Anxiety's Secondary Effect

Research shows when someone is in a bad mood, he's more likely to believe negative statements about himself. He also remembers more times when he was punished for failure and remembers fewer times he was rewarded for succeeding. And when two pictures flash at the same time (one to each eye with a divider between the eyes), he'll see the negative picture but not the positive picture more often when he's feeling bad than when he's feeling good.

In other words, feelings effect your perception in a way that reinforces the already-existing feelings.

Events in your life cause your body to produce stress hormones. Okay, it's not just the events — it's also how you interpret those events. But to simplify for the moment, let's say events directly cause the release of stress hormones into your bloodstream.

Stress hormones have many effects in your body. Adrenaline, for example, makes your heart beat faster. If it's just a little adrenaline — if you're just a little upset — your heart beats only a little faster. If you get very upset, you get a large dose of adrenaline and your heart beats a lot faster.

Adrenaline also makes you breathe faster. It diverts blood away from your digestive system and into your muscles (giving you the sensation that you've got butterflies in your stomach). It causes sweating. If it is just a little adrenaline, you may not even notice the increase in sweating, but a galvanic skin response machine could easily detect it, because the electrical conductivity of your skin improves as it gets wetter (water is an excellent conductor of electricity).

So adrenaline has a finite number of effects. Certain systems and organs in your body have receptors for adrenaline and respond to it.

One of the organs effected is your brain and that's how we get the secondary effect. A stressful circumstance — or even a worrisome thought — begins a chain of reactions. Adrenaline pumps into your blood. Your brain is altered so it is more tuned into danger and threat. Your thoughts become more upset-oriented. When you're experiencing anxiety or worry, you tend to see the world in terms of threat and danger. You're more likely to notice potential dangers; you're more likely to see what might go wrong; and you're more likely to interpret what you see as dangerous or worrisome, even if it isn't. You begin to interpret your world in a more upsetting way, taking even neutral comments as threatening; seeing danger in a nonsmiling but unthreatening facial expression.

Because of these interpretations, your body produces even more adrenaline, increasing or prolonging the feeling of anxiety.

These are secondary effects. Adrenaline causes your brain to be on red alert and this changes the way you perceive the world. If you aren't aware of this or if you don't know what to do about it, stressful events will be more stressful than they need to be. Or you'll feel upset longer than you need to. In other words, you'll suffer needlessly.

Don't get me wrong: If you are alive, you will suffer. You will feel upset now and then. You can't avoid it and stay alive. But you can lessen it by limiting the secondary effect.

All you need to do is remember the secondary effect happens. When you remember that adrenaline alters the way your perceive and interpret your experience of the world, you will naturally become more skeptical about the conclusions you draw when you feel upset. That all by itself will lessen the secondary effect. Many of the other methods on this web site will help you as well. The method here is simple: When you feel upset or anxious, remind yourself that stress hormones effect your judgment and perception.

Adam Khan is the author of Slotralogy, Direct Your Mind, and co-author with Klassy Evans of What Difference Does It Make?: How the Sexes Differ and What You Can Do About It. Follow his podcast, The Adam Bomb.

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