In Brief

Why anxiety might be good for you

Research suggests people with higher stress levels may be better at processing bad news

Feeling stressed and suffering from anxiety can leave sufferers better equipped to deal with life, according to a new study.

Anxiety - defined as a state consisting of psychological and physical symptoms triggered by apprehension over a perceived threat - has repeatedly been found to have a host of negative effects on both the mind and body. 

But researchers at University College London say that this mental state may be helpful when it comes to tackling bad news.

The study, published in The Journal of Neuroscience, is the first of its kind.

In the laboratory experiment, the researchers first induced stress in a group of volunteers comprising 36 young men and women, by telling them that they had to give a surprise public speech, the Daily Mail reports. This anxiety-triggering news was not given to a similarly sized control group. 

All the participants were asked next to estimate their likelihood of experiencing 40 different negative events, such as being involved in a car accident, or falling victim to credit card fraud. 

Samples of their saliva were then taken to check for the stress hormone cortisol, before the two groups “were given either good or bad news - being told their likelihood of experiencing these events was lower or higher than they had estimated, respectively”, the newspaper says.

When subsequently asked to again assess their odds of those events happening, the control group showed what is known as “optimism bias”, which is a tendency to take more notice of good news than bad news. However, the participants with higher levels of cortisol in their saliva samples showed no such bias and were better at processing the bad news.

Psychologist Dr Neil Garrett, lead author of the study, said: “Humans are better at integrating desirable information into their beliefs than undesirable.

“Such flexibility in how individuals integrate information may enhance the likelihood of responding to warnings with caution in environments rife with threat, while maintaining a positivity bias otherwise, a strategy that can increase well-being.”

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