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Extinguishing Fear from the Brain

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The brain cannot distinguish between a real or perceived threat.

Fear is an emotion, triggered by a perceived threat.  But since our brain is wired to respond to danger, a cascade of physiological reactions also takes place in the body. Such changes are intended to help us fight or flee the threat.

So what actually happens?  Well, our hypothalamus initiates a fight-or-flight response by activating our sympathetic nervous system. It also alerts our pituitary gland to trigger the adrenal-cortical system.

Once the sympathetic nervous system is activated, our body becomes very tense and alert. Once the adrenal-cortical system is triggered, it releases about 30 different hormones to prepare the body to handle the threat.

As a result of these two systems in action, our heart rate, blood pressure, red blood cells, perspiration, and glucose all increase. Our veins constrict. Our muscles tense. The pupils of our eyes dilate. Nonessential systems (to the threat) such as digestion and the immune system shut down.

Now, having this kind of automatic, innate response to a threat is great  . . . if true danger is really imminent.

But unfortunately, the brain does not automatically distinguish between the fear triggered from seeing a coiled rattlesnake or hearing an intruder breaking into our home from the fear triggered by thinking it’s the principal calling (once again) to complain about our child or that we’re going to mess up the presentation in front of the management team.  Yep, it’s the same physiological chain reaction for anything we fear.

Of course, since the last two examples are more reflective of what’s likely to pop up in our daily lives than the first two, we start to think: Just how many times a day is our body in this reactive fear state? And, if so, then how might this affect our overall physical health, as well as our cognitive abilities?

Well, it turns out that repeated fear reactions often result in high levels of cortisol. High levels of cortisol affect sleep, memory, metabolism, bones, muscles, blood sugar, blood pressure, and digestion, Additionally, too much cortisol decreases the rate that lymphocytes multiply, which then leaves the body deficient in immune cells and more vulnerable to bacteria and viruses.

Yikes—the long-term effects of being fearful may actually warrant more concern that whatever triggered such responses in the first place.

But guess what? We don’t have to have a fear-trigger brain that perceives daily life as one big, continual threat.  Sure, we want to rely on this incredible response for times of true danger, but those times are going to be rare, not daily occurrences.

So here are some suggestions to put the brakes on knee-jerk fear-based reactions, as well as a long-term suggestion that makes it much easier for the brain to react to only true danger.

1.  Live in the present.

Fear is always related to something we only think is going to happen in the future. Yet, we often react in the present (become fearful) as though we’re suddenly clairvoyant and know what’s going to happen.

So, considering there are 168 hours in a week, calculate how many of those hours you spent last week preoccupied with whatever you feared.  Then calculate how much time during the week your fear actually materialized. Do you think you’ll discover that you spent far more time anticipating the worst-case scenario than the actual time spent dealing with the fear—if it even happened at all?  (And if so, you clearly survived—or you wouldn’t be reading this blog post!)

2.  Pause and breathe.

As simple as it sounds, just pausing and taking a few deep breaths are often enough to circumvent the whole physiological response to fear. That’s because in those few seconds you pause, your brain gets a chance to determine whether there’s truly a threat—and if not, it can send a message to the part of the brain called the amygdala that says, “Nope. No danger. No need to activate the fight-or-flight response.”

3.  Replace a fearful thought with a grateful one.

Honestly, it’s impossible to be grateful and fearful at the same time.

4.  Go exercise.

Instead of dwelling on a fearful thought, go for a run or walk. Turn on the music and dance.  Lift some weights.

5.  Give yourself some proprioceptive stimuli.

Proprioceptive movements, such as pushing, pulling, pressing, and squeezing (think how we instinctively grab and squeeze someone’s hand when we’re frightened) are actually calming. Similarly, the kind of proprioceptive stimuli we receive while engaging in a pillow fight or hitting a punching bag or getting a deep pressure massage—are also helpful in reducing stress.

6.  Develop lower centers of the brain. 

There’s no getting around it: If our lower centers of the brain are not fully developed, we greatly increase our chances of being in fight-or-flight mode much of our lives. Consequently, we suffer both the related physiological effects of such reactions, in addition to other problems that are related to incomplete lower brain development.

Yes, it would be great if the brain had an automatic sensor that always verified genuine threats (and therefore, only set off that physiological chain reaction in times of true danger). But still, that doesn’t mean we have to throw our hands in the air and concede to a life of fear.   We truly can opt to extinguish daily fear from our lives.

After all, is dwelling on what might happen in the future—noting that what we dread may never even materialize—worth all the toil and adverse physiological effects on our body that accompany fear? Maybe that sobering thought is enough to change how we think and respond.

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