Anxiety: A Trick Your Brain May Be Playing On You

Home » Anxiety and Stress Reduction » Anxiety: A Trick Your Brain May Be Playing On You

As a therapist, I see a lot of people with problems with anxiety. I’ve seen people with phobias, like heights or flying  or mice. I’ve seen people with panic attacks, where seemingly out of nowhere they unexpectedly experience intense anxiety and are terrified that they’re having a heart attack or stroke or are going to faint. And I’ve seen people who are so worried about things that could go wrong that they’re no longer living much of a life.

One thing everyone who is having problems with anxiety has in common is that their brain is tricking them. It’s telling them that they’re in danger, when actually they’re not. And it’s tricking them into doing things that make it worse. But there is a way out.

Our brains are designed by evolution to pay LOTS of attention to danger. Evolutionary psychology tells us that as  far as evolution is concerned, it doesn’t care if we’re happy or not, it just wants us to survive long enough to reproduce. So the hunter-gatherer who was afraid of every twig snapping in the forest was more likely to survive and reproduce than the hunter-gatherer who was watching the beautiful sunset and got eaten by the saber tooth tiger.

Evolution designed our brains in a very jury rigged kind of a way, and there are some glitches in the system. It started with the reptilian brain with very simple hardwired reactions (approach food, flee or fight danger). It slapped a mammalian brain on top of that (emotions, motivation), and then a cerebral neocortex on top of that. The cortex is the part of our brain that allows to to have language, abstract thought, and imagination. That imagination allows us to respond to imagined danger the same way we respond to actual danger. Our scary thoughts make our bodies respond as though we’re actually in danger. Our brains release stress hormones, our heart races, we’re ready to fight or flee. And when we feel our bodies do these things, our minds can get even more afraid.

So if a gazelle is chased by a lion, once it escapes it goes back to grazing. But if a human is chased by a lion, once we escape we can continue to imagine lions and to  fret and worry, generating more and more fear long after the danger has passed.

Once fear is learned, avoidance and problematic beliefs help  it to stick around and grow. We overestimate how likely the feared thing happening will be. We overestimate how severe it would be if the feared thing actually happened, We start to think negative things about ourselves, that we’re somehow weak and defective

What’s the best way to keep these beliefs running?  Avoid the thing we’re afraid of. Stay off of bridges if we’re afraid of heights. Stay off of planes or drug ourselves up before going if we’re afraid of flying. Stay away from groups or parties if we’re socially anxious.

The more we avoid something, the more afraid we are, of that thing. The more afraid we become, the more we avoid. and the more scary the thing we’re avoiding becomes to us. And the more negative things we start thinking about ourselves, how horrible it is, and how weak and defective we are. Our brain gets stuck in a negative feedback loop.

Our brain has tricked us. We’re tricked into believing we’re in danger when we’re not, we’re tricked into responding in ways that make it worse (avoiding, safety behaviors), and the more we try to keep ourselves safe the worse we get. It’s like trying to dig ourselves out of a hole with a shovel.

One way to help your brain to unlearn unreasonable fears is to face the feared thing. This can help our poor brains learn something new. This is called ‘corrective learning.” For our brains to learn something new about fear, we have to come in contact with the thing we’re afraid of without avoiding it. (This can be tricky, since we can be in contact with something and still be avoiding it. It’s very common, for example, for someone with social anxiety to go to a party, but do things like stay quiet and hide in a corner.)

One way to unlearn unreasonable fears is to strategically and repeatedly confront the thing we’re afraid of. One thing that can help us to do this is to remind ourselves that we’re not actually in danger, we’re just feeling discomfort. The discomfort of an nervous system that’s acting up. Performers do this all the time, every time they go out on stage they feel their heart race and an anxiety response in their body begins. But they tell themselves they’re psyched or hyped up for the performance, and if they don’t feel these things they start to get worried that they won’t perform as well.

Studies have shown that if you face a feared thing that isn’t actually dangerous repeatedly, over time, your brain will stop responding to it in the same way.

To summarize: Your brain may be playing a trick on you. It can trick you into thinking you’re in danger when you’re not, and it can trick you into doing things that make it worse instead of better. But there is a way out. It is possible to help your brain to learn something new. To do so, you need to learn to face the thing you’re anxious about rather than fleeing from it.



  1. This is a good thing to read I felt it calmed me down as I read it.

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