In the ever-evolving landscape of psychology and cognition, researchers are unearthing interesting connections between our emotional states and intellectual abilities.
Research conducted by scientists at the University of Ontario indicates that anxiety may predict certain types of intelligence. The study surveyed 100 students about whether they have concerns about particular topics.
Researchers posed questions such as ‘Do you frequently worry about something?’ and subsequently gave them a verbal intelligence test. Students whose responses indicated high anxiety scored significantly better on the test afterward.
How Common Is Anxiety?
Anxiety is an increasingly common issue in our modern, fast-paced world, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).
“An estimated 4% of the global population currently experience an anxiety disorder,” WHO resources state. “In 2019, 301 million people in the world had an anxiety disorder, making anxiety disorders the most common of all mental disorders.”
Despite treatment being highly effective, only a quarter of people suffering from anxiety seek help, the WHO says. “Barriers to care include lack of awareness that this is a treatable health condition, lack of investment in mental health services, lack of trained health care providers, and social stigma.”
The WHO characterizes several types of anxiety, including generalized anxiety, panic disorder, social anxiety, agoraphobia, separation anxiety, specific phobias (such as heights, water, close spaces, etc.), and selective mutism.
Why Do We Get Anxious?
Despite the prevalence of and problems caused by anxiety, scientists think there may be a good reason why so many people suffer from it.
“While excessive worry is generally seen as a negative trait and high intelligence as a positive one, worry may cause our species to avoid dangerous situations, regardless of how remote a possibility they may be,” said Dr. Jeremy Coplan, MD.
“In essence, worry may make people ‘take no chances,’ and such people may have higher survival rates. Thus, like intelligence, worry may confer a benefit upon the species,” he noted.
In addition to an evolutionary cause, there are a variety of factors that can cause an anxiety disorder.
The WHO says that, like most mental health disorders, anxiety is caused by a complex combination of social, psychological, and physiological issues. There is one cause that can be pinned down above all others, however.
“Anyone can have an anxiety disorder, but people who have lived through abuse, severe losses, or other adverse experiences are more likely to develop one.”
In addition to adverse experiences, there are physical factors to take into consideration. “Anxiety disorders are closely related to and affected by physical health. Many of the impacts of anxiety (such as physical tension, nervous system hyperactivity, or harmful use of alcohol) are also known risk factors for diseases such as cardiovascular disease,” according to the WHO
“In turn, people with these diseases may also find themselves experiencing anxiety disorders due to the difficulties associated with managing their conditions.”
Does Anxiety Really Make You Smarter?
Yes and no, says Alexander M. Penney, the Psychology PhD who performed the study linking intelligence and emotional disorders.
“Verbal intelligence was a unique positive predictor of worry and rumination severity,” Penney stated in the abstract of his paper. “Non-verbal intelligence was a unique negative predictor of post-event processing.”
Verbal intelligence is the ability to process problems and analyze information that is presented with words. On a broad scale, it is connected to problem-solving, abstract reasoning, and working memory.
“Language-based reasoning may involve reading or listening to words, conversing, writing, or even thinking,” Logsdon clarified. “From classroom learning to social communication to texting and email, our modern world is built around listening to or reading words for meaning and expressing knowledge through spoken language.”
While the study shows a strong correlation between generalized anxiety disorder and verbal intelligence, it’s something of a chicken-and-egg problem, according to Penney.
“It is possible that more verbally intelligent individuals are able to consider past and future events in greater detail, leading to more intense rumination and worry.”
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This article was produced by TPR Teaching.
Caitriona Maria is an education writer and founder of TPR Teaching, crafting inspiring pieces that promote the importance of developing new skills. For 7 years, she has been committed to providing students with the best learning opportunities possible, both domestically and abroad. Dedicated to unlocking students' potential, Caitriona has taught English in several countries and continues to explore new cultures through her travels.