Anxiety Fear

How Emotions Are Made

Lisa Feldman Barrett is a neuroscientist and psychologist who has been studying the brain for over 30 years.  She is the author of several successful books including How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain, and Seven and a Half Lessons About the Brain.

A large body of Lisa’s work centres around emotions, specifically the concept that emotions are not hard code into the brain from birth, but rather built by our brains as and when we need them, in context to the situations they are needed. 

“No brain on this planet contains emotional circuits”

In other words, emotions are best guesses by the brain. A result of billions of brain cells working together to predict what action to do next, based on current feelings, previous experiences, memories, and context.

We are born with some basic pre-coded physiological feelings such as calmness, discomfort, comfort, agitation, excitement, but these are not emotions.

The emotion is generated on demand by our brains based on it’s interpretation of the meaning of the physical sensations we are experiencing.

So to illustrate with an example. When it comes to an exam, someone may experience a physical churning sensation in their stomach.

Their brain will run through all previous experience and knowledge of exams, and may predict the meaning of that churning to be anxiety. The brain then generates the emotion of anxiety from the prediction.

However, a churning in the stomach doesn’t in itself automatically mean anxiety. For example, it can also occur when someone is hungry, or excited.

The difference is the context, combined with knowledge and experience. The brain is just predicting “why” those physical sensations are there, and then generating emotions to match. However, as with any prediction, they aren’t always correct.

Somebody else doing the same exam, with the identical churning sensation, but with previous experience and knowledge of enjoying exams, may predict this event to be exciting, and won’t experience anxiety.

Another exam example would be an elevated heart rate. An elevated heart rate in itself doesn’t mean anxiety. Our hearts beat faster when we exercise, and in this context, we don’t normally generate the feeling of anxiety.

Advertising guru Rory Sutherland describes this in a humorous way by liking the mind to a company.

He jokes that “we all like to think of our rational conscious minds as the CEO of our decision making. However, our conscious minds are actually much more like the PR department. Our unconscious minds actually run the show, and our conscious minds just make up a story later to explain why we did it.”

“Ask ourselves: Could this have a purely physical cause?”

One of the tips Lisa gives when we are experiencing unpleasant feelings is to ask ourselves “could this have a purely physical cause?”.

She says this can transform emotional suffering into just mere physical discomfort as many times there can be a physical reason for those feelings such as hunger, dehydration, tiredness.

“Relabel the feeling to a postive emotion”

Another tip Lisa calls “energised determination”. This is re-labelling feelings. So with an exam, it might be relabelling feelings such as stomach churning or an elevated heart rate as “excitment”, or “the mind is increasing focus”.

Lisa does acknowledge that applying these types of techniques, won’t turn everyone into  an emotional Jedi, but do allow us to take back much more control over our emotions.

Mental Rehersal

In my hypnotherapy sessions with anxious clients, I will often help them with mental rehearsal during hypnosis.

Running through future events successfully, whilst feeling calm and relaxed, updates our brain’s prediction model with a greater range of references.

Therefore, when the actual events come up, the mind says “oh, I’ve done this before many times, and I did it successfully, and I was calm, relaxed, and confident”.

Therefore, when mind is much more likely to predict calm, relaxation and confidence are required, and generate those emotions.

Anxiety Fear mindset

Are We Caught In A Monkey Trap?

Sometimes, Kalahari bushmen need to find new sources of water to support them on their long hunts. They have learned over centuries that it’s a pretty good bet, that in the areas they need water, the local baboons will have access to water sources.

So they have developed a method to trick the monkeys into revealing where their water supply is. They do this by first trapping the baboon, then making it thirsty by giving it salt. Finally, they free the monkey, and follow it as it leads them directly to the water source.

The Trap

To set the trap, the bushmen will find a location where there are baboons around, and some giant ant mounds. These mounds can be extremely tall and wide.

When the bushmen are sure the curious baboons are watching, they will laboriously dig a hole into the mound with a stick, just big enough so that a baboon can squeeze its open hand into it. They then place some wild melon seeds into the hole, and work the seeds into the hole until they drop into a hollow.

