Fear. Without exception we have all experienced fear to some degree. Anxiety, which is basically the malfunctioning of our brain’s fear circuitry, accounts for 75% of mental illness in the world today. So how has this wonderful evolutionary gift that was meant to ensure our better survival ended up causing us so much pain?
A good place to start is with an understanding of our brains three core needs or drives. Every animal (including humans) to different degrees has the need for safety, for satisfaction and for attachment or connection. Obviously the attachment needs of an ant are going to be vastly different to those of our own.
When our three needs are being met the brain defaults to a resting state. From this state of calm the brain is functioning optimally and can perform all those wonderful tasks such as refuelling, renewing, recovering and building physical and mental health. From this state we are best placed to meet life’s every day challenges.
Evolution gifted us our fear circuitry to give us the energy and resources required to better survive threats to our core need of safety. When the tiger was detected we needed the energy to fight or flight and at times when it malfunctioned we simply froze. Unfortunately our brain is prone to use this same circuity when there are threats to our other two core needs for satisfaction and connection. i.e. we go into the same fear response when we tell ourselves we have to have that new iPhone to be happy or when we have a fight with our friends at school. Whilst this fear response is not as intense as the tiger response, given that many of our needs have now become unrealistic, and the nature of relationships in our self obsessed cyber world means they will often be tricky, it means we are more and more often having this circuitry triggered. Our brain is then not getting the time in the calm space that it needs to function optimally.
To make matters worse the brain has a natural negative bias. When the brain has a negative experience it tends to stick to it like velcro as opposed to when the brain has a positive experience it tends to slide off like teflon. We then spiral into negative and fearful thinking patterns that become more and more entrenched over time.
So how to turn this around?
Start by working over time on adjusting your core needs for satisfaction and connection. If we develop more realistic expectations around what we need to feel satisfied with ourselves and our lives this need will be more likely to be met. As far as our need for connection goes education in areas such as communication and conflict resolution and a commitment to developing empathy in ourselves and our loved ones would go along way to improving our relationships and having this need met.
At the same time it is crucial to gift your brain more positive experiences. Rick Hanson Phd., psychologist and author of ‘Hardwiring Happiness: The New Brain Science of Contentment, Calm & Confidence’ has some brilliant steps for helping people to rewire their brain so they can take in more positive experiences. I recommend you read his book.; To summarise his steps:
1. Have a positive experience either by noticing you are having one or creating one. This can be as simple as noticing the feel of the sunlight on your skin.
2. Enrich that experience. You do this by:
- staying with the experience as long as you can
- purposefully intensifying that experience
- take the experience in from as many of your five senses as you can
- creating an experience that has an element of novelty
- connecting why this experience is of particular relevance to you.
3. Absorb the experience. Intend for the experience to sink in. You can do using a visualisation such as drinking it down or absorbing it like a sponge.
To take this process even further you can add the extra step of Linking the positive experience with held negative material. Holding the two simultaneously in your mind, using one as an antidote for the other.
Fear is a very necessary part of our brain. I am hoping with a deeper understanding of how it malfunctions and some direction on how to turn it around it can go back to being what it was meant to be. An infrequent, strong and brief response to real dangers to our safety. Fear was never meant to be our constant companion.