The irony of anxiety and excitement - by Dr Deb Roberts
You may find it ironic or even amusing to know that the feelings of fear, anxiety and excitement come from a similar part of our brain.
Consider for example the feelings of excitement we experience when we anticipate an upcoming trip, or seeing friends we haven’t seen in a long time. Some of you may recall feeling butterflies in the stomach, weak legs or some other sensation in the body.
On the other hand, consider a time when you experienced a feeling of fear or anxiety. Perhaps it was sitting an exam, starting a new job, or experiencing something that seemed precarious. This may have produced another sensation in your body, faster breathing, heat or perhaps a flushed face.
Alex Korb, Ph.D., a neuroscientist working at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA), USA says that the limbic system controls both fear and excitement.
“Essentially the limbic system comprises the regions of the brain that are all connected to the hypothalamus, which controls the body’s stress response. So when you see the masked man, the hypothalamus instructs the body to increase your breathing and heart rate, dilate your pupils, and make your palms sweaty. Surprisingly though, when you feel excitement, the hypothalamus triggers the same physiological reaction.”
Korb goes on to say that “there is very little physiological difference between fear and excitement. So if you’re scared, but nothing bad actually happens to you (e.g. you find a strange masked man in your house with a knife, but it turns out he’s making you a peanut butter and jelly sandwich), then it’s very easy to shift that fear into excitement, or even mistakenly think that you had been excited all along.”
Yet while the two differing emotions come from a similar part of the brain, one is certainly more pleasant than the other. Moreover, if we constantly have a feeling of fear/anxiety, it can become very unsettling, destructive and even an emotion reflex that becomes a crippling habit.
If that's the case, it is important to attune or develop skills, techniques and mechanisms which help alleviate the constant flow of fear and anxiety. “Understanding anxiety as a complex response is crucial. For some individuals this may include addressing past trauma or current circumstances and relationships that may be serving to maintain higher than optimum levels of anxiety.”
When I experience the feeling of fear/anxiety, I am most affected in my chest. I’ve worked on the exploration of body mapping feelings over the last 20 years and it has helped me gauge where I feel feelings in my body and how to then learn from them, and manage them.
Where do you feel fear? You might notice that you feel it elsewhere. Perhaps in your stomach, jaw, between your shoulders or other places in the body.
To manage these feelings try to notice and observe them while being conscious of the flow of your breath and try not to judge anything you might feel. Remember as humans we are constantly evolving to better understand ourselves and everything we allow ourselves to feel and learn from is a positive step in our learning.
It’s the noticing, without judgement, that can give us clues to how our body understands external and internal tension. Then we can work on how we choose to respond to the stimulation rather than continually reacting to it.
The feeling I get in my chest for example, can be described as constriction and a sense of heaviness in the chest area combined with feeling an inner mini tornado!
Fun, huh? Not really!
What about you? What do you notice about your experiences and body sensations?
If you are experiencing stress in the body, there are breathing practices, physical movements, meditation and distractions that can alleviate the symptoms. Exercise in general is continuing to be cited in mental health and well-being research as an effective remedy.
Natural remedies and pharmaceutical interventions also have their place and a professional that has expertise in managing stress, such as general practitioners, alternative therapists, yoga teachers/yoga therapists, counselors/psychologists or psychiatrists may also be of great assistance.
Sometimes it’s just a friend or family member that actively listens which can make a real difference. Sometimes it’s being with your pet, in solitude or in nature.
Then there are also times when sitting with the discomfort and letting it work its way through us is the best release.
An interesting point is that predictable fear, in other words, when we know what is coming, stimulates another part of our brain.
Korb references Klucken  and says that “studies have shown that if you learn to anticipate fearful situations then you actually activate the nucleus accumbens, which is the reward centre of the limbic system. Thus knowing you’re about to be scared is actually somewhat enjoyable. But if the fear is unpredictable then it doesn’t activate the nucleus accumbens. So fear activates the hypothalamus in the same way as excitement, and when it’s predictable it activates the brain’s reward center as well. And that really gets at the heart of the matter. We don’t like fear per se, we like predictable fear. It gets the limbic system fired up, making us feel more alive, but we don’t have to worry about actually dying.”
I find it promising that awareness of the way we are wired can lighten the load on us (so to speak) and remind us that we are complex yet profound creations of nature. We have a continual opportunity to connect inwardly and outwardly and create a life that is satisfying.
I encourage you reflect on the way you experience and express fear and excitement in your life and how this information may help you manage fear and enjoy your excitement even more fully.
Until next time,
 Klucken, T. et al 2009. "Contingency Learning in Human Fear Conditioning Involves the Ventral Striatum." Human Brain Mapping 30:3636–3644
Note: Alex Korb, Ph.D., a neuroscientist at UCLA, is the author of The Upward Spiral: Using Neuroscience to Reverse the Course of Depression, One Small Change at a Time.
Dr Deb Roberts is a passionate advocate for public health and personal well-being. She, provides professional development services in the area of self-care and well-being for schools, corporates and individuals. Her vision and mission is to normalise discussions about mental health to support optimum well-being.