Anticipating Fear

“[The] only thing we have to fear is fear itself” – Franklin D. Roosevelt, 32nd US president

You probably heard this quote or something similar and perhaps even wondered what this might mean. In Franklin D. Roosevelt’s first inaugural address, he elaborates further with “nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.” And although he was speaking to a nation, he could have easily been speaking to all of us as individuals.

Fear is an emotion that is at the base of our existence. Our brains and extended nervous systems are tuned and highly reactive to fear, as it has driven animals to advance to where they are to this day. We humans are no exception. Imagine if you will hearing a rustling in a nearby bush. It could be nothing or it could be the stirrings of a predator. Those who were afraid and sought shelter survived just a little more often than those who had no fear or chose to ignore it (because every so often, it was a tiger in the bush, and now your genes will no longer be represented in the gene pool). Although most of us reading this text live in peace and general prosperity, we can’t ignore that fear plays a role in our lives. This fear is often what causes us to retreat from the path that leads to a happy life, when instead we should convert into advance.


“Some things torment us more than they ought; some torment us before they ought; and some torment us when they ought not to torment us at all. We are in the habit of exaggerating, or imagining, or anticipating, sorrow.” – Seneca 

Neuroscience has shown in experiments what stoics like Seneca have preached for centuries; our habits are a product of a negativity bias that has develop during thousands of years of evolution (remember those who choose to interpret the rustle in the bush as a tiger) – negative experiences carry more weight. I’d like to focus on one aspect of this tormenting cycle in this article, namely, anticipation.

Experiments using brain imaging have shown that the anticipation of a painful experience and the actual experience are similar but distinct in the areas of the brain they activate. Anticipation activates areas associated with pain, as though it was similar to the pain itself. In the real world, we experience a great deal of anxiety in any impeding painful or negative experience. Although useful in a more threatening environment full of tigers, in a world of relative safety this intense anticipation becomes maladaptive.

Not only pain, but the anticipation of pain can alter your mood. It is believed that this anticipation of pain is relevant to the development of chronic pain disorders. Becoming tenser in the anticipation of pain will make pain often much worse. Think of someone telling you about a painful dental procedure in excruciating detail, and then slowly examining every instrument in preparation for the actual procedure, yikes. Conversely, distracting someone with questions or applying a heavy cognitive load (like counting back from 500 in steps of 7) can make the experience of receiving a shot relatively painless. Now the good news, if we gain control of our minds we can exert control on how we experience any number of negative situations.

We dread the anticipation of pain to such a degree, that we would volunteer to accept higher levels of pain immediately instead of having to wait for lesser pain. This was shown through an experiment where participants were asked to choose just that, higher levels of pain now or lesser pain delayed for a few seconds – isn’t science fun! 70% of participants preferred a more painful experience right away over waiting for a less painful experience; they just wanted to get it over with.

In life we may want to quickly rip of the bandage and simply get our pain and fears over with, but in the case of this experiment you would have been given perfect information about what you will be choosing – more pain right now or less pain after waiting. We rarely receive such a luxury in life, instead we are plagued with uncertainty, and this is where pain is bridged with fear. Uncertainty is ripe with fear. Anticipating a situation wrought with uncertainty is a tormenting experience, and leaves many people in a frozen state, anxiously waiting for some uncertainty to be resolved. Unfortunately the worse we feel, the greater the effect fear has on our mood and ability to take control over the negative effects of anticipation.

To this end, people suffering from major depression disorder experience pain differently. In an experiment comparing depressed patients with healthy controls, depressed patients showed more neural activation (via brain imaging) in response to the anticipation of pain. They also showed an increase in neural activation for experiencing pain, and a greater activation in the right amygdala (an area classical involved in fear responses) during anticipation of pain, which was associated with greater levels of perceived helplessness.

This is an example of a depressed brain being more active than a healthy brain, which is not always what we might assume when we think of being depressed. What this illustrates is also a mind that is overactive in the anticipation of negative experiences, and therefore bogged down in outward behavior. If you let fear, and particularly future fear, take control of your mind, you’ll often be frozen in state of agitation, expecting tigers when no such threat exists.

In the same letter to Lucilius (On Groundless Fears) as the above quote, Seneca quotes another great stoic, Epicurus: “the fool, with all his other faults, has this also, he is always getting ready to live”. Don’t let fear stop you from living. If you are free from pain and are safe, take a moment to enjoy what you have. If the future holds something grim, know that anticipating how grim it might be is worse than actually experiencing it. Do you want to exert some control over fear? Exercise your fears by grounding them. Name the fears, list them out; pull them into the light so you can see them for what they are.  Allow your fears to be a trigger to go deeper into yourself, and you may find that you are simply waiting on something that may never come to pass. If you find yourself confronting the fear of anticipating uncertainty, then forgive yourself and your fearful ancestors, thank them for trying to keep you alive. Now, let that fear go. Stop getting ready to live and just live.