The bushmen will then go and hide where they have a view of the ant mound. Eventually, curiosity will get the better of one of the baboons, and it will go over and place it’s open hand into the hole to see what is in there.

On discovering the melon seeds, the baboon grabs a large handful, clenching its fist tight full of seeds.

The clenched fist of seeds is now too large to pull back out of the hole, and it becomes trapped. All the baboon needs to do is release its clenched fist, letting go of the seeds, and it can easily pull it’s arm back out and and get away.

But instead it panics, screams, and clenches harder. Unable to pull its arm back out the baboon remains trapped for the bushmen to go over, capture it, and tie it up. Eventually, it releases it tight grip on the seeds, but it’s too late.

Life’s Monkey Trap

Mark Twain is famously quoted as saying “I’ve lived through some terrible things in my life, some of which actually happened”.

Sometimes when we are experiencing stressful situations, it’s worth checking if we are holding on too tightly to the stressor, exacerbating it, and thus trapping ourselves.

It’s worth reminding ourselves that it’s our own minds that are responsible for most of our suffering, and that often it’s possible to just let go, and free ourselves.

Anxiety Fear Stress

The Fear Bubble

“The Fear Bubble” is a concept & technique developed by former British Special Forces, Ant Middleton, which he explains fully in his excellent book, aptly named  “The Fear Bubble”.

This simple technique can be used to harness fear, by training ourselves to postpone fear to the moment we actually need it.

Fear is simply our mind and body switching on it’s sympathetic nervous system (fight of flight), and releasing stress hormones to prepare the body to fight or run away from danger.

If there is future event which is causing feelings of fear, then, the technique would involve visualising a “fear bubble” in that future space and time just at the moment where the stressor will occur, and ending immediately after.

From the moment the future fear bubble is imagined, there is an acceptance that no fear is needed until stepping into the actual fear bubble at the future event. 

Life and Death Combat Example

A life and death example might be pre-deployment to a war zone. A solider would visualise a space and time in the future where they would need or allow the fear to exist. E.g. actual combat. Then they would give themselves permission to not experience fear until that exact moment they step into the fear bubble.

Where possible, fear bubbles should be as short as possible. Breaking a threatening situation down into multiple fear bubbles, and visualising each one “popping” or “bursting” as they are completed can help harness the fear for longer.

So, for example, in a longer combat situation, a fear bubble might be every time a door or home is entered, or every 100m of battle field advanced, and so forth.   

Non Battle Applications

This technique isn’t limited to combat situations, it can be used for any future fear in everyday life. E.g. Exams, interviews, dates, media experiences, opening a business, starting a job, mountain climbing, learning to drive, professional competitions such as MMA or Boxing. The list is endless.

Exam Application

An exam example in the book would be:

  1. Visualise the fear bubbles starting at the exam, and a bubble for each question.
  2. Agree to feel no fear until you enter the first bubble.
  3. Enter the 1st fear bubble (question 1), when it’s done, imagine that bubble bursting and pause for a few moments
  4. Enter the next fear bubble (question 2), and continue like this until completion.

MMA / BOXING Match Application

This might involve 

  1. Visualise the fear bubbles starting the second round 1 begins, and a bubble for each round.
  2. Agree to feel no fear until you enter a the first bubble.
  3. Enter the 1st fear bubble (round 1), when it’s done, imagine that bubble bursting and rest remain outside of any fear bubble
  4. Enter the next fear bubble (round 2), and continue all the way through.

Re-Framing Fear as “Let’s go”

Another component of “the fear bubble” is redefining the feeling of fear as the body saying “let’s go”. As each fear bubble is entered saying to ourselves “let’s go” will help to positively reframe the fear, and trigger the action required.

Re-Entering The Fear Bubble

Sometimes after entering a fear bubble, there might be too much fear to handle, and action isn’t forthcoming. Simple step back outside, re-prepare, and re-enter. It might take a few attempts, but can help control and harness the fear to achieve the objective.


  1. Visualise the Fear Bubble(s) in the Future (feel no fear until then)
  2. -> Enter the Fear Bubble saying to self “Let’s Go”
  3. -> Take Action
  4. -> Step Out and “Burst” the Fear Bubble.