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Investigating the Physiological Response of Anxiety Essay

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Investigating the physiological response of anxiety through general knowledge and math questionnaires, with a focus of inducing anxiety through music.

The aim of this study was to investigate the physiological effects associated with math anxiety, with a further aim to explore this in relation to tense music exposure. It was hypothesised that a maths questionnaire would produce a significantly higher anxiety response than a general knowledge questionnaire. It was also hypothesised that exposure to tense music would produce a significantly greater anxiety response than silence. Furthermore, it would be expected to observe a significant interaction between the music condition and question type. The results of a mixed subject’s factorial ANOVA revealed that participants’ heart rate was significantly higher when presented with the math questionnaire over the general knowledge questionnaire. The presence of tense music did not significantly influence the level of physiological arousal. The only conclusion drawn therefore is that math questions elicit greater physiological arousal than general knowledge questions.

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Anxiety, like fear, is an emotion. It is a normal and totally necessary biological survival mechanism which everybody experiences. It tells us that something is a threat to our survival and motivates us to confront or avoid that threat. (Simmons & Daw, 1994).

Fear can be distinguished from anxiety in that fear focuses on specific situations or objects and occurs in their proximity, whereas anxiety occurs in anticipation of such. The amount of anxiety we feel should be proportionate to the reality of the threat posed by the situation, however, sometimes this is not the case.

It is important to realise that this biological response is in essence the same as that experienced by other animals. However, in humans who have the power of thought or conceptualisation, the ability to anticipate fear or anxiety itself becomes part of the cycle of anxiety and makes the problem more complex. (Simmons & Daw, 1994)

The concept of anxiety can be dated back as far as Aristotle (384 BC – 322 BC). The basis of Aristotle’s philosophy was that for every trait: there is an excess, a deficiency and between the two, a mean – the mean being the optimum or most desirable amount of the trait. For shame, he indicates that an excess of the trait would be shamelessness, the mean, modesty, and the deficiency being shyness. This can be related to anxiety in that someone who is shy can be said to be feeling too much anxiety whereas a shameless person therefore lacks a certain amount of anxiety. Aristotle’s aim was for one to be conscious of experiencing the optimum amount of anxiety given the situation or circumstance. (The Anxiety Support Network, Accessed 25/02/2012).

Many people suffer from continual unrealistic, unfounded amounts of fear and anxiety. This is where anxiety and fear build up and exceed rational and beneficial levels, known as anxiety disorders. The most common anxiety disorder is that of simple phobias, estimated to affect one in ten (Barondes 1993; cited Wicken 2009). A more serious anxiety disorder is that of panic disorder. This can be characterized by the rapid onset of very apparent, overt physiological symptoms such as shortness of breath, irregularities in heartbeat and a variety of other autonomic symptoms. Somebody with a social anxiety disorder would be characterized by an excessive fear of being exposed to the scrutiny of other people, leading to avoidance of social situations. Furthermore, generalised anxiety disorder consumes one’s life with excessive anxiety and worry causing major disruption. (Carlson, 2010).

Some people suffer from mathematics related anxiety. This has been characterized as an adverse emotional reaction to math or the prospect of doing math (Richardson & Suinn, 1972; cited Micke et al 2011). Individuals with high maths anxiety tend to perform poorly when presented with mathematics stimuli (Cates & Rhymer, 2003; cited Bai et al) One of the key cognitive mechanisms in math problem solving, and a significant area of research within the math cognition domain, is the utilization of the working memory system (Ashcraft & Kirk, 2001; LeFevre, DeStafano, Coleman, & Shanahan, 2005; cited Legg and Locker 2009).

The anxiety response is controlled by the autonomic division of the peripheral nervous system. The autonomic division operates mainly beyond our control, mostly below consciousness and can be entirely automatic responses. The autonomic division comprises two parts: the sympathetic and the parasympathetic nervous system. The sympathetic system prepares us for action in the face of possible danger. This is commonly referred to and known as the ‘Fight-Flight’ reaction. Contrarily the parasympathetic system acts to redress the balance once the crisis has passed. (Simmons & Daw, 1994). The way in which we are ‘prepared for action’ is by the release of neurotransmitters adrenaline and noradrenaline from the adrenal medulla (Wickens 2009). This leads to an increase in heart rate and breathing as well as increased blood flow to the skeletal muscles.

