Lies Your Brain Tells You: Why We Have Scary Thoughts

Thursday, February 06, 2014 by Meg   •   Filed under Anxiety

People refer to anxiety symptoms as anything from "being stressed out" or "feeling agitated" to "having a nervous breakdown". On the internet, I'm fairly sure the scale goes from :-( to 8-[ . But I could be wrong. 

Lower levels of anxiety hormones are necessary, triggering motivation and even normal functioning like waking up. But too many of those chemicals and you move past motivating thoughts and into scary thought territory; and most of the thoughts have nothing to do with the actual reason for the anxiety.

Mother Nature and The Benefit of Fear

The physical symptoms of anxiety often occur in conjunction with scary thoughts. Anxiety evolved as a trigger to do something, and there is no greater motivation than to make us want to do something. Mother Nature has little time for screwing around, and will change your emotional profile faster than your mother-in-law can. 

All feelings evolved as a drive state, in primates, in humans, in birds. According to neuroscientist Candace Pert, in Molecules of Emotion, even invertebrates and insects have opiate receptors, one of the molecular building blocks of emotional functioning1

We are not alone in our ability to emote. Where humans differ is in our ability to consider what these emotions mean and alter physical course in response to logical reasoning. 

Instead of:

Physical Drive (Emotions/Anxiety Symptoms) = Action

Humans have:

Physical Drive (Emotions/Anxiety Symptoms) = Thoughts and Reasoning About Feelings/Situation = Action

Animals accept the signs of physical discomfort as the brain's way of saying, "I need you to act, and I need you to do it now," a primitive alert system. Ever see a rabbit second guess its drive to leap the fuck away from a dog? If you did, you probably witnessed a massacre. 


Survival of the fittest, baby. Sometimes, fitness means acting without thinking. But, sometimes, we run into trouble when we think without acting.  

What Causes Intrustive Thoughts?

For modern humans, survival of the fittest usually means something different than running from predators. More often, we use our unique ability to exercise willpower to avoid making decisions that would negatively influence our lives, particularly in societies where imminent physical danger is scarce. We question the physical symptoms of anxiety, and our responses to them, because running from the boardroom--or leaping from an elevator--just isn't cool.

We get to be civilized. Score.

But that extra step means that we also that we have susceptibility to fear from an additional source: the thoughts themselves. 

In the absence of action, we have the time to consider our situation and say things like, "I feel anxious".  And sitting around thinking, instead of running, leads us to contemplate all kids of things that might be scary. 

Scary thoughts--or "panic thoughts"--are often the brain's way of explaining how we feel physically. But, scary thoughts can also trigger the physical symptoms into action, in one big feedback loop.  

So in addition to:

Physical Drive State (Anxiety) = Thoughts About Feeling/Situation = Action

Humans also have:

Thought = Physical Drive State (Anxiety) =  More Thoughts About the Feelings = Action (or Inaction) = More Thoughts...and so on.

This can get confusing in terms of trying to figure out what is really bothering you. If someone is experiencing physical symptoms of anxiety due to lack of sleep or too much caffeine, the subconscious will be on high alert, tracking the environment for the threat that caused the racing heart. In the absence of a good explanation, your brain will create one for self protective purposes. 

Our ancestors may only have had one chance to learn, and our brain still responds accordingly.

A scary thought pattern triggered by the physical might look like this:

  1. Physical anxiety symptoms
  2. Brain tracks environment seeking reasons for the symptoms
  3. Brain finds some reason for the symptoms (regardless of whether it is correct)
  4. Thinking about the reason can now trigger the anxiety

So, first time:

  1. Racing heart, sweating and an upset stomach while sitting in the car, say after a stressful meeting with your child's school where you ingested a little too much Starbucks
  2. Feel confined in the car, feel need to escape
  3. Begin to think about reasons cars are unsafe, or simply panic at being trapped until you get out
  4. The car may now trigger fear

The next cycle might go:

  1. You have to get in the car (or think about getting into a car)
  2. You feel sweaty and your heart starts to race
  3. Brain attributes the anxiety to the initial thought, which strengthens the connection
  4. More stress hormones released
  5. Physical symptoms increase and the cycle repeats

For many people, this intuitive drive to seek additional explanation causes the beginning of an anxiety cycle where scary thoughts become the reason for the panic itself. 

