frown! Because I’m not going to get it.

  • l.h.g.


    September 7th, 2011 at 10:19 PM

    I agree with what the commenter said about that test. It is a little bit lacking. They need to do more and approach it from a different angle to reinforce that finding before I would accept its solidity.

    Aren’t these supposed to be researchers at a university? You learn about proper experimentation in physics in high school. This doesn’t cut it in my opinion.

  • Glenda Highman

    Glenda Highman

    September 8th, 2011 at 7:51 PM

    @Nina J.: When you’re highly anxious it’s not easy to comprehend even clear statements either! I’m the world’s worst interviewee. I get panicky, my hands sweat, my voice get croaky and my brain cells depart about two seconds after the first question.

    I don’t know how I ever got a job! Luckily my resume speaks for me better than my throat does LOL.

  • Benny


    September 10th, 2011 at 8:56 PM

    I would have thought that the inability to read another persons emotions based on facial expressions would be an attribute of autism as opposed to anxiety. This is a very puzzling study for me as I have a very low level case of anxiety yet have never had trouble gauging emotions. I will have to pay closer attention to see if my friends have honed their ability to read emotions better than me.

    I’m hoping that I am lucky enough not to have this set back. I strongly dislike being disadvantaged in anything I do. So you can count on me punishing myself until I’m better than the average person without anxiety.

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