Do not Mistake Arousal as Anxiety

With anxiety, there’s a strong relationship between the mind and the body. We often infer our emotions by looking at the reaction of the body. According to psychological researchers Stanley Schachter and Jerome Singer, all emotions are a combination of physiological arousal and cognitive appraisal. When arousal occurs, the immediate environment is examined for emotional cues which might label the arousal. The brain is literally asking “Why is this? What is causing this arousal?” Until the brain can evaluate the environment, it can’t determine the best possible reason for your arousal. Your emotions, then, are part sensation—direct evidence from the body regarding your arousal—and part inference, based on what the brain notices is happening around you.

Because your emotions are in part the result of inference, your brain is sometimes mistaken, or at least misguided, a phenomenon called “misattribution.” In a now famous experiment, the Capilano Suspension Bridge study, Dutton and Aron (1974) had male subjects walk across either a narrow and dangerous looking suspension bridge or a safe suspension bridge. On the other side, they were greeted by an attractive female confederate who handed them a questionnaire, on which was printed a picture to describe, along with her phone number if they had questions. The dangerous bridge swayed over a canyon over 200 feet in the air, realistic enough to produce a sensation of danger.

Which group of males phoned the female confederate more? Which group’s descriptions contained the most sexual content? Males who walked across the dangerous suspension bridge called the female confederate at a higher rate, and composed descriptions with more sexual content. Why? One explanation is that they confused, or misattributed, their physiological arousal with physical attraction to the female confederate.

As we can see from this one simple experiment, the mind looks at the body to understand whether it’s anxious, and how anxious it might be. If the mind finds the body lounging lazily at pool side with a margarita in hand, it says “Oh, I guess I’m relaxed, not anxious.” But if the mind finds the body tense, sweating, choking, shaking, with the heart racing, the mind concludes “Wow, look at everything that’s going on…I guess I must be really anxious!”

The Schachter and Singer experiment explains how benzodiazepines and beta blockers work. These drugs completely calm the body down, eliminating the arousal symptoms of anxiety. Without the arousal symptoms, your mind looks at the body and just kind of shrugs. No more anxiety. It also explains why drinking coffee can worsen anxiety: Symptoms of arousal and alertness fool the mind into believing that anxiety should be felt intensely.

Anxiety is constantly detecting threats and prompting you to take action. The Aron and Dutton (1974) experiment suggests that to calm the mind, you should first calm the body. The goal is to reduce your arousal. Without intense arousal, there are no intense emotions. Second, go to a relaxing environment. That way, it’s impossible for the mind to interpret anything around you as threatening, because everything is relaxing. Lay down, put on some soft music, enjoy the company of a supportive partner.

And above all, don’t believe everything the body tells you.