Humans suck at accepting explanations that don't make sense to us. It is not that we are trying to deceive ourselves, but we are hardwired to find a better reason. "Too much coffee" is not an explanation that is readily accepted, despite its modern logic. This is probably because early humans who accepted easy explanations like, "Hey, I probably just ate too much meat, that bush isn't really watching me," never lived to procreate. 

What Are You Afraid Of? Scary Thoughts and Worrying

All scary thoughts aren't as clear cut as the one above. The thoughts have to do with interpretation, often at a subconscious level. While the thoughts themselves vary, there are several which are common among those with high anxiety. 

Common Intrusive Thoughts:

  • Going crazy
  • Having a heart attack
  • Suffocating
  • Passing out
  • Throwing up
  • Suicide (often things like thinking about driving off a bridge you happen to be on)
  • That something is wrong with a child
  • Harming a child (common in postpartum depression, but may occur other times as well)
  • Having another panic attack
  • Embarrassing self

The fear of physical problems--like a heart attack, suffocation or throwing up--are the most common due to the strange sensations that come with panic. The fact that scary thoughts are so deeply troubling to the person experiencing them is one more reason that they end up being able to trigger fight or flight responses. 

Scary thoughts may also be triggered in situations where escape seems impossible, particularly for those who have had panic attacks in the past. As much as those with panic attacks dislike the feelings associated with them, it is often even worse to have those symptoms when on a bridge or in an elevator, places where running away isn't an option.

It is also common for scary thoughts to come from what is most prominent in your mind at the time. If you were already thinking about your child when the physical symptoms began, it is only a short hop for the brain to assume that the danger has something to do with them. In other cases, something as benign as grocery shopping can become a trigger after a bout of high anxiety. If panic occurred in the store, it would make sense for the store itself to be perceived as dangerous, since your brain will be reluctant to accept that it was the Red Bull you had on the way there. 

Runaway Thoughts, Physical Symptoms and "OMG Am I Having a Panic Attack?"

The issue with these internal explanations becomes the fact that the brain may begin to panic from the thoughts alone in the absence of any other trigger. If that was you in the grocery store, the next time you get ready to pick up dinner the brain may send out a warning: "Wait! Stop! Don't you remember how dangerous that store was?" 

For others, the thought of having another attack becomes prominent. 

"I can't go to work! What if I have a panic attack while I'm there?!"

Once the fear of the panic triggers an actual anxiety attack, it's even easier for the cycle to continue.

Any scary thought can readily trigger panic and lead to physical symptoms, just as the physical symptoms can lead to the thoughts. But it is important to remember that the thoughts themselves are generally just that. While there may be some underlying basis for the panic, the fearful thoughts experienced are not a reliable indicator that something is amiss in relation to the thought itelf. 

The most distressing thoughts usually trigger panic at the highest rate, specifically because the thought itself is bothersome. If the thought of harming yourself or a child is deeply distressing, one is far less likely to act on it. However, I would still encourage those having thoughts to harm themselves or someone else to find a professional to talk to. Once thoughts like these become a part of the anxiety cycle, it can be difficult to short circuit, though it rarely leads to actual harm. (Coping with anxiety will be discussed in future posts).     

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Topic-Relevant Resources

When Panic Attacks
Detailed overview of cognitive behavioral techniques for changing negative thought patterns

Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers
Primatologist/biologist Robert Sapolsky on stress and your brain. Good stuff.

The Mindfulness Solution
Meditative and cognitive techniques for everyday use

Molecules of Emotion
Neuroscientist Candace Pert on how cellular building blocks influence human drive states and emotional functioning