 

References:

Ploghaus, A., Tracey, I., Gati, J. S., Clare, S., Menon, R. S., Matthews, P. M., & Rawlins, J. N. P. (1999). Dissociating pain from its anticipation in the human brain. Science, 284(5422), 1979-1981.

Welman, F. M., Smit, A. E., Jongen, J. L., Tibboel, D., van der Geest, J. N., & Holstege, J. C. (2018). Pain Experience is Somatotopically Organized and Overlaps with Pain Anticipation in the Human Cerebellum. The Cerebellum, 1-14.

Story, G. W., Vlaev, I., Seymour, B., Winston, J. S., Darzi, A., & Dolan, R. J. (2013). Dread and the disvalue of future pain. PLoS computational biology, 9(11), e1003335.

Strigo, I. A., Simmons, A. N., Matthews, S. C., Arthur, D., & Paulus, M. P. (2008). Association of major depressive disorder with altered functional brain response during anticipation and processing of heat pain. Archives of general psychiatry, 65(11), 1275-1284.

Cover Photo by Ian Froome on Unsplash

In-Text Photo by Hailey Kean on Unsplash

© Rebecca Böhme & Andrew Wold, 2018. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to the authors with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Breathing against Anxiety

 

I get overly anxious sometimes. It can be for the silliest reasons. It can be enough that I had a long day at work and I am alone at home at night. My stress-levels are already higher, because there are multiple deadlines coming up at work – and that in the last two weeks before Christmas… High stress puts my brain on alert.

That makes sense: if we are stressed, that means, or at least meant back when we lived in the Savannah, that something unusual is going on. We were stressed in unknown territories or during a hunt. Our brains needed to be especially alert in order to detect the smallest hint for danger. When we are in such a vigilant state, we see more and we hear more. Small things seem a lot more important to us: that shadow could be the tail of a tiger or the sound could be a lion sneaking up upon us.

Highly vigilant for tiger-tails
However, we don’t live in the Savannah anymore. In our modern world, when I come home from a stressful day at work, it is not always easy to relax. I am alone at home, it is already dark. I live out in the country, the wind is blowing leaves around and small branches hit the house. My brain is still on the lookout for tiger-tails, and the shadows of the leaves in front of my window make me jump. I know that I am safe, but still, I feel nervous. I try to calm myself down by drinking hot tea on the couch, but I keep hearing strange sounds. It is quite a stormy day, and all this starts to make me anxious. Not that I don’t know, that the probability for any real danger is extremely low. But rational reasoning doesn’t impress my highly alert brain. That is the reason, why I feel anxious: I feel, as if I have to be vigilant and cautions, but there is no good reason for it. My intuition does not fit the actual situation I am in. That is what we call anxiety.

If rational reasoning does not help, what can we do to get our brains out of this highly vigilant state? The alertness is based on very old and very basic structures in our brain. The best way to influence these old instinctual parts of our brains is by using very basic techniques. The early-human-half-monkey in us does not care about the low probabilities of people being eaten by tigers in their homes. Therefore, instead of statistics, we should try to influence our physiology. Our brain does not only control our body, our body can in turn also influence our brain.

So, what can we do?
We can try to calm our brain down using a simple technique: if we pretend, we aren’t stressed, and everything is fine, then the brain will react and reduce its hypervigilance as well. How to do that? Simply change your breathing pattern! Take a deep breath in, pause, slowly breathe out, pause, repeat. You will feel calmer within a few breaths already.

There is actual, scientific proof for this effect.
Several studies were able to show that controlled, slow breathing can reduce anxiety. Scientist even have a reasonable explanation of the underlying process: A small group of neurons in the brainstem controls our breathing rhythm. Some of these neurons are connected with other neurons responsible for alertness, attention and stress (in the so-called locus coeruleus), and they can interact both ways. The locus coeruleus is in turn connected to the amygdala, an area well known to be involved in the processing of emotions and especially fear.
If this small group of neurons in the breathing-pacemaker area, which can talk to the alertness-region, is rendered inactive in mice, the animals become extraordinarily chill.
So, if you breathe slowly, these neurons in the brainstem will tell other areas in the brain, that everything is fine, that you are calm and your feelings of anxiety will decrease.

Influencing anxiety and stress via breathing techniques might seem very basic. Bear in mind, though, that this is the only autonomic function in our body that we can modulate voluntarily. And who’s to say that a simple technique is a bad technique? If you can learn to reduce your own stress and anxiety simply by controlling your breathing, wouldn’t that be wonderful? We suggest, you give it a try.

Next time, you feel anxiety bubbling up, do this:
Breathe deeply into your belly, while slowly counting to four. Then hold your breath, again counting to four. Slowly breathe out, counting to four. Hold your breath for another four seconds. Repeat this 4-by-4 breathing cycle ten times, afterwards note how the state of your body and mind have changed. If it is hard for you to stick to the four seconds intervals, keep practicing during times, when you feel fine. It well get easier and prepare you to use this technique in situations, where you feel anxious.

