A sensory-response mechanism for survival

As human beings, we are sensory-response animals first. We are wired to focus on our survival needs, long before the conscious brain is aware of a threat. This is the way all life forms have evolved: their first priority is to survive and avoid harm. That’s why the startle response is so compelling. It is wired to respond automatically – much quicker and more efficiently than any thought process. 

The fight-and-flight response fires an immediate cascade of sensory stimuli down the sympathetic nervous system. There is an instant response, which mobilises the body to react against harm. For example, think how instantly you react to a burning flame, or a man stepping in front of your car, or a return volley-shot in tennis. Adrenalin, cortisol and dopamine create a much more urgent impulse than rationalising does.

Even at low-levels of stress we respond more quickly to our feelings than our thoughts. For example, if we’re anxious when we talk to someone, we lose our train of thought and forget things, or half-complete sentences . In most situations we are articulate, but respond nervously in an unfamiliar situation, just because we anticipate feeling judged.

Examples of unconscious triggers

A startle response can happen at night in the depths of silence while you sleep. Unconsciously, you hear a floorboard creak, or notice a passing shadow. You feel the hairs on your neck stand-up and wake, startled. Although, you know there’s no one’s there, you convince yourself there’s an intruder and go down stairs in search of them, or freeze with fear.

The explanation is this: you sense a threat, the nervous-system triggers stress hormones and your motor-neurons react. This is why your body tenses up and you flinch. That unconscious vigilant part of your brain (the amygdala) is always scanning the environment for signs of danger, even when you’re asleep. That’s why the amygdala kicks into gear so quickly when you least expect it.

Your amygdala can also learn to trigger anxiety in response to a perceived threat. Imagine you are at social event where you’re speaking to an audience. Your conscious-thinking brain knows you’re not in danger, but your primitive brain contradicts this, as you pick-up facial expressions, eye-contact and body language. It tells you you’re about to make a fool of yourself, or someone is about to out you as an impostor.

Hypervigilance and heightened sensation

Anxiety heightens your senses and narrows your choices to a binary thought process. It triggers instant decision-making – right and wrong. If you had to think things through, your response would be too slow. Your impulses seem to come out of nowhere and hijack your brain without warning. But remember, your survival brain is always primed for threat.

Your fear responses are wired into your memory from childhood. Most memories are encoded as unconscious instincts and sensations rather than a story of events. That’s why you can feel anxious, even when you’re relaxing. A sensory reminder, may trigger a memory in your unconscious brain from childhood. If you found it difficult to rest peacefully as a child, because your family was volatile, or you had no-one to talk through your anxieties it can remain distressing throughout adulthood.

Without learning how to silence your inner voice and thoughts, you may simply feel agitated and unable to sit at peace with yourself. And yet it seems to come out of nowhere, without warning and unconnected to recent events.

  1. Sense – you are biologically wired to sense the world inside-and-out first using sight, smell, sound, touch, taste (but there are other senses too e.g. balance, centre of gravity, geo-spatial awareness)
  2. Response – you must instantly respond to threat and act. There is no time for rational thought in a moment of high-pressure and urgency. Your body must respond instantaneously, with no time to think out the rational alternatives – or the bear will kill you.

Sensation first, then response

Sensations are closer to your perception of ‘felt-experience’ than your thoughts are. Sensations and emotions give you the feel of lived-experience, while thoughts are only a representation of an event. Thoughts do not carry the feel of something; they only attach an image or word to it. For example, you can smell a flower, long before you think of it. Your thoughts are just a symbolic representation of the flower. The smell is the flower, or at least, the way you experience the flower. Even when you’re in a state of deja-vous: you smell or sense something, long before the associated memory pops up into your conscious mind.

So it’s important to remember while your senses help you process experience; your thoughts help you to interpret the meaning of what happened.

Sensation sends a far stronger signal in your nervous system, than thoughts do. If sensation didn’t override your thoughts and trigger behaviour, you would never get angry, hungry, or react impulsively to pain. You would never get scared, or addicted to drugs, alcohol, cigarettes, food, sex or adrenalin-fuelled pursuits. In fact, you would not freeze either, or become risk averse – this is simply the other side of being afraid. Instead, you would always behave according to your principles and values. You would act with cold, rational calm.

Behaving rationally, isn’t always sensible in a crisis, because going through a logical thought process could easily delay your decision-making and put you in danger during a crisis.

Bodily sensations override thoughts

All of us override our values and act on impulse at some point. We do this in ways that are both constructive and destructive. Your impulse to reach out and support a friend who has made a terrible mistake, rather than judge them, is presumably a constructive, empathetic impulse that strengthens your bond. Also, the fact that you know sugar is bad for you, doesn’t stop you resisting your unhealthy impulses, whatever your vice is. If you think you’re in control of your impulses, good luck with that. 

Under stress conditions, when you’re feeling anxious you’re even more likely to respond to your instincts. Dopamine fuels instant response-decisions, long before you’re aware of your actions. For example, you’re on a train platform with a crowd two metres thick. As the train pulls in, the crowd surges forward. You can’t get on the train. Just as the doors signal they are about to close you suddenly leap out and seize your chance to slip through a gap in the doors. You took an unnecessary risk, just to get home 30 minutes earlier. It’s not logic that drove you to react, it was the alarm on the door and an urgent desire to relieve stress by escaping the crowd. Normally, you wouldn’t consider taking a risk, but you couldn’t help act on impulse.

In another example, you would never dream of letting your guard down in the office with colleagues. But one night you go out to socialise after work. You drink a couple of glasses and begin to feel more relaxed and dis-inhibited. As the evening draws on, you enjoy the feeling of warmth and camaraderie in company. You laugh so much, you do not stick to your plan to go home early. The thought occurs to text your partner, but you push it to the back of your head. You miss the last train home and have no money for a taxi, so you sleep at the office.

The subconscious is running the show

Even in everyday situations, the subconscious mind is running the show and making decisions for you on autopilot. Often, without consulting the conscious mind. Try to recall a familiar journey you take in your car everyday: how many times have you driven that route without remembering the journey you took? It’s only after arriving, you realise you drove all the way there on autopilot, without thinking. You only realise that when something unusual happens like an accident. Most of the journey your body-brain processed thousands of fine-tuned decisions to get you there safely, but there was no need to think about them consciously.

At Counselling Whitton, anxiety is explored and observed as an embedded in the nervous system. With mindfulness you can learn to self-regulate your symptoms.