How-to Shut off the brain's instinctive response to fear.
Fear is a constant and heavily influential factor in many of our lives. It’s an instinctual and crucial aspect of historic human survival. But, what about the modern human? Have our fear system’s become too efficient for our own good?
How many of us live in a constant state of fear, even when there’s nothing to be afraid of? We used to believe that the brain’s natural fear response was associated with a single brain charge, that fear was processed emotionally by the lateral amygdala. It’s true. But, now we are aware that fear is initially triggered by the auditory or visual cortex, and then goes further processed through a set of neural pathways to inform the amygdala of this potential threat. From there, it’s all sensory and hormonal overload. Increasing heartbeat, chest pain, tense muscles, imbalanced energy, and a really intense case of mental fight or flight.
Without knowing this valuable information, we can’t fully understand the brain’s primitive fear response. We wouldn’t be aware that the brain is (actually) constantly scanning our environments for signs of danger, and we couldn’t possibly know that it’s always just one trigger away from instantly setting off the fight (or flight) response of our life.
This natural stress response isn’t bad, in itself. Actually, it’s a great sign of evolution. But! The only problem that lies in this, is when our brain remains in a constant state of survival, becoming triggered and overwhelmed by even the smallest detected threat. We are no longer able to live a normal or healthy life. Every situation becomes suspicious, and everyone is a potential predator.
Not to mention, these “threats” are unique to everyone. They could be related to past traumatic memories that you fear may reoccur. They can be triggered by an instinctual reaction to challenging, unfamiliar, or uncomfortable circumstances. And craziest of all, this internal fear processor can even be set off by the slightest bit of doubt or uncertainty about a situation.
So, how do we change our relationship to fear, so that we can adapt and evolve through any circumstance, despite our hard-driven programming to avoid danger at any cost? In an ever-changing and uncertain world, we can’t become distressed every time we feel uncomfortable. We have to adapt and explore the stressors, in order to overcome them and reevaluate the kind of threats we’re perceiving.
So, how can we disrupt that natural fear response long enough to understand the triggers and reactions we experience? Is it possible to reprogram ourselves before our senses (and emotions) become overwhelmed by the smallest detected threat?
Because remember, these feelings of fear and anxiety are simply our amygdala attempting to keep us safe. Are we really in danger? Or are we unconsciously processing uncomfortable situations as legitimate threats?
The first step towards shutting off our brain’s immediate fear response, is obviously to acknowledge it’s existence. Are you aware when you become fearful or anxious? Or does your brain and internal logic immediately shut off in the face of angst?
Pretty sure all rational sanity goes out the window when our heart is beating faster than we can count and pounds through the limits of our chest.
Stop, and breathe.
So just Pause, for a second. Breathe. Inhale and exhale deeply. Recognize the fact that something just happened internally. Accept the fact that you were just triggered by something, and acknowledge your body and brain’s natural response to it. I understand that what you’re feeling right now is uncomfortable and terrorizing, it makes you feel like you have to do something about it, like right now. But even for one second, just become aware of the fact that you’re feeling something altogether and take a long, deep breath.
By stopping for a second, to realize that you’re becoming anxious, you will actually disrupt the stress’ toxic “shut-down” effect on your brain and body. Becoming aware of your brain’s internal process of fear will pause the series of chemical reactions that inhibit your mind’s ability to think or be rational. And by breathing, you’ll create a space between your self, the moment, and your body – allowing you to relax, so you can lean into whatever the experience might be, without avoiding the stressful sensations that occur with it.
From there, it’s essential to become aware of what’s happening inside your mind and body. Don’t fall deeper into the stream of unconsciousness, because this is where you can lose yourself. Know, that all that just happened was a series of auditory or visual triggers, that your brain processed as something to avoid, and due to this neural connection, you are very quickly releasing detrimental hormones to ensure your body’s ability to fight for your life or run for it. That is all. You’re not in any danger (unless you really are, but we’ll discuss how you can determine that later). And, you are most certainly not about to die or anything (again, we’ll get to make that distinction very soon.) So, for one second, just focus on the science and reality behind what it is you’re feeling.
No reason to be afraid of your fear. The reason I am bringing light to this topic is because it’s all too easy to fall into the pattern of overthinking and over-analyzing your brain's perception to this internal “threat.” So, rather than losing yourself to the illusion of options you may have to fight or flee, understand it’s a psychological process, and that you have absolute control over what is about to happen.
Explore the Triggers
So, what just happened? Hahaha. Three words and extremely useful information just appears at your fingertips.
“What just happened?”
