Anxiety Isn’t An Emotion. It’s A Sensation
Anxiety is the sensation you feel when your sympathetic nervous system (SNS) turns on. The SNS can turn on for a whole variety of reasons, including your response to stimuli from the environment, changes in your body chemistry, or your response to your own troubling thoughts. The connection to our own thoughts is the connection we make most readily, but it’s not always the right connection to make. It’s important for us to understand the range of possibilities, so we don’t always connect the sensation of anxiety to our list of life concerns. That will just push us to worry more. Worry is an emotion, and not one that favours good clinical outcomes.
So, how does anxiety work? What should we do when we feel it?
In evolutionary terms, anxiety is the sensation that tells you to stop foraging for food, look around, and see if you’re about to be attacked by a predator. So it’s pretty important for survival. This is what you see herds of deer doing when you drive past a field where they’re grazing.
Both auditory and visual stimulation drive activation of the midbrain (mesencephlon), which drives the SNS response. Visual stimuli arrive at the superior colliculus of the midbrain. Auditory stimuli arrive at the inferior colliculus. These are essentially two bumps on the back of the midbrain. When you get a visual stimulus (you see movement in your peripheral visual field while you’re grazing) or an auditory stimulus (you hear a twig snap), these stimuli trigger the SNS. The signals stimulate your SNS before you’ve registered anything consciously. But you do feel the sensation of your SNS turning on. That’s anxiety. “I feel like I’m not safe. I’ll pick my head up and look around for a predator.”
The problem is that your SNS can be turned on by other factors, such as NFkB (inflammation) in the CNS driving corticotrophin releasing hormone (CRH) from the hypothalamus, which drives SNS activation. So, CNS inflammation can make you anxious, in a way that has nothing to do with cognitive or emotional content. It’s just neurochemistry.
What do we typically do when we feel anxious? We connect the experience of anxiety to our list of cares and woes. We think we’re anxious “about something.” But much of the time, there is no “about.” When we assume anxiety is always anxiety about something, we confuse the sensation of anxiety with the emotion of worry. This mistake sends us in the direction of stirring the pot on our emotional content. Not a good idea. Keep your sensation of anxiety away from your emotional life. Putting them together doesn’t help either one.
The better approach would be to recognise that anxiety may be a signal about biology, rather than psychology. This directs us to a different set of questions and approaches to managing anxiety. We could get curious about food, sleep, stress chemistry driving inflammation, lack of exercise, or other primarily biological mechanisms. These questions are more likely to identify sources of biological up regulation of anxiety and therefore yield lines of inquiry that address and reduce the sensations of anxiety.
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