The limbic system of the brain contains a number of structures that contribute to emotional behaviour, one of which being the hypothalamus. The hypothalamus has been shown to play an important role in the regulation of the autonomic nervous system and emotional behaviour. This has been demonstrated by the work Philip Bard (1930, cited Wickens 2009) where lesions to the hypothalamus of cats eliminated rage whereas lesions to the cerebral cortex tended to provoke such. Another structure of the limbic system, the amygdala, has been shown to be particularly important in regulating aggression and fear. This was demonstrated by Kluver and Bucy in the late 1930’s (cited Wickens 2009) where rhesus monkeys displayed dramatically reduced fear and aggression following lesions to the amygdala. Conversely, electrical stimulation of this structure in humans evoked fear and aggression.

Another constituent of the limbic system is the hippocampus. Although mainly concerned with memory, it has been shown to be of interest in the study of anxiety. A neurobiological model known as the Behavioural Inhibition System (BIS) was proposed by Grey (1982, cited Hoffman & Kim 2006). This system proposes to be the basis of aversive motivational functions. ‘It is sensitive to conditioned aversive and extreme novel stimuli and is activated in response to punishment and cues of frustrative non-reward’ (Hoffman & Kim 2006). Its underlying neural circuits are believed to play an important role in anticipating and assessing threats.

Contrary to the BIS, the Behavioural Approach System (BAS) ‘underlies appetitive motivational functions and governs behaviours that are intended to maximise rewards and minimize punishment’ (Fowles 1980, cited Hoffman & Kim 2006) Research by Gray into the effects anxiolytic drugs would have on an animals behavioural response to punishment lead to a belief that the BIS represented an anxiety system. Further, trait anxiety may be a temperamental marker for the BIS, potentially allowing the assumption that trait anxiety reflects individual differences in the reactivity of the system.

Trait anxiety has been defined as ‘an individuals predisposition to respond’ (Spielberger, 1966, cited Hoffman & Kim). This predisposition can affect the anxiety response in a number of situations such as physical danger, social evaluation and ambiguous or daily routines. State anxiety however has been defined as a transitory emotion characterized by physiological arousal and consciously perceived feelings of apprehension, dread and tension (Spielberger, 1966). Two facets of state anxiety have been proposed: cognitive worry and autonomic emotional. In 1983, Spielberger developed the State-Trait Anxiety Inventory (STAI) as a unidimensional psychometric assessment of anxiety. Endler et al (1991) however took a multidimensional approach to assessing both state and trait anxiety with the development of the Endler Multidimensional Anxiety Scales.

It was proposed by Fowles in 1980 (cited Hoffman & Kim) that electrodermal activity (EDA) and heart rate (HR) may be good physiological indicators of the BIS and the BAS. This was explored by Hoffman and Kim (2006). The prediction was that behavioural inhibition and trait anxiety would be associated with an increase in skin conductance level but not heart rate. From their results it was found that trait anxiety predicted skin conductance level, however behavioural inhibition did not. Neither of the two predicted heart rate reactivity. Therefore the conclusion was that skin conductance level is a better autonomic indicator of trait anxiety than heart rate.

Music therapy is an alternative therapy that may improve patients’ health and well being (Guzzetta 1988; cited Nilsson 2009). The auditory perception of the music is located in the auditory centre in the temporal lobe, which sends signals to the thalamus, the mid brain, pons, amygdala, medulla and hypothalamus. The physiological effect of music is proposed to act via the hypothalamus and its regulation of adrenaline and other neuro-hormones (Myskaja & Lindbaeck 2000; cited Nilsson 2009). Registrations through EEG have shown that music can decrease the bioelectrical activity in the brain from predominant beta waves to alpha and theta waves, which can have consequences for reduction of anxiety, tension and sleeplessness (Shawn 1999; cited Nilsson 2009). It is logical for one to assume that if music can have positive effects on physiology, then surely it can have negative effects too.

The present study aimed to investigate the physiological effects associated with math anxiety, with a further aim to explore this in relation to tense music exposure. It was hypothesised that a maths questionnaire would produce a significantly higher anxiety response than a general knowledge questionnaire. It was also hypothesised that exposure to tense music would produce a significantly greater anxiety response than silence. Furthermore, it would be expected to observe a significant interaction between the music condition and question type.

Method

Design

This study employed a 2 x 2 mixed subjects design. Question type was manipulated at 2 levels, being either math questions or general knowledge. All participants answered both questionnaires. Music was also manipulated at two levels. Participants were equally allocated between either the tense music condition or the control condition of silence. Participants’ heart rate was measured.

