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why you’re basically an ‘emotional lizard’

In the average human brain, social anxiety starts when some event catches your attention and sets off the alarm systems in your brain. Our brains are evolutionarily ancient, and this instinct evolved to prevent us from being eaten by saber tooth tigers. For example, when we’re in the wilderness, a sudden movement that might signify an attacking predator sets off the alarms.

In the modern world, we rarely face predators anymore, but this age-old reaction system has been repurposed to protect us from new kinds of threats, like judgment from our peers. Even though the stakes are usually much lower, our brain still uses the same reaction system, and that’s why a seemingly disapproving stare can send us into a panic.

Your alarm system has two ways of getting your attention: the “low road” of instant panic and the “high road” of considered concern. These map to separate pathways in your brain. First, the sign of possible danger is picked up by a part of your brain called the thalamus. The thalamus then routes the sensory information in two directions: a faster, direct path to a part of your brain called the amygdala, and a slower path that goes through your cerebral cortex and back to your amygdala.

The low road directly to the amygdala happens within a fraction of a second?so fast it’s pretty much automatic. The amygdala is often called the “emotional center” of your brain, because it is essential to instincts and feelings like fear and pleasure. When your amygdala gets the sign that possible danger is nearby, it starts your fight-or-flight reaction. You’ll freeze momentarily as your senses become hyper-aware, which helps you scan for immediate threats. Your heart will race and your breathing will become rapid so that blood can reach your muscles faster. Stress hormones will flood your system, causing your muscles to tense and your blood sugar to spike, resulting in a superhuman surge of energy. Your mouth goes dry, your palms sweat, and your chest tightens; essentially, you’ll feel all the physical sensations associated with anxiety.

Only after your body has gone through this immediate, visceral response does your mind catch up. On the high road, you actually think about whether the event is a threat to you, and as you might imagine, this takes a few seconds. On this path, the sensory information goes from the thalamus to the cortex, where it’s integrated into your conscious awareness. Your cortex, especially a part of it called the prefrontal cortex, is associated with reason and logical thinking. Your cortex identifies the thing that alarmed you and decides whether or not it is really dangerous. This is when you realize whether that movement that made you jump was really a snake, or just a leaf blowing in the wind. If it was just a leaf, your body shuts down the fight-or-flight response.

In other words, your brain is wired so that your body responds to danger before it even knows whether or not you truly are in danger. And there’s a reason it evolved this way: our ancestors who paused long enough to identify a pouncing predator were eaten. Evolutionarily speaking, it’s generally better to overreact to something harmless than to underreact to something dangerous.

The amygdala, which turns on your fight-or-flight response, is one of the oldest structures in the brain. Joseph Ledoux, the neuroscientist who mapped out the low and high road, postulated that the amygdala has served this same function since the age of the dinosaurs. On the other hand, the prefrontal cortex, which turns the response off, is more recently evolved. Its modern development in humans is associated with our capacity for higher reasoning. Yet when it comes to fear and anxiety, we still respond with fear first and reason following. Which is why Ledoux mused of mankind, “in some ways, we are emotional lizards” (Ledoux, 1996, p.174).

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