Ever get too nervous to step onto a stage and speak in front of an audience? What about getting anxious about an upcoming test? Whether it’s when you think of the future or performing a simple task like driving, we’ve all felt anxious at one point.
What is anxiety and why do you get anxious?
Anxiety is often confused to be the same as fear, but I think it’s important to distinguish one from the other. Fear is your response to a known threat that’s in your surroundings while anxiety is more of a response to an unknown threat or an internal conflict1. We don’t fear the future because we don’t know what is in store for us, but not knowing what will happen can make us anxious. Even though they are caused by different situations, their modes of action in our body are the same.
Getting anxious is simply the flight-or-fight response to an unknown threat and is meant to be a evolutionary response for survival2. Without anxiety or fear, we would probably be reckless and die at a young age as a result.
How do you get anxious?
Fear and anxiety are both emotions regulated by a part of your brain that’s called the amygdala3.
When you’re in a situation that would normally lead to anxiety, such as having an internal conflict, a system known as the locus coeruleus (which is found in the pons), is signalled by the thalamus to release a hormone. This hormone, norepinephrine (NE), targets the amygdala, in addition to other systems.
This causes the amygdala to target another part of the brain (the hypothalamus), which causes the release of cortisol, epinephrine (aka adrenaline) and NE to induce the ‘flight-or-fight’ response4. Some cortisol goes back and targets the amygdala, which intensifies the signalling and, therefore, the symptoms1.
The three hormones and the nervous system will target organs like your eyes, heart, sweat glands and bladder and will signal for the pupils of your eyes to dilate, your heart to beat faster, your sweat glands to release more sweat and for your bladder to relax. This relaxation of your bladder results in the likeliness of urinating if you are really anxious or scared. Hence the saying ‘I almost peed myself’.
1. Steimer, Thierry. 2002. The biology of fear & anxiety-related behaviours. Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience, Vol, 4, No. 3, pp. 225-249.
2. DeMarco, Anthony J. 2009. The biology of fear and anxiety. MASCCares.com. <http://masccares.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=6:biologyoffear> 02 January 2013.
3. Feinstein, J.S., Adolphs, R., Damasio, A., and Tranel, D. 2011. The human amygdala and the induction and experience of fear. Current Biology, Vol. 21, No. 1, pp. 34-38.
4. Layton, Julia. 2005. How fear works. HowStuffWorks.com. <http://science.howstuffworks.com/life/fear.htm> 02 January 2013.