How Your Brain Makes You Anxious – Part 1

By: Elizabeth Thompson

There’s an intriguingly titled little book – available on Amazon – called Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers. (It’s a worthwhile read if you are interested in stress and how it can affect you.)

So why don’t they? I bet you’ve never thought about it before… but it’s an interesting point. Zebras don’t get anxious, either.

The reason has to do with your brain, your lifestyle, and all the other things that make you human.

Zebras, like you and me, are hard-wired to respond to danger in a very immediate way – what is often referred to as the “fight or flight” response. And for a zebra, it works exceedingly well… (and for humans too, in situations of physical danger)

The zebra’s heart starts beating faster and harder, pumping blood and oxygen to its muscles (and away from its brain and digestive system), its breathing becomes faster, and its muscles tense up.  Before it can even think “That’s a lion and it wants to eat me”, the zebra is already moving faster than it ever thought it could – and either escapes successfully… or not.

If you ever confront a lion about to pounce on you, the same thing will happen. Except humans are different from zebras in at least two significant ways.

The first is that it’s probably not a pouncing lion that is your current concern. More likely, it is some sort of less definite threat such as the possibility of losing your job, or whether or not your son will have an accident in the car, or that presentation you have to give at work in the morning.

The second big difference between you and the zebra is that for the zebra, taking immediate physical action will be helpful. Immensely helpful. And the zebra will feel better afterwards (if it manages to avoid being eaten) and be able to relax and unwind.

The threats bothering you are most likely situations in which running away is not the best response – and nor is fighting, which is the other type of action response your body might gear up for.

So there you are, wound up ready for action – and with nothing you can actually do in the moment to deal with the perceived danger. You are left with your brain and body buzzing with nervous energy and action chemicals like adrenalin and cortisol.

The interesting thing here is that the zebra is in much more serious danger from the lion than just about any of the situations that you and I have to deal with. You’d think it would be a seething mass of nerves after a few days of situations like this…. but no! The zebra can be found next day placidly chewing grass, a bit watchful, to be sure, but apparently no worse for the stress.

The fight/flight system is designed to deal with the lion sort of danger, both mentally and physically – and it does a brilliant job of it.

But for we humans, our ability to plan ahead means that we imagine a host of new possible dangers that a zebra never stops to think about. And though the part of your brain that does the thinking and planning is more evolved than the zebra’s brain and gives you an evolutionary advantage, the primitive response centers of your brain behave in exactly the same way as if you were confronted by a lion.

So how does this help you practically to deal with anxiety and stress better?

The zebra scenario suggests two things you can do right now:

  1. Exercise.

A big part of the zebra’s well-being comes from being able to burn off those stress chemicals and use the muscle readiness primed by stress. Scientific studies consistently show that exercise helps reduce anxiety – but the best way to check this out is to test it for yourself. For anxiety, aerobic exercise, or cardio, is the most effective. If you are not very fit, fast walking is fine. Or else try running, swimming, or even something like tennis or squash – anything that gets your body and your heart moving.

(Get your doctor’s approval if you suffer from any medical condition, and make sure you have had a thorough recent medical check-up, to rule out any medical conditions such as cardiovascular problems. And be sensible – build up gradually to more vigorous exercise than you are used to doing)

  1. Take charge of your thinking.

Plan for the future – but live in the present!

… this is a whole topic of its own, and we will cover it in more depth later. But meantime, just start to become aware of how much your stress is caused by things that only exist in your imagination.

As Mark Twain said: “I’ve had a lot of worries in my life, most of which never happened”.

Bonus Tip…

To stop your anxiety naturally you can also grab a bottle of Zen Anxiety.

It contains some of the neurotransmitters your mind uses to calm itself down. Which is exactly what you could be lacking to feel more calm.

If you have worry, racing thoughts, anxious feelings and even panic, the 8 ingredients in it will help stop worry, anxious thoughts, and panic. –

  Our Newsletter: