According to Joseph LeDoux, a neuroscientist who studies fear and anxiety, there are four ways a person might experience fear and anxiety:¹
1. In the presence of an existing or imminent external threat, you worry about the event and its implications for your physical and/or psychological well-being.
2. When you notice body sensations, you worry about what they might mean for your physical and/or psychological well-being.
3. Thoughts and memories may lead to you to worry about your physical and/or psychological well-being.
4. Thoughts and memories may result in existential dread, such as worry about leading a meaningful life or the eventuality of death.
Let us briefly examine each of these four in turn:
You are out walking at night when you see a stranger running toward you. This is a threat. It is happening here and now. As a result, you are likely to experience the fight-or-flight response:
Fast heartbeat, rapid breathing rate, sweating, nausea, blood flowing from your face and extremities to the muscles in your arms and legs and leaving your face pale and your hands and feet cold but allowing you to run or fight if necessary.
In short, you will be in a defensive/survival mode.
Meanwhile what is happening inside your brain? There, a representation of this experience is created, a representation that includes information about your physical arousal (e.g., fast heartbeat) but also information about the threatening entity (i.e., the stranger) and other objects present in the scene, using past experiences and relevant memories about the dangerous situation.
This determines our personal experiences of what we label fear and anxiety.
What if the stranger in the dark is not out there but, metaphorically speaking, something strange within, such as unfamiliar or unusual bodily sensation?
For example, imagine that you are relaxing and watching TV when you suddenly feel a twitch in your stomach. It lasts a second and is gone.
But you wonder: What was that? Depending on your personal history and the sensation itself, you might panic and even go to the emergency room.
In other words, internal sensations may activate the same fight-or-flight system (and similar survival and defensive circuits in the brain), just as an external source of threat might.
In addition to inner sensations, anxiety may also be triggered by one’s thoughts and memories.
Again imagine that you are on the couch watching a movie on TV. In an earlier scene, an evil character was bound and beaten.
You now suddenly recall how helpless you felt, many years ago in high school, when two bullies dragged you to the washroom, pulled your hands behind your back, and began beating you (luckily this lasted only a few seconds because they were interrupted by a teacher walking into the washroom).
This episodic memory may be sufficient to activate the same fear related circuits in your brain, producing feelings of fear and anxiety.
There are different kinds of anxiety; for instance, a memory/thought may also produce “existential dread.” This is the type of anxiety that is more abstract. It centers on one’s conscious self and on the certainty of death, on the question of one having lived a meaningful life and having made moral choices.
Unlike the previous types of anxiety, experiences of existential dread are “pure forms of cognitive anxiety” and do not typically activate the fight-or-flight system (unless the thoughts become threatening, such as when one finds herself in a life-and-death situation).
LeDoux concludes that anxiety is a “conscious feeling,” one that can “arise in a bottom-up way, driven by activity in defensive circuits or from higher processes that conceptualize worry, either about an uncertain future or about existence itself.”
As an exercise, for the next few days, you may want to keep track of the sources of your own anxiety. When you feel anxious, ask yourself what it was that made you feel that way, an external or internal threat? If it was internal, was it a sensation or a memory/thought? See if you can discover a pattern.
1. LeDoux, J. (2015) Anxious. The modern mind in the age of anxiety. London: Oneworld Publications.