 

 

Some scientific background literature:

Yackle, K., Schwarz, L. A., Kam, K., Sorokin, J. M., Huguenard, J. R., Feldman, J. L., … & Krasnow, M. A. (2017). Breathing control center neurons that promote arousal in mice. Science, 355(6332), 1411-1415.
Nardi, A. E., Freire, R. C., & Zin, W. A. (2009). Panic disorder and control of breathing. Respiratory physiology & neurobiology, 167(1), 133-143.
Brown, R. P., & Gerbarg, P. L. (2009). Yoga breathing, meditation, and longevity. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1172(1), 54-62.

 

Photo by Joshua Earle on Unsplash

© Rebecca Böhme & Andrew Wold, 2017. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to the authors with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

How much stress is too much stress?

We all get stressed, all the time. It is impossible not to, and that is just fine. What we call stress is usually the feeling that there is a lot going on. We need that feeling of stress to get in the right mindset to get stuff done. There is also the notion of positive stress: a certain level of stress can be beneficial for us. We need challenges, we need to get out of our comfort zones. Our bodies are made for a certain level of stress, not to just hang out and be completely calm and relaxed.

So how should you know if the stress you are experiencing is too much? Where is the point when positive stress turns into something negative, something harmful?

There are actually many signs that you should watch out for and these should signal you to start taking it easier. Take these signs seriously, because too much stress will lead to exhaustion and eventually to burn out, depression or another form of harm to your health.

 

Signs to watch out for

Memory problems

If we experience too much stress for an extended period of time, this negatively affects our cognitive abilities: it is harder to concentrate, memory recall is reduced, and we experience overall reduced cognitive processing. In the beginning we might just forget things that are not very important, but high stress levels over a long time period will also affect our memory for important things like appointments or promises we made or even names of people we know well.

Stress hormones affect the Hippocampus, a sensitive brain area that is necessary for retrieving memories and for building new ones. People with damage to the Hippocampus, for example after a stroke, are sometimes completely unable to learn and remember something new. Chronic stress alters the brain’s ability to adapt to new information. This can result in an actual decrease of hippocampal volume. Such structural changes are associated with impaired memory. Roughly said our brain encodes new memories by making new connection between neurons. But the neurons in the Hippocampus of stressed individuals have less connections with each other and less new neurons are being produced – which is the reason for memory problems in times of stress. 

 

Slower recovery

Another clear indicator is that we feel exhausted faster than we used to. This is true for physical as well as mental activities. We might also notice that it is harder to recover from physical and mental efforts. We need more or longer breaks, or might even feel like we simply can not fill up our batteries, no matter how long we are resting. This might in part be due to reduced sleep quality, which is another symptom of stress.

 

Mood changes

Of course prolonged periods of stress will also affect our mood. We become more easily irritated and angry. Noticing our lower energy level further affects the mood, because we might feel guilty or weak, when we can’t get as much done as usual. Normal requests from co-workers, friends or our partner suddenly feel demanding. Social interactions might become overwhelming and we begin to avoid social gatherings.

 

Hypersensitivity

Another less intuitive consequence of stress can be a heightened sensitivity to noise, light or other sensory impressions. We might experience loud music as more disturbing or bright light as very unpleasant. This could be another, maybe even unconscious reason for us to withdraw from social situations and interactions.

 

When to act

Did any of the above symptoms resonate with you? If so, interpret these behaviors as signals and don’t ignore them – instead, react to them.

We are well equipped to handle some stress, even if you experience these signs in a more extreme form, you can still recover in time. It is normal to fluctuate through periods of high and low stress. Most of the time, we can regulate ourselves and get back on track. Unfortunately, after many ups and downs, and particularly when our coping strategies are unhealthy, we become vulnerable to a dangerous downward spiral. At some point our body and mind can not return to our previous healthy baseline. More stress will pile on leading to exhaustion, burn out and depression. Therefore it is always good to stay vigilant and detect symptoms of exhaustion. If you react early enough, you will still have the energy to make the necessary changes. If you wait too long, your recovery will take longer and you might not be able to manage on your own.

So give yourself some time to reflect on how you have dealt with stress in the past and try to evaluate, if you show any of the signs mentioned above. Master your own signs, and make sure these signals translate into taking action.

Not good at feeling your own mental states? Many are not, and it’s a skill that requires practice. Our advice is to ask friends, family or your partner. Often they can see your behavioral changes more objectively than you can. If they say your are irritable or angry, take a moment to evaluate the claim (this is difficult, but you have to assess the information you get, and taking even a moment makes all the difference).

If you notice that you suffer from too much stress, try to find the big source(s) of stress in your life, and try to recognize their effects to reduce their potential impact. If you know what helps you reduce stress, take active steps to implement that activity (e.g. exercise).

Also, keep reading our blog for more tips on a positive mindset and simple ways for reducing stress ;).

 

 

Photos by nikko macaspac and Haley Phelps  on Unsplash

 

© Rebecca Böhme & Andrew Wold, 2017. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to the authors with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.