Participants

Sixteen undergraduate students from the University of Central Lancashire were used in the undertaking of this study. A method of opportunity sampling was employed during recruitment. No note of age or gender was made.

Materials

A twenty-six item math questionnaire (Appendix 1) and a twenty-six item general knowledge questionnaire (Appendix 2) were used as the foundation of the study. Each questionnaire was presented on a computer screen for thirty seconds, in which time the participants had to attempt as many questions as possible. The general knowledge questionnaire was presented first, followed by the math questions. A stopwatch was used to time the thirsty second period. For the tense music condition, computer speakers were used to play the thirty second tense music track. Each participant’s level of physiological arousal was monitored using a galvanic skin response-heart rate monitor, although this study only used the heart rate response element of the equipment.

Procedure

Participants who agreed to take part in the study were required to attend the School of Psychology at the University of Central Lancashire. Once there, they were individually taken to a lab room where they were asked to take a seat and read through a brief sheet in order to be aware of what was about to happen. The heart rate monitor which was connected to a laptop was then placed on the index finger of the participant. Once the participant was comfortable they were provided with a pen and plain sheet of paper and asked to remain calm for thirty seconds whilst a resting heart rate was recorded. After the thirty seconds had elapsed, the general knowledge questionnaire was presented and the participant had thirty seconds to answer as many questions as they could.

They were notified at the end of the thirty second period. The math questionnaire was then presented following the same procedure as previous. For the eight participants who undertook the tense music condition, the procedure was the same, however, they were informed that once they began answering the questions, a 30 second music track would be played by the experimenter. The heart rate monitor recorded the heart rate (beats per minute) of each participant ten times per second. Upon completion of the study, participants were given a debrief sheet outlining the true aims of the experiment.

Results

The raw data collected consisted of the recorded heart rate response of each participant (Appendix 3). Heart rate was measured ten times per second for each of the thirty second periods – rest, general knowledge questionnaire and the math questionnaire. It was also noted whether the participant took part in the music or silence condition. The raw data was amended (Appendix 4) before being placed into SPSS statistical analysis software. This was done by calculating the mean average of the thirty second rest period and subtracting it from the calculated mean average of the thirty second period where the participant was answering questions. This was in order to discover the average heart rate increase. The full statistical output can be found in Appendix 5. The means and standard deviations of the average heart rate increase (BPM) for the general knowledge and math questions in relation to whether music was present or not were calculated using SPSS.

Table 1: A table to show the means and standard deviations of the average heart rate increase (BPM) for the general knowledge and math questions in relation to whether music was present or not.

It is clear from the results table above that there was very limited increase in the mean average heart rate between the music and silence conditions of both question types.. It can, however, be clearly observed that the mean heart rate increase for the maths questions is greater than that of the general knowledge questions. The standard deviations appear to show a moderate spread of scores.

A Mixed-subjects factorial ANOVA revealed a significant main effect of question type [F (1,14) = 27.48, p < .001, Eta2 = .66], with a higher average heart rate increase in the maths question over the general knowledge questions . There was a non-significant main effect of music [F (1,14) = .001, p = .972., Eta2 = .000]. The interaction between question type and music was non-significant [F (1,14) = .386, p = .545, Eta2 = .027]. Due to the lack of a significant interaction effect it was not necessary to conduct post-hoc tests.

Discussion

The aim of this study was to investigate the physiological effects associated with math anxiety, with a further aim to explore this in relation to tense music exposure. Sixteen participants had their heart rate continually monitored whilst answering a math questionnaire and a general knowledge questionnaire. Half of the participants undertook the questionnaires whilst being exposed to tension provoking music. The results of a mixed subjects factorial ANOVA revealed that participants heart rate was significantly higher when presented with the math questionnaire over the general knowledge questionnaire. The presence of tense music did not significantly influence the level of physiological arousal.

The hypothesis that a maths questionnaire would produce significantly more anxiety than a general knowledge questionnaire was fully met during the course of this investigation. The hypothesis that exposure to tense music would produce significantly more anxiety than silence was not validated by the results of this study. Furthermore, the hypothesis that there would be a significant interaction between the music condition and question type was not substantiated by the results of this study.

The significant result discovered in this study coincides relatively well with previous research into maths anxiety. Previous research has shown that individuals with high maths anxiety tend to perform poorly when presented with mathematics stimuli (Cates & Rhymer, 2003; cited Bai et al). It is necessary to note however that the participants used within the present study were not subjected to prior assessment of math anxiety. Therefore, a distinction between a mathematical anxiety predisposition and poor performance cannot be made, taking into account also that scores from the mathematical questionnaire were not used at any point in this study.

