The Physiological Manifestations of Fear and Anxiety

Alfonso Zapata

Delma and I have been taking a lot of morning strolls with Joshua lately. We usually walk along a shaded trail that’s close to our place. For an hour or so. Sometimes Josh takes a short nap. Other times he talks fervently to himself, a series of muh muh muh’s mixed in with the occasional dahhhh.

These walks are quickly becoming the highlight of my day. They give Delma and I some time to talk, a chance to really connect without distraction. Also, if we pick up the pace, we can cover two or three miles for a quick workout. Also also, it’s an hour spent outdoors enjoying the wonders of nature with Josh. The glistening dew on the grass. The sun on our skin. The wind blowing through the leaves. Once, we saw a possum and thought it was playing dead (turns out, it wasn’t playing).

On one of our morning strolls, Delma and I were talking about dinner plans when she tilted her head and looked at me.

“You keep doing that.” she said.

“Doing what?” I asked.

“Scratching your belly.”

“My what?”

“Your stomach. You keep scratching it.”

“I do?”

“Yes,” Delma responded.

“Huh…” I murmured. “Have I always done this?”

Delma shrugged.

“I just noticed it today.”

“Oh.” I said.

“Dah.” said Josh.

We walked along for another few minutes, switching the conversation to our weekend plans. We could go to the Kansas City Zoo or the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art or even just hit up our local Barnes and Noble to let Josh crawl up and down the small stage they have in the kid’s area (he’d seriously do that for hours if we let him). Delma stopped.

“You’re doing it again,” she said.

I looked down. My right hand was aimlessly scratching right below my belly button.

“I seriously don’t even realize I’m doing it.”

Delma shrugged.

“Maybe it’s a new tic,” I murmured.

“Maybe.”

(I have a large collection of tics. Here are a few I do when I get nervous: I absentmindedly pluck out my beard hairs one by one, I rapidly scratch the right side of my head, I grind my teeth when I sleep, I crack my knuckles constantly and, for a year or two, I suddenly and inexplicably developed IBS.)

“Are you stressed?” she asked.

“No,” I said. “I mean, I don’t think so.”

And I meant it. There was no reason to be stressed. I have a wonderful family, a job I’m good at and I’m pursuing hobbies I enjoy.

“Although,” I said, “last week, I did have this weird feeling in my chest. Like I couldn’t breathe and I got dizzy and my heart started racing for a bit.”

We kept walking along the trail, Joshua kicking his little feet in the stroller.

“Sounds like a panic attack,” she said.

“I don’t think it was a panic attack.”

“It sounds like one.”

“Well, I don’t think it was.”

“Sounds like it.”

“Why would I be stressed?” I asked, indignantly.

Delma shrugged and grabbed my hand. We continued our walk in silence. Chipmunks scampered through the grass. Cardinals fluttered overhead. Joshua sneezed.

A few weeks earlier, we had taken him to see an allergist. We were worried he might be allergic to peanuts because we had given him a tiny amount of peanut butter and a rash broke out around his lips. I told Delma it probably wasn’t a big deal. Turns out, it was. He’s allergic to peanuts and eggs.

Allergies are weird. The human body produces a certain amount of histamines, but when the body ingests something it’s allergic to, it produces more histamines which flood the bloodstream and causes all sorts of weird reactions like a runny nose or sneezing or death. I think that’s how it works. I don’t know, I’m not an M.D.

Anyway, it can essentially be boiled down to your body overreacting and making much ado about nothing. I’m allergic to pollen. To some, pollen isn’t harmful, but when it enters my system, my body overreacts and tries to compensate by getting me to sneeze and have a runny nose and itchy, watery eyes, etc. A similar (or worse) reaction would happen to Joshua if he were to, say, ingest a Reese’s or a quiche or a Reese’s peanut butter egg (that one’s especially scary because it has both).

Maybe it’s a similar thing with stress. Maybe when there’s nothing wrong, the mind has to fabricate some worry or anxiety and physically manifest it in one way or another, as a way to safeguard against false hope and keep you on your toes. Overreacting is the body’s way to make sure you don’t get too comfortable, too complacent.

Or maybe the body knows something the mind doesn’t. Maybe I should be stressing and I just don’t know it, but my body does and is trying to tell me. The somatic system knows when a stove is hot and yanks your hand away before the brain even realizes you’re touching a stove. Subconsciously, the body is constantly processing a large influx of information and rapidly making decisions while the brain is busy wondering if an octopus has eight arms or eight legs.

Sometimes the possum is playing dead. Other times it’s actually dead.

Either way, it’s often difficult to address the underlying reason of stress itself. The only thing one can do is cope, whether it be through meditation or rest or hour-long morning walks with your wife and son.

On the last leg of our stroll, we pass a house with a beautiful garden filled with flowers and tomato plants and wind chimes. When we walk by, the air is fruity and fragrant. Sometimes the owner of the house is sitting on the porch reading the paper, his pug barking wildly at us. This time he wasn’t.

Whatever the reason for stress, I can’t change it. I can only shift my focus elsewhere.

“Smells nice,” I said.

“Dah,” agreed Josh.

Alfonso Zapata

Written by

I once ate two and a half Chipotle burritos. In one sitting. www.alfzap.com

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