Why you should care
Because anxiety is more complicated than we think.
A long chestnut-wood conference table. Oversize leather chairs, the really expensive kind. Floor-to-ceiling windows with expansive views of Manhattan. This law firm could be anywhere; the details don’t matter. But we’re generally convinced that the top dog leading that band of lawyers is a certain kind of Type A. He (yes, he) is the neurotic, fist-pounding partner who yells at first-years and paralegals. But a new study is telling us otherwise. It turns out that so-called
Neurotic overachievers tend not to overachieve.
Or, in formal terms, “trait anxiety” predisposes individuals to a lower social status and lower performance in competitive social groups. In fact, researchers at the Swiss institute École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne have discovered the part of the brain that links anxiety with social standing — and figured out a way to manipulate it. The neuroscientists gave anxious rats, who were also subordinate when competing with their fellow rodents, a vitamin-B3 booster that targeted this specific part of the brain. Those creatures went from eating lunch alone to becoming homecoming queens. But when the drugs wore off, so did the newfound popularity.
Carmen Sandi, a researcher on the study and the head of the lab where the research was conducted, says this is the first time anyone has linked mitochondrial function in a particular region of the brain with behavior. And the findings could soon have implications for us — she and her colleagues are starting human trials. Sandi hopes they’ll be able to help out people with their “difficulties in the social world.”
But some experts wonder if this is a chicken-egg kind of situation. “We’re social animals, and feeling attachment reduces anxiety,” says Dr. David Spiegel, the director of the Center on Stress and Health at the Stanford School of Medicine. So maybe we should just fake it till we make it. CEOs have all sorts of life coaches these days, so maybe that’s their trick. And, conversely, social subordination itself leads to anxiety, adds Spiegel. So it’s like a perpetual washing machine of anxiety. But that doesn’t mean you should run out and dose up on Prozac to break the cycle. Doctors warn some anti-anxiety drugs create dependence.
Luckily for us humans, changing this type of anxiety might be as easy as popping an extra vitamin. Sandi’s team is investigating how supplements or even an enriched diet might affect individuals’ behavior. Let’s hope it won’t wipe out all nervousness — there are times “when you ought to be a little anxious,” says Spiegel. For the lab rats, though, no amount of fight-or-flight instinct can save them from whatever fates the researchers have in mind.