It should only be inferred from the results of this study that math questions elicit greater physiological arousal than general knowledge questions. This therefore, in part, relates well to Richardson & Suinn’s 1972 characterization of math anxiety as an adverse emotional reaction to math or the prospect of doing math. It has been demonstrated by the work of Ashcraft et al in 2001 that the working memory system is a significant area of research within the math domain. The working memory system is of course directly relatable to the hippocampus. The Behavioural Inhibition System proposed by Gray has been shown to be directly related to the hippocampus and in turn, anxiety.

Previous research into the effect music has on ones physiology has conclusively proven music can aid relaxation. This was clearly demonstrated by the work of Shawn (1999) where it was shown that music can decrease the bioelectrical activity in the brain from predominant beta waves to alpha and theta waves, having consequences of reducing anxiety, tension and sleeplessness. Research in this area, for obvious reasons, has directed its attention towards investigating the relaxing properties music can have. It was the intention of this study however to investigate the contrary.

It may be necessary here to discuss the relationship between the biological mechanisms activated when listening to music, and those activated when one feels anxiety. Clear similarities can be observed between the two. It can be noted from the work of Myskaja & Lindbaeck in 2000 that the physiological effect music has is proposed to act via the hypothalamus and its regulation of adrenaline and other neuro-hormones. This is distinctly similar to the action of the sympathetic system of the peripheral nervous system, in that, adrenaline amongst other neurotransmitters are released from the adrenal medulla. Music acts upon many of the same structures in the brain that have been found to have links with emotional regulation. The hypothalamus and amygdala being key examples.

Within this study there were several methodological issues that have to be taken into consideration. First and foremost the method used to obtain data. This was done using only a heart rate monitor. It was demonstrated by Fowles in 1980 that skin conductance level is clearly a better indictor of anxiety. Therefore any further research into this area should use this method of data collection also. It may be wise to include a third level to the music variable in any further research.

The third level should most definitely be a relaxing music condition in order to observe any oppositional results. Judging by previous research it would be expected that a significant reduction in math anxiety would be observed in participants who were exposed relaxing music. The tense music played to participants in the present study was administered at the same time the participant commenced attempting the questionnaire. This leads to difficulty in making a distinction between the tense music being the cause of increased physiological arousal, or whether it was the questionnaire alone as the cause. A possible solution to this could be to expose the participants to music prior to the undertaking of the questionnaire.

In conclusion, it can be implied that anybody who suffers from anxiety in any form is likely to find soothing music a useful remedy, given the biological mechanisms involved. It can be inferred here therefore that a person who listens to genres of music such as heavy rock and metal, would most probably benefit from incorporating more harmonious music into their lives, however this theory was not upheld by the results of this. Further research in this area could focus on this.

References

Bai, H., Wang, L., Pan, W., Frey, M. (undated) Measuring Mathematics Anxiety: Psychometric Analysis of a Bidimensional Affective Scale. Journal of Instructional Psychology 36(3): 185 – 193

Carlson, N. R. (2010) Physiology of Behaviour. 10th edition. Pearson: Allyn & Bacon

den Boer J. A., Sitsen, J. M. (1994). Handbook of depression and anxiety. A biological approach. New York: Marcel Dekker

Endler, N.S., & Kocovki, N.L. (2001) State and trait anxiety revisited. Journal of anxiety disorders 15(3): 231-245

Legg, A. M., Locker, L. Jr. (2009). Math performance and its relationship to math anxiety and metacognition. North American Journal of Psychology 11 (3): 471-486

Micke, A. M., Mateo, J., Kozak, M. N., Foster, K., Beilock, S. L. (2011). Choke or thrive? The relationship between salivary cortisol and math performance depends on individual differences in working memory and math anxiety. American Psychological Association 11(4): 1000 – 1005

Nilsson, U. (2009) Music and Health; How to use music in surgical care. International Academy for Design and Health. 103 – 109

Simmons, M., Daw, P. (1994). Stress, Anxiety, Depression. A practical workbook. Oxon: Winslow Press

Wickens, A. (2004) Introduction to Biopsychology. Pearson: Prentice Hall

http://www.anxietysupportnetwork.com/articles/aristotle_anxiety.php Aristotle’s View of Anxiety. Accessed 25/02/2012

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