Mistakes Your Brain May Be Making: How Anxiety Can Cause Love

Friday, March 14, 2014 by Meg   •   Filed under Sexuality/Relationships

According to Sheena Iyengar, Columbia University's leading expert on decision making,  the human brain is fraught with ways for things to get a little mixed-up. Like love and fear. Which is awesome because it's another reason for S&M and sexual role playing to be written off as a normal biological experience.

Bring on the handcuffs.

According to Iyengar's book The Art of Choosing, the brain mechanisms that activate fear responses and love responses are closely linked. While terror and love may appear to be completely different, the differences may be in our interpretation of the arousal (insert penis joke here). 

As Iyengar explains, the nervous system registers responses, but may not always be consciously aware of what caused them. We rely on our senses and our brain to fill in the blanks and interpret what the body is doing. In other words, we don't consciously register the emotion until after the body is already doing its thing. And if that thing happens to be rapid heart beat, dry mouth, increased sweating and stomach upset, it isn't until after you see a gorgeous dude that you declare love at first sight. 

But what if you see an attractive person along with an alligator? 

In a study conducted by Dutton and Aron, and cited by Iyager 2, an attractive person on a bridge over a precipice might leave even more room for error. In this study, men faced with an attractive woman on a treacherous suspension bridge were more likely to call her the next day than those who encountered her in a safer situation. That rapid heart rate led to stronger emotions across the board. 


More recent studies have verified this link, though it is now referred to as the "Misattribution of Arousal". This phenomenon is useful to understand, particularly in those with heightened anxiety responses, since longer periods of arousal may lead to misattributions on other fronts more readily. Being super anxious and rushing into a grocery store for antacids can trick you into falling for the helpful checkout clerk, even if you may not have given him a second thought otherwise. Likewise, that heightened anxiety might lead you to fantasize about your dentist while getting a root canal. (I mean, his hands are just so...skilled...)

This is good to know if the attraction itself was of concern. Anxious individuals have brains that are always on the lookout for things to be concerned about because of physical symptoms. A sudden attraction to someone other than a chosen partner may lead to scary thoughts and panic. Understanding that anxiety can be misinterpreted as excitement--or even love--may be important for people struggling with fear-induced affection.  

As for the handcuffs, which seems to be an exceedingly common concern in therapy circles, don't fret too much. Understand your limits. Also understand that anything from handcuffs to a potato can be conditioned to have certain responses. Choosing to nurture the link between fear and love, or pain and pleasure, may ensure that one continues to exist. 

Based on the popularity of Fifty Shades of Grey, this may not be an issue at all for many. If the link between fear and attraction or pain and pleasure is becoming a problem for you, seek assistance of a trained clinician or sex therapist.

Related Posts: 


1. http://www.amazon.com/The-Art-Choosing-Sheena-Iyengar/dp/0446504114
2. http://psycnet.apa.org/index.cfm?fa=search.displayRecord&uid=1975-03016-001  

Topic-Relevant Resources

The Art of Choosing
Research on personal choice and its implications for mental health

Everything you ever wanted to know about the connections between your vagina and your brain. It's worth the read.

Slow Sex: The Art and Craft of the Female Orgasm (Paperback) - Common
Sex and increasing the capacity for orgasm. You know you want to read it.

Sex At Dawn
Exploration of modern relationships from the evolutionary perspective. Everything you ever wanted to know about male penis size.