Social anxiety disorder is thought to involve emotional hyperactivity, cognitive distortions and ineffective emotion regulation. NARSAD Investigator Turhan Canli of Stony Brook University participated with colleagues at Stanford University in a study of the neural bases of reaction to social and physical threats in relation to severity of social anxiety symptoms.
In the study, reported in the February issue of Archives of General Psychiatry, the participants, 15 adults with social anxiety disorder and 17 healthy controls, were first shown pictures of violent physical events , photos of people being beaten, stabbed or killed. All reacted similarly. Everyone's amygdala, an area of the brain that deals with emotion, was activated, and everyone was able to give themselves messages of reassurance and safety so that, as the MRI showed, they could tap into the cognitive regions of their brain needed to relax.
But when the participants were shown images of a perceived social threat -- such as a photo of an angry face -- the healthy controls were able to dismiss negative feelings whereas the group with social anxiety had a harder time shaking them off.
"The brain areas associated with cognitive controls were recruited more intensively by the healthier adults compared to anxiety patients,� said Philippe Goldin of Stanford, the lead author of the study. �Social phobics are more challenged by social threats. They take them much more personally."
These findings help to elucidate potential neural mechanisms of emotion regulation that might serve as biomarkers for interventions. The researchers are now looking for ways to best help people with social anxiety disorder overcome the anxiety through clinical trials that offer cognitive behavioral therapy or stress reduction training.
(This article was adapted with permission of Stanford University.)