Can you recall what you may have just seen or heard, right before you started feeling anxious? If you can list the words, people, or things you just witnessed, you can find out what it is that just set you off – and you are ultimately one step closer to shutting off your brains instinctive fearful reaction.
Determining your triggers is the most crucial aspect of overcoming fear. It’s probably the most difficult, but it is hands-down the most important. This requires you to be one with your mind and body, despite how scary it is, and define what it is that really triggered you. Expose yourself to the possibilities, and lean into the fear that you’re experiencing. Rather than seeing it as an obstacle, recognize that this is the perfect opportunity to challenge your fear and heal it altogether.
So, what just happened? Did someone say something that made you upset? Did something happen that threatened your sense of safety? Or, did you perceive someone to do something that didn’t feel right, or that may have been done to you before? Whatever it is, you have to find out what just triggered your fears, because this is the initial scratch on the surface of digging out the real cause of your fears.
Find the Root
Once you’ve determined what activated that internal fear response, it’s time to go a little deeper. This is the step that demands the most courage. So, tell me, what is it that you’re actually afraid of?
Are you feeling uncertain about an outcome? Are you afraid of something threatening your health, love, life, or safety? Did you genuinely think your life was at risk? Or, did something happen that felt all too familiar, that may have happened before and you’re afraid of it happening again.
This is about determining what could have really been the underlying cause behind your reaction. Like I stated at the beginning of this post, the amygdala reacts to all sorts of potential threats; much including the fear of past traumatic memories reoccurring, undergoing an uncomfortable situation, overcoming a challenging situation, or it this a genuine and dangerous situation, where your life is actually at risk.
Which one is it?
Obviously, this stage may require more love, focus, care, and attention, but if you can find out the root cause, the real cause for your fears – than you are one step closer to eradicating it altogether.
And here’s a huge disclaimer… The only types of threats that exist are in correlation to Your immediate survival/existence – which is anything that will directly influence your quality of life or impact of death, such as Natural Disasters, Public Outbreaks, War or Terror Attacks, Environmental Quality, Accidents, Sudden Death, etc.
Your physical health and well-being – which is mainly associated to fears of illness, immobility, access to food or shelter, substance abuse, injury or violence, etc.
Your Mental and Emotional security, which will generally include fears of trauma, heartbreak, neglect, abuse, betrayal, self-doubt, loss, etc.
And another complex, perceived threat to your sense of safety, is your Metaphysical/Spiritual welfare. This is made up of the fears of the unknown, demonic entities, aliens, and any other nonmaterial or ethereal threats.
So, now that you’ve been informed of the basic types of potential, fearful threats, you can distinguish the root and underlying cause of your reaction. Does your sense of physical or mental safety feel at risk? Are you worried about something affecting your life? Are you fearful of something beyond yourself? Or are you afraid of something jeopardizing your emotional wellbeing?
Distinguish Threat vs. Discomfort
One of the last steps, towards taming our emotional reaction is the final distinction between real or perceived threat.
This is generally a hard one to determine, but nevertheless, it can/must be done. Most of the time, the reactions we’re experiencing are just a symptom of a deeper problem. Sometimes not, though. It’s up to you to determine which one is correct.
Does the fear you’re expressing make sense in the present context of your reality? Is it an ongoing issue that must be resolved? Is your life or physical safety legitimately at risk? Or, is it false evidence that your thoughts and mind have put together, which appear to be real but are not? Is the fear triggered from something outside of you or something inside your head?
Because most of us notice a scary thought in our mind, and because it’s associated with a feeling, we believe it’s real. So, thoughts and feelings aside, is your life or sincere-wellbeing at risk? The moment you relax in the face of that knee-jerk fight or flight response, and determine whether your fear is imagination-based or serious danger, you don’t have to avoid that imaginary consequence and ultimately you can stop the chemical reaction of your fear.
Choose: Let go, or Act now.
So, this is a big one and the last one of this post.
Is fear really a choice?
Well, in the moments right after you realize whether your thought is the source of your reaction or if you’re actually in danger, you can choose to indulge in them or not. Once you can intellectually recognize that the source of all your fears is, in fact, your thoughts, you can choose to move beyond your ever-changing mental chatter and determine whether you have to let go of your thoughts, or act now and save yourself, legitimately.
Either way, you have a choice. You don’t have to make a big deal out of being afraid. As we mentioned, fear is your mind and body’s natural response to a perceived threat. Now, whether that threat is real, or indeed just a perception, is up to you. You can feel the fear of risk and uncertainty, and choose to relax in the face of you reactions; and when you go beyond your series of chemical and neural connections, you will be left with your set of choices.
Fight, flight, freeze, or face.
It’s up to you to choose wisely.