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Why anxious people need more "personal space"

Teresa Tanoos's picture
Researchers at University College London find anxious people need more space

While we all need our own “personal space” to help us feel safe from unwanted intrusions, real or imagined, a new study shows that the size of that space varies depending on the personality type of each individual. But generally speaking, we all crave an invisible but protective boundary of space starting somewhere between 8 to 16 inches from our face.

Whether you need that space to protect your body from flying objects or from a person who talks too much, researchers of a study published last week in The Journal of Neuroscience say that the more anxious you are, the more space you need.

"There is a pretty robust correlation between the size of the personal space and the level of anxiety of the subject," explained researcher Giandomenico Iannetti, a neuroscientist at the University College London.

It makes sense considering that anxious types tend to avoid crowded spaces like big parties or mega malls. But according to Michael Graziano, a researcher at Princeton University who wasn't involved in the study, the relationship has never been so clearly shown and quantified as in the new study.

For the study, the researchers attached electrodes to 15 healthy participants that delivered small electric shocks to their hands. Another device was also attached to the participants to measure the electrical activity of the eye muscles used in blinking, as blinking is a common defensive reaction.

Each of the participants involved in the experiments held out a hand at varying distances from their face while receiving a shock, at which time the researchers measured the strength of their blinking in response.

As Iannetti and the research team reported, what they found was "a sudden increase in the magnitude of the [blinking] reflex when the stimulus gets to a certain distance from the eye."

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This sudden increase in blinking occurred at a greater distance from the face for participants who rated themselves as having high levels of anxiety, compared with those who reported having less anxiety.

Iannetti explained that, as a reflex, blinking is a super quick reaction caused by signals traveling from the brain stem straight to muscles, bypassing the cerebral cortex where conscious thought occurs. In the experiments, he pointed out that the participant’s position of hand changed the strength of the reflex – once the hand was within a person's "personal space," the strength of the reaction increased.

Ianetti noted that this shows the cortex is capable of tweaking activity, even if it is being bypassed. He added that there is also a secondary zone, within a few inches of the face, where the reflex is even more pronounced, but not by much.

The study’s finding that reflex strength increases as the hand becomes closer to the face, "very nicely shows how vision, touch, posture and movement all work together extremely quickly and in close coordination … in controlling movement and defending the body," said Nicholas Holmes, a researcher at the University of Reading in England who wasn't involved in the study.

Researchers have been studying personal space for nearly a century, beginning with the study of prey animals and their so-called flight zone, Graziano said. He used the example of an anxious zebra, saying it might have a larger flight zone than a smaller zebra in order to provide enough protective space to prevent lions from approaching.

Comparing anxious people with the anxious zebras, a larger personal space allows both to be more aware of potential threats to its well-being and survival, said Graziano, who added that this is especially the case with modern humans because this system can go haywire and may play a role in disorders such as claustrophobia or agoraphobia. He also said that, between cultures, the idea of personal space varies wildly because culture is just one of many forces affecting personal space.

Then there’s the role of personal space in relationships, which perhaps sums it up best.

“One of the ways people test trust in their partner is by getting into their partner's personal space,” Graziano said. “You show how much you are comfortable with them by how much you're willing to shrink your personal space, sometimes down to nothing."

SOURCE: The Journal of Neuroscience, Better Safe Than Sorry? The Safety Margin Surrounding the Body Is Increased by Anxiety (August 28, 2013), 33(35): 14225-14230; doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.0706-13.2013