The brains of anxious females work much harder than those of males and worrying hinders their performance, according to researchers at Michigan State.The study, which is the first to viably measure the correlation between worrying and error-related brain responses in the sexes, could help identify and treat anxiety disorders.
Researchers had 79 female students and 70 male students identify the middle letter in a series of five-letter groups — sometimes the middle letter was the same (e.g. FFFFF) and sometimes it was different (e.g. EEFEE) — while measuring their brain activity with an electrode cap.
Female subjects who identified themselves as “particularly anxious or big worriers” performed on par with males on simple parts of the task, but their brains worked harder and brain activity spiked when they made mistakes. As the test became more difficult, anxious females performed worse.
“Anxious girls’ brains have to work harder to perform tasks because they have distracting thoughts and worries,” lead researcher Jason Moser, assistant professor of psychology at MSU, said in a press release. “As a result their brains are being kind of burned out by thinking so much, which might set them up for difficulties in school.”
Moser and his team are now investigating whether estrogen (which is higher in women) may be to blame for the increased brain response. Estrogen affects the release of dopamine, which plays a key role in learning and processing mistakes in the front part of the brain.
“This may help predict the development of anxiety issues later in life for girls,” Moser said. “It’s one more piece of the puzzle for us to figure out why women in general have more anxiety disorders.”
The study — published in the International Journal of Psychophysiology — recommends journaling and doing brain games as ways to potentially reduce worry and improve focus.
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