In my quest to know and understand all things anxiety, I recently stumbled upon some wonderful research by Joseph LeDoux. LeDoux has spent 30 years studying the biological processes behind memory and emotion and most especially fear and anxiety. I’ve read several articles both about and by LeDoux and have to say that I’m blown away by some new information that makes perfect sense. These are the kinds of things we anxiety sufferers have known for a long time but which science had yet to acknowledge or explain.
See what you think of my conclusions and then check out some of the articles by and about LeDoux:
Fight or Flight Response and Our Social Survival
Often when talking about anxiety we hear about the “fight or flight” response. This response is an evolutionary automatic response that helped save our lives in dangerous situations. However, traditionally when talking about anxiety in today’s world, we’re using the term to mean that we’re illogically afraid of regular events which results in an unnecessary “fight or flight” response. Basically we think of our anxiety as an over-exaggerated left-over primitive response mechanism to something that isn’t actually a threat. …Or is it?
In my reading about LeDoux, I’ve learned that as we’ve matured into social beings there are now social circumstances that are necessary for our survival. So having a fight or flight response to a social situation could potentially, in this day and age, be as important as sensing the danger of a predator in primitive times. I.e. sensing danger and reacting is good! In the article it’s called Social Survival. And Social Survival is a pretty big deal for all people. In today’s world: Be Social or Die!
There are risks to our Social Survival all the time. Think about all the social situations both personal and professional that you navigate everyday! And imagine what its like to have a fear response to a social situation? Therefore: Social Threat and Dangerous Animal produce the same effect! Once in a while it’s normal and useful to feel this way in a social situation and probably helps you make the right social choices. However, when it happens all the time or becomes obsessive it’s not helpful or beneficial.
For people with anxiety, that over the top fear response we experience frequently is actually hindering us in social situations rather than helping. Our social health is in danger because we start avoiding social activities because we’re afraid we’ll experience that negative fight or flight response. It seems we’re extremely sensitive to social threats, so much so that we’ve internalized threats from our past lives and whenever those situations happen again, we’re feeling the same fight or flight response. It becomes a circle of threat, fear, response, and avoidance.
So Social Anxiety Sufferers, fear not, you are actually afraid of something real, i.e. there are actual social threats in the world that could hinder your survival. Your fears are not illogical and crazy, however paradoxically your fears are actually jeopardizing your social survival. Remember when I said that many social anxiety sufferers are under employed? That’s a threat to your social survival caused by your anxiety. Don’t worry though, you’ll learn as we go on that it’s not all your fault either…your subconscious brain has quite a hand in things as well.
Our Subconscious and Anxiety
Next I learned that LeDoux is studying the brain to understand how fear and anxiety work within the different regions of the brain. The conclusion he’s reaching is that we are unconsciously aware of a threat before we are consciously aware. I.e. our body begins to react even before our mind has had a chance to start churning up the word/picture machine inside our head with anxious thoughts. What this means is, our helpful brain is flooding our body with hormones and starting up the fear response without our knowledge.
Now don’t quote me on this because I am by no means a scientist (check out the articles for more information, below) however, my take away from this is that our amygdala pairs things together, for example in my case, certain social scenarios and fear/danger, WITHOUT my knowledge! Obviously, I also know this because I’ve picked it up after the fear response started, but my amygdala is so good and efficient that it recognizes these scenarios before I do and like magic my body is already responding to fear.
Here’s what happens: My amygdala recognizes a fear scenario and sends my body a message. My body:…churn up the heart, kick up the breathing, grip down on the stomach, tense up the muscles, flood the system with adrenaline and…RUN AWAY!! My mind takes a few seconds to actually feel this response and then suddenly I’m like…Uh oh…something is wrong, maybe we should…run away! Then the thoughts start racing and I’m full on panicked. And then in the future, I associate the feelings of fear with whatever social event I was dealing with at that moment.
I think this is why the method of replacing or controlling our thoughts isn’t going to work, at least not fully. It’s like cleaning up a mess after the spill has occurred rather than taking precautionary methods to stop the spill from happening in the first place. But how exactly, may I ask, do I stop my oh so helpful amygdala from starting this process in my body?
I think any anxiety sufferer can tell you, this is the root of our problem. I’ve written it before and will do so again, how do I stop the mind-body reaction that seems automatic? I’m not always aware that there’s a danger to my social survival, at least not consciously with actual thoughts I can shut off or ignore or even accept. Basically, I haven’t even thought the anxious fearful thought, consciously, however I’m already panicked physically and that’s when I realize there’s danger and start up with the fearful thoughts. My subconscious has helpfully alerted my body to the danger without my consent. Thanks Brain!!
Facial Expressions and Anxiety
Another very fascinating thing about LeDoux’s research is that he mentions facial expressions as a means of storing a subconscious threat. Specifically these threats come from the “whites of the eyes.” What I take this to mean is that even the slightest facial expression from around the eyes can trigger our subconscious mind to begin the physical fear sequence. That’s because our mind has stored this facial expression as a threat at some point in our past. Thus whenever we see the stimulus, whether we’re consciously aware of it or not, our minds begin the fear process in our bodies (see we’re just like Pavlov’s dog!).
Imagine all the facial expressions that make you feel uncomfortable when you’re consciously aware of noticing them and then imagine what good work your subconscious mind has done mapping even smaller levels of facial detail? Your mind likely remembers that incident of childhood teasing and the related facial expressions far better than you do consciously, right down to the bully’s eye twitch!
The article states that once your amygdala has noticed these threatening facial expressions and then you, belatedly, become aware of the threat, you are suddenly there in the moment, noticing your surroundings, noting the person’s face etc. How often has that happened? You feel anxiety/fear and suddenly you’re hyper aware of your surroundings? I can think of all kinds of facial expressions that could trigger this! Distain, eye rolling, superiority, a snicker/making fun! Even the subtle ones have the power to make you feel uncomfortable!
What this research tells me, Anxiety Sufferers, is that we’re not crazy! Our minds have stored threat information for us and over time we’ve consciously also learned to cognitively associate our bodily fear to those same threats. And perhaps our sneaky yet oh so genius minds have stored an even greater level of detail about what constitutes a threat than we are aware of. So, what we need to discover is how to break that mind-body connection.
I’m so pleased to read about this research because for years I have asked therapists, how do I break the mind-body connection and no one seem to understand what I mean or have an answer. Their answer has always been, change your thoughts. Which essentially means, pick up the pieces after the car crash.
But now I am hearing that I am not crazy, there is a mind-body connection that happens before the thoughts. So yes, I can use my thoughts to try to soothe the threat after it’s been announced in my body, but wouldn’t it be so much better if I could convince my amygdala to not even announce the threat to my body to start with? Here’s hoping that there’s an answer in our future and we can finally stop our bodies from jumping into fear before we’ve realized the threat.
Here’s looking at you Scientists, YOU ROCK!! And keep up the excellent research!!
To learn more about LeDoux:
The Emotional Brain: The Mysterious Underpinnings of Emotional Life by Joseph LeDoux
Anxious: Using the Brain to Understand and Treat Fear and Anxiety by Joseph LeDoux
On Fear, Emotions and Memory: Rock Star/Neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux’s New Terms by Margaret Emory, featured: Brain World
A Neuroscientist Argues That Everybody Is Misunderstanding Fear and Anxiety by Casey Schwartz, featured: Science of Us