Can I Experience Anxiety Even When I’m Safe?

Anxiety is a familiar feeling, and we all experience anxiety at some time. Usually, this occurs when there are obvious threats to our safety or when we anticipate failure, criticism, or judgment. But can a person experience anxiety even when there is no apparent reason for it? According to a study conducted at The University of Rochester, the answer is "yes."

The researchers determined that a person who suffers from an anxiety disorder "may not control their feelings and behavior even if they wanted to."

Benjamin Suarez-Jimenez, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Del Monte Institute for Neuroscience at the University of Rochester and the first author of the study published in Communications Biology, revealed their findings. "These findings tell us that anxiety disorders might be more than a lack of awareness of the environment or ignorance of safety, but rather that individuals suffering from an anxiety disorder cannot control their feelings and behavior even if they wanted to."

"The patients with an anxiety disorder could rationally say – I'm in a safe space – but we found their brain was behaving as if it was not."

Observable Brain Activity as It Relates to Anxiety

The study states: "Using fMRI, the researchers observed the brain activity of volunteers with general and social anxiety as they navigated a virtual reality game of picking flowers. Half of the meadow had flowers without bees, and the other half had flowers with bees that would sting them – as simulated by a mild electrical stimulation to the hand."

"Researchers found all study participants could distinguish between the safe and dangerous areas. However, brain scans revealed volunteers with anxiety had increased insula and dorsomedial prefrontal cortex activation – indicating their brain was associating a known safe area to danger or threat."
The research article states, "These findings point towards the need for treatments that focus on helping patients take back control of their body. The brain differences were the only differences seen in these patients. For example, sweat responses, a proxy for anxiety, also measured, failed to reveal any apparent differences."

Implications From the Research

Suarez-Jimenez's research aims to understand the neural mechanisms by which the brain learns about the environment.  And to identify how the brain predicts what is threatening and safe. In addition, "he uses virtual reality environments to investigate neural signatures of anxiety disorders and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). His goal is to understand how people build maps in the brain based on experience and the role of those maps in psychopathologies of stress and anxiety."
Further Exploration into Other Disorders

The study concludes: "For the next steps in this recent research, we still need to clarify if what we found in the brain of these patients is also the case in other disorders, such as PTSD. Understanding the differences and similarities across disorders characterized by deficits in behavioral regulation and feelings in safe environments can help us create personalized treatment options."

New Dimensions Can Help!

New Dimensions provides mental health and substance abuse treatment to adolescents and adults.  Some of the areas that we treat include depression, anxiety, panic attacks, OCD, trauma, PTSD, alcoholism, and addictions.  We have Partial Hospitalization and Intensive Outpatient Programs in Katy, The Woodlands, and the Clear Lake area of Houston.  We also offer Online Intensive Outpatient Programs for anyone who resides within the State of Texas, including Dallas, Fort Worth, Austin, Huntsville, San Antonio, League City, Galveston, Baytown, El Paso, College Station, Laredo, Corpus Christi, Waco, Tyler, Beaumont, Lubbock, Amarillo, and McAllen.  To learn more about our programs or to schedule an assessment, call us at 1-800-685-9796 or visit

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28 September, 2022

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