Real Threat or False Alarm: Understanding the Nature of Anxiety

Real Threat or False Alarm: Understanding the Nature of Anxiety

Real threat or false alarm?

  • Have you ever felt anxious “for no reason?”
  • Do you worry something bad might happen?
  • Are you anxious about getting anxious?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, you may have experienced an anxiety “false alarm.” Read on to find out more about these errors and to learn the first step in stopping them from sending you into a panic.

Anxiety: Our Natural Alarm System

When you feel symptoms of anxiety, you are experiencing your body’s alarm system. This system lets us know that something may or may not be wrong so that we can take appropriate steps to address the situation if necessary. It is a lot like a car alarm. Car alarms are designed to alert us that someone may be breaking into our car; but is that the only reason the alarm goes off? Much like the car alarm, our internal alert system does the best it can to detect real danger… but sometimes it gets it wrong. Take a moment to think about the last time you heard your car alarm. Do you know what set it off? Perhaps it was a loud noise, an earthquake or a run-away shopping cart. Chances are, when you heard the alarm, you did not turn around to see someone breaking into your car. It was simply a false alarm.

Understanding Your Alarm System

Our internal alarm system is actually the Sympathetic Nervous System, often referred to as the fight-or-flight response. In the case of true alarms, (for example, a mountain lion running towards you), the Sympathetic Nervous System facilitates communication between your body and your brain, alerting you to the danger and activating physical changes that will help you to fight for your life or run away. These physical changes, such as increased heart rate, changes in breathing, increased muscle tension, and decreased function of organs not necessary for flight or flight (like the digestive system and the reproductive system), are part of your body’s effort to protect you. Let’s look at increased heart rate and changes in breathing as an example. These alterations lead to increased blood flow and enhanced levels of oxygen in the body which fuel the muscles and organs, making you better prepared for survival.

The Downside of Fight or Flight

While the physical symptoms of anxiety are designed to protect us, they have their down sides. Many of the physical changes created by activation of the fight-or-flight system lead to negative side effects such as dizziness, lightheadedness, stomach pain, hot or cold flashes, headaches, shakiness, and chest pain that, while not dangerous, can be really uncomfortable and even scary. Furthermore, our interpretations of these symptoms (for example, “I’m having a heart attack,” “I’m going crazy,” or “This will never end”) can lead to increased distress and prolonged anxiety. This is particularly true when you are having false alarm and your body does not actually need the physical changes it is going through for survival.

Taking Charge of Your Anxiety

Just as you have learned to check your car for threats before becoming distressed that something bad is happening, understanding that your internal alarm system is alerting you that something may or may not be wrong can help you change how you approach your anxiety. The next time your internal alarm goes off, see if you can approach it like a car alarm. You may find that by taking this critical first step in mastering your anxiety, you are less likely to assume that danger is near and more likely to approach your internal alarm system with curiosity rather than panic.

To learn more about managing your anxious symptoms, check out our other anxiety-specific blog posts or contact us to find out more about what treatment may be right for you. You may also find helpful books like Mastery of Your Anxiety and Panic on our CBT Resources page.

Anna L. Lock, Psy.D, Director of Training | Behavioral Associates Los Angeles

Behavioral Associates Los Angeles is a group of cognitive-behavioral therapists specializing in the treatment of anxiety and mood disorders. To find out more, contact us by phone at 310-205-0523 or by email at

You can also request an appointment with a Behavioral Associates LA psychologist by submitting a brief patient assessment form on our Website. Our clinical staff will follow up with you within 24 hours of submission.

One thought on “Real Threat or False Alarm: Understanding the Nature of Anxiety

Comments are closed.