New insights into social anxiety: how emotional context alters face perception

A recent study by Chinese researchers provides new insights into how people with social anxiety disorder interpret facial expressions differently depending on their emotional context.The research is published in the journal Psychophysiologyshowed that people with social anxiety disorder process facial expressions in unique ways, especially in negative situations.

Facial expressions are our window into the emotional state of others and play a key role in our social interactions. Previous research has consistently shown that people with social anxiety disorder, a disorder characterized by intense fear and avoidance of social situations, display unique patterns in processing facial expressions. They often exhibit attentional biases, meaning they tend to focus more on threatening or negative messages.

However, most of these studies have focused primarily on facial features themselves, without taking into account the broader context in which these expressions occur. Given the richness of our real-world experiences, from the words we hear to the environments we find ourselves in, understanding how these factors influence facial expression processing is critical, especially for people with social anxiety.

“In today’s age of heightened anxiety, social anxiety is a prevalent mental health problem, surpassing even depression and addiction in prevalence. Social anxiety disorder represents a profound fear of being in situations where others may scrutinize them. or anxiety, so it becomes one of the most common psychological disorders,” said study author Song Sutao of the School of Information Science and Engineering at Shandong Normal University.

“In this context, my interest in studying event-related alpha power in the early stages of facial expression processing stems from a desire to unravel the neurobiological basis of social anxiety and reveal its subtle interactions with the linguistic environment. This research has Contributes to a deeper understanding of pervasive and impactful mental health issues in our increasingly complex social environment.”

The study recruited 62 healthy college students from Shandong Province, China. All participants had normal or corrected-to-normal vision. Students were divided into two groups based on specialized anxiety scales and depression scales: a social anxiety group and a healthy control group. Grouping was done based on their scores to ensure that no participant had severe depressive symptoms.

The stimuli used in the study were carefully selected. Facial expressions were selected from the Chinese Emotion Image System, including angry, happy, and neutral expressions. In addition to these visual stimuli, sentences with positive or negative valence are also designed to provide emotional context. Each sentence is carefully crafted to be self-relevant, meaning they are likely to resonate personally with participants.

In the experimental setting, participants first saw the sentences and then the facial expressions. They were asked to rate the faces on emotional arousal (how emotionally aroused they felt) and valence (the positivity or negativity of the emotion). The experiment was divided into trials, each of which presented a different combination of emotional contexts and facial expressions.

Electroencephalography (EEG) is a method of recording the brain’s electrical activity and is used to monitor participants’ brain responses during experiments. These EEG data were then analyzed to study occipital lobe alpha-power brainwave activity related to emotional and cognitive processes.

In terms of emotional arousal, participants rated facial expressions in negative situations as more emotionally arousing than facial expressions in positive situations. This is especially true for angry and happy expressions compared to neutral expressions.

Both context and type of expression have a significant impact in terms of valence, or the perceived positivity or negativity in an expression. Angry and neutral expressions in negative situations are considered more negative, while expressions of happiness in positive situations are considered more positive.

One of the key findings relates to alpha energy in the occipital lobe of the brain. Compared with healthy controls, the socially anxious group showed lower occipital alpha power in response to angry faces in negative contexts and in response to neutral faces in positive contexts.

This suggests that seeing the emotional context of facial expressions can significantly affect how people with social anxiety disorder process those expressions, especially in the early stages. People with social anxiety disorder may be more emotional and sensitive to the context of the faces they see.

“Based on our research, the main takeaway for ordinary people is the critical role of accurate emotion interpretation in social interactions,” Song told PsyPost. “Our study highlights the complex interplay between social anxiety, linguistic context and the early stages of facial expression processing.

“This study reveals different patterns of event-related alpha energy in people with social anxiety disorder, specifically in response to negative situational cues paired with angry facial expressions and positive situational cues paired with neutral expressions. These findings highlight the The critical role of accurate emotional interpretation in social interactions and highlights the subtle influence of the linguistic environment on early mechanisms that contribute to social anxiety.”

While this study provides valuable insights, it is important to recognize its limitations. The participants were all university students from a specific region of China, which may limit the generalizability of the study results to the wider population. Additionally, the study used static images of facial expressions. Real-life interactions often involve dynamic and changing expressions, which may produce different outcomes.

Future research in this area may benefit from a more diverse group of participants and the use of dynamic facial expressions. It will also be interesting to explore how these findings translate across cultures, given the role that cultural norms and practices play in emotion processing and social anxiety.

“Pay attention to the reliability of neurological indicators of social anxiety,” Song said. “Future research should explore additional neural indicators of social anxiety and delve more deeply into identifying effective interventions to significantly improve individuals with social anxiety. Addressing these aspects will contribute to a more complete understanding of the condition and promote Development of targeted treatment strategies.”

This study, “Event-related alpha power in early stages of facial expression processing in social anxiety: the influence of language environment”, author: Sutao Song, Aixin Liu, Zeyuan Gau, Xiaodong Tian, ​​Lingkai Zhu, Haiqing Shang, Shihao Gau, Zhang Mingxian, Zhao Shi Meng, Xiao Guanlai, Zheng Yuanjie, Ge Ruiyang.

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