How Does Your Anxiety Feel?
Daily insights on life in the face of uncertainty, by psychiatrist and habit change specialist Dr. Jud Brewer
Ever wonder why tightness in your jaw and shoulders are linked to anxiety? And did you know that you can use curiosity to change your relationship to anxiety and fear?
The Irish novelist and poet James Stephens wrote, “curiosity will conquer fear even more than bravery will.” I love this — but how can it be?
As I’ve mentioned in previous columns, because fear is the most basic of survival mechanisms, when we get scared, we immediately react. For example, when someone yells “look out,” we don’t have time to check the credibility of the source. We quickly duck or jump out of the way, and then look around after the fact to see if the threat was real. And when there is a lot of fear out there, fear itself can become quite contagious and spread simply via tone of voice or facial expression. So how can curiosity possibly help?
In my last column, I talked about two different types of curiosity: deprivation curiosity and interest curiosity. Think of deprivation curiosity as the destination type of curiosity. If we don’t know something, we get that restless itch to go find the answer. Once we get the answer, that itch has been scratched. The journey is over. We’ve arrived at our destination. Interest curiosity, on the other hand, is all about the journey. We don’t experience the itch to get somewhere because we’re already there — as in, the journey is the destination. We become interested in whatever is happening at any given moment.
Curiosity as a quality of awareness is really helpful for helping us unwind stress and anxiety instead of winding ourselves up more.
An easy way to tell the difference between deprivation curiosity and interest curiosity is to simply check in with how they each feel in your body. Deprivation curiosity pushes or pulls you along — urging you to action, while interest curiosity is patient and inviting. With interest curiosity, there is no rush because there is no place to get to.
Try this yourself right now. Simply feel into your hands and see which one feels warmer. Is it your right hand or your left hand? Or are they both exactly the same temperature? If you noticed a difference in temperature between the two, do you know why this is the case? I’ll explain the physiology now. Ready?
First, take a moment to notice what it feels like to not know the answer. Actually, as you might have already figured out, there isn’t some medical explanation as to why one of your hands might feel warmer than the other. But hopefully, from this little self-experiment, you saw and felt the difference between interest and deprivation curiosity.
Just to make sure you can really tell the difference, let’s return to James Stephens’ quote: “Curiosity will conquer fear even more than bravery will.” Why might this be? How can curiosity possibly be stronger than bravery? If you’re interested, that’s your deprivation curiosity urging you to learn why. Here’s a bit of science behind this.
Let’s start with fear learning. Let’s say you’re walking across the street, and someone yells “look out!” You instinctively jump out of the way to avoid the car that is speeding around the corner. If your body and mind stopped there, you’d then go about the rest of your day as though nothing happened because nothing bad happened.
But what do you really do? You look around and see that you narrowly avoided getting hit by a car, you feel your heart racing, and you start thinking about how you could have been killed. Later, you might even replay the event to a friend, describing how this reckless driver almost killed you. When you retell that story, you might notice that your heart is racing, your body is a bit contracted, and you feel a bit afraid — just by recalling the event. Later, if you walk quickly up a flight of stairs, which gets your heart pumping, that increased heart rate might trigger you to recall the event.
Yes, our bodies hold associative somatic memories, which is just a fancy term for pairing certain physiological states with memories of events and emotional states. In this case, the heart beating fast gets paired with the memory of almost getting killed.
Let’s explore an everyday example together.
When you’re stressed or anxious, do you hold this tension in your shoulders or jaw? If you are someone who holds stress in your shoulders and back, you can trigger yourself to feel stressed or anxious simply by tightening your shoulders. That’s the physiologic state triggering an emotional state because the two have been paired in the past.
So knowing all of this, what can you do?
This is where the different types of curiosity come in. If you notice that you’re feeling anxious, maybe you start to wonder why. “Why am I anxious?” you might think and then try to figure out why this is the case so you can fix it. That’s deprivation curiosity — and the destination there is often a dead end. Many of my clinic patients get stuck in these sorts of why habit loops. They can’t figure out what triggered their anxiety, and then they start worrying about how long it will last or what they can do about it, and in the meantime, they tighten up into a little ball of anxiety.
Instead of focusing on why you’re anxious, focus on what anxiety feels like right in that moment.
Don’t fall into this trap.
If you notice yourself getting stuck in a why habit loop, you can use interest curiosity to pull you out of it. Instead of focusing on the why, focus on the what. This is important so I’m going to repeat it. Instead of focusing on why you’re anxious, focus on what anxiety feels like right in that moment. Get interested in what stress or anxiety feels like in your body. And just like the hand exercise you did earlier, you can ask questions that pique your interest curiosity. Hmmm, do I feel this more on my right side or my left side? Is it more in the front or the back of my body? What are the physical sensations? Do I feel heat or coolness? Is there a vibratory quality?
This is not to say that curiosity will magically cure your anxiety overnight, but it is to suggest that curiosity as a quality of awareness is really helpful for helping us unwind stress and anxiety instead of winding ourselves up more. This practice helps us change how we relate to our emotions and body sensations rather than trying to fix or change them. Curiosity is a key skill for helping people step out of anxiety and worry habit loops. And as I’ve mentioned in earlier columns, our clinical studies show that app-based mindfulness can reduce anxiety by 57%–63% even in people with generalized anxiety disorder.
But you don’t need an app to awaken your own curiosity, you can simply start practicing now. Whenever you feel stressed, you can simply drop into your body and do that right, left, front, back exercise. Where do I feel it? What does it feel like? Start small, and practice this in short moments many times throughout the day. If you are triggered by something you read or saw that is scary, take a moment to stop, get curious about your body’s reaction, and see if that can prevent you from winding up more. Rinse and repeat.
I’ll end with wise words from Tigger, of Winnie the Pooh, “life is not about how fast you run or how high you climb, but how well you bounce.”
So see if today, you can move beyond bravery and instead build your bounce by cultivating curiosity — one moment at a time.
Onward, together. I’ll have more to share tomorrow. If you’re interested in a video recording of this material, I’ve created one here.