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False Alarms: 7 Reasons Why They Occur

written by Loretta Graziano Breuning, PhD September 9, 2020
False Alarms: 7 Reasons Why They Occur

Anxiety is natural. Calm is learned. Fear helped our ancestors survive in a dangerous world, so we’ve inherited a brain good at fear. It releases threat chemicals even when you’re actually safe. Here are seven reasons why our threat chemicals have false alarms. When you understand your brain, you can shift it in a happier direction.

(Watch video here.)

#1. Anxiety is one of our earliest experiences.

Cortisol is a chemical released when you see a survival threat. You were born with survival-threat feelings because you were hungry and cold and had no way to meet your needs. Cortisol made you cry and that brought the help you needed to survive. In time, you learned to meet your own survival needs but when you think you can’t do that, your cortisol surges.

#2. Neurons connect when cortisol flows.

When you feel threatened, cortisol helps to pave a pathway that turns on bad feelings faster the next time you see something similar. This protects you from touching a hot stove twice, but it can also make you feel bad about things that are good for you, like studying or social overtures.

#3. Cortisol grabs your attention.

Cortisol works by making you feel so bad that you can’t think of anything but making it stop. Cortisol motivates a gazelle to run from predators when it would rather keep eating. Cortisol is designed to help you run from harm, which is why it gives you a full-body sense of alarm.

#4. Cortisol tells your brain to scan for threats.

When a gazelle smells a lion, how does it know which way to run? Cortisol urges the brain to find details about potential threats. Your big brain is good at finding threat signals when it looks.

#5. Our brain learns from rewards.

Anxiety brings rewards sometimes, like social support or recognition. Your happy chemicals flow and encourage you to repeat behaviors that got rewarded. You may repeat anxious thoughts because of that positive expectation.

#6. Disappointment can trigger cortisol.

You don’t consciously see disappointment as a survival threat, but in nature, failure means starvation. Cortisol tells a lion to stop wasting energy on the gazelle that got away. Your cortisol may alarm you when your efforts are disappointed even though you’re not going to starve.

#7. Status frustrations may trigger cortisol, too.

We often don’t admit that we care about status, but animals compete for status as if their lives depend on it because it helps perpetuate their genes. We have inherited a brain that may release cortisol when we see a potential threat to our social status.

You can build new pathways in your brain to feel safe in the world as it is. A fun and fast way to do this is in my book, Tame Your Anxiety: Rewiring Your Brain for Happiness.

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