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If you suffer from anxiety, you’ve probably had the experience where you noticed your heart beating faster. Your brain then automatically went “Uh oh! Why is my heart beating so fast!?” And because of the anxiety you carry, your brain probably answered that question with something catastrophic: “Because I’m having a heart attack,” or “I’m not safe here,” or “Something bad is about to happen!” Then of course, your heart really does start to beat faster, and now you’re breathing faster, and before you know it, you’re in panic. What is going on here? Your brain noticed a body function; jumped to conclusions about it being bad, and now you’re having a panic attack. This is why one of the primary treatment interventions for anxiety is cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). CBT aims to teach your brain not to jump to conclusions and catastrophize in order to stop the panic attack before it starts or to de-escalate it more quickly if it already has (of note, mindfulness and meditation are another great therapeutic route). It is so important to be aware of how our mind tends to automatically interpret things. There are 4 common emotions that tend to be misinterpreted the most often: Anger, Anxiety, Attraction, and Excitement. This is actually an area of research in psychology called “the misattribution of arousal.”

Anger

Think about the last time you got really angry. So angry you really wanted to punch someone. What happened to you physically when you got angry? Did your heart beat faster, your blood pressure increase, and your breathing speed up? Did you tighten your muscles, clench your hands, or perhaps grit your teeth? Did you feel hot in the face and get sweaty palms? Was your stomach in knots? What thoughts were running through your head? That they did that on purpose, they were trying to take advantage of you, or they were wrong and you had to teach them a lesson? Or maybe you were thinking about revenge fantasies and all the social injustices others put you through? All these thoughts feed into the anger making it more intense and your body gets all worked up. You’re angry!

Anxiety

Think about the last time you got really anxious or scared. Maybe you froze or panicked. What happened to you physically when you got anxious or scared? Did your heart beat faster, your blood pressure increase, and your breathing speed up? Did you tighten your muscles, clench your hands, or perhaps grit your teeth? Did you feel hot in the face and get sweaty palms? Was your stomach in knots? What thoughts were running through your head? That you were going to have a heart attack? That everything was going to go badly? That you couldn’t bear the feeling and had to get out of there? That things were going to get worse? All these thoughts feed into the anxiety making it more intense and your body gets all worked up. You’re anxious!

Attraction

Think about the last time you were really attracted to someone, such as the high school kid about to ask his crush on a date. What happened to you physically when you felt those strong feelings of attraction? Did your heart beat faster, your blood pressure increase, and your breathing speed up? Did you tighten your muscles, clench your hands, or perhaps grit your teeth? Did you feel hot in the face and get sweaty palms? Was your stomach in knots? What thoughts were running through your head? Fantasies about the perfect date? Images of the kids you’d have together? The best way to approach them and ask them out? Your pick up line? All these thoughts feed into the attraction making it more intense and your body gets all worked up. You’re attracted to someone!

Excitement

Think about the last time you got really excited about something, like a 7 year old about to go to Disneyland for the first time. What happened to you physically when you got excited? Did your heart beat faster, your blood pressure increase, and your breathing speed up? Did you tighten your muscles, clench your hands, or perhaps grit your teeth? Did you feel hot in the face and get sweaty palms? Was your stomach in knots? What thoughts were running through your head? That you couldn’t wait to get started? How you would tell your friends all about it? How lucky you were to be experiencing it? All these thoughts feed into the excitement making it more intense and your body gets all worked up. You’re excited!

When your brain gets it wrong

So you probably noticed by now the connection. In all cases your body physically reacts the same whether you’re experiencing anger, anxiety, attraction, or excitement. So if the physical sensations are the same, how do you know what feeling you’re feeling? That depends on your brain. How your brain interprets what is going on in your body determines the emotion you feel. Usually there is something very clear to explain why our body is getting so worked up and our brain nails the correct emotions: someone stealing your lunch: anger; big dog chasing you: anxiety; gorgeous person complimenting you: attraction; being presented an award: excitement. Most of the time though we are not aware of what is triggering us or the situation is ambiguous and now our brain is trying its best to figure out what it is that we’re experiencing. This is where our old patterns of thinking take charge, and if you have a tendency towards anxiety, guess what, your brain will err on the side of anxiety. This is why when noticing that your heart is racing, in the absence of a clear trigger, your brain goes to its default “oh it must be anxiety, time to panic!”

Capilano Canyon Bridge Study

A classic 1974 study by Aron and Dutton had a pretty female researcher interview men who had either crossed an extremely high, wobbly, suspension bridge or a sturdy, wide, and low wooden bridge. The men on the suspension bridge were experiencing a heightened state of arousal. Increased heart rate, breathing rate, muscle tension, etc… They were all worked up. The men on the wooden bridge felt normal. So what happened? 50% of the men on the suspension bridge called the researcher later compared to only 12.5% of the men on the wooden bridge. The difference? The men on the suspension bridge were more likely to believe that their body was getting all worked up because they were attracted to the female researcher. Their brain misinterpreted the anxiety they were feeling from being on the suspension bridge for attraction. It might have been easier for some to believe their heart was racing because they were feeling attracted rather than believing it was because they were scared.

How can you use this to your advantage?

You can use the misattribution of arousal to your advantage. A common recommendation I like to make for people who tend to err on the side of anxiety is to practice telling your brain that you are excited instead. Anxious about giving your speech, tell yourself you are excited to share your ideas with others. Anxious about socializing, tell yourself you’re excited to make new friends. Anxious about going out, tell yourself you’re excited to try something new. This helps you shift your thinking in a direction that helps you do more. And the more you do, the more confident in your abilities you become, and the more confident you become, the less anxious you are! What about when you are feeling anger? Here the key is to make sure you are responding to the correct trigger. Knowing your brain can sometimes get it wrong can help you to slow down and evaluate your environment. The goal here is to learn how to separate real threat from perceived hostility. For example, someone bumps you and you notice your heart beat faster, instead of immediately getting angry and concluding “They did that on purpose! I’ll show them!” you slow down and assess. Maybe my heart beat faster because I had to catch my step so I wouldn’t fall. They might have been bumped by someone else or they didn’t mean to, it was accident. All these thoughts help you de-escalate the situation.

When you have anxiety or a history of trauma, your body is primed to look for danger and stay safe. Your survival system is ready to go. So when you notice your body getting worked up, your default mode is to assume it’s because of anger or anxiety. But as you can see sometimes the brain gets it wrong. The good news is that with therapies like CBT you can train your brain to assess situations more accurately and be in better control of your emotions.