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Befriend Your Fear – A Brain Hack For Living With Greater Courage

Written by: Fanny Elizaga, Executive Contributor

Executive Contributors at Brainz Magazine are handpicked and invited to contribute because of their knowledge and valuable insight within their area of expertise.

 

Fear of making a mistake. Fear of conflict. Fear of the unkn own.

scared woman looking at the camera

We all harbor fears: Some entirely legitimate, others wholly irrational.


Some fear intimacy. Others, heights. One of the most commonly held fears is public speaking.


But what are the consequences of letting fear get the best of you, or worse, turning fear into your mortal enemy?


If you never get over your fear of making mistakes, you’ll avoid taking risks, and if you never take risks, you’ll never try anything new. If you’ve turned conflict into your nemesis, you’ll steer clear of conversations that may deepen and strengthen your relationships. If you live in perpetual fear of what may happen tomorrow, you’ll never move out of your comfort zone.

A fear of intimacy may lead to a life of loneliness. A fear of heights may mean you never get to see the view from Big Sur. A fear of public speaking can stunt your career growth. Unexamined fears might lead to procrastination, not to mention self-sabotage.


Isn’t there a better way to move through life? To move through fear? What would happen if you befriended your fear?

The Neuroscience of Fear


From the perspective of neuroscience, fear is nothing more than a neurobiological process: a rush of chemicals, hormones, and neurotransmitters. It’s evolutionary, so it makes little sense to demonize it.


Besides, fear happens most often below our conscious awareness or control. Neurobiologist Jack Panksepp sees fear as one of seven primary, or “subcortical,” processes critical to the functioning of the mammalian brain. ¹ Handed down from our ancestors, fear helps to keep us alive.


Neurologically speaking, fear can be either a “top down” or “bottom up” process. ² That is, fear might originate in your cerebral cortex (your thinking brain) and move down to the midbrain to affect your emotional and physical responses to triggers. Or it may initiate in the amygdala and move up to your cortex.


When your body freezes or you feel an irresistible urge to fight or flee, you’re experiencing fear from the bottom up. When you imagine all the awful things that may happen in the future and feel paralyzed because of it, you’re experiencing fear from the top down.


Panksepp suggests the fear system is common to all mammalian brains. But each brain may respond to an activated fear system in its own way. A squirrel may run up a tree. A dog might bare his teeth. A deer freezes in a car’s headlights before she flees into the forest.


While human beings rarely bare their teeth to intimidate adversaries, when we feel threatened, we adopt other forms of aggression. We yell. We scream. Pull punches. Most of us can’t climb trees, but we run instinctually away from danger. We may not freeze in an automobile’s headlights, but we clam up when we’re afraid to say something.


The triggering of our fear response releases stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline. That leads to an increased heart rate. Your breath quickens. Blood flows to your limbs.


All that prepares you to bring out your karate moves or run for the hills. Your brain’s resources move away from cortical processes, and that impairs judgment, making it difficult to think or act rationally.


Fear: Friend or Foe?


If you’re in a sketchy part of town past midnight, fear may be your best friend. When the quickest way home is through a dark alleyway, your fear says: “Don’t go that way.” Responses in the central and peripheral nervous systems keep you from doing something you may regret.

In close contact with the amygdala in your midbrain sits the hippocampus, a seahorse-shaped cluster of nuclei where traces of memory live. If you’ve watched a lot of horror movies, you may have stored more than a few memories of all the terrible things that happen down dark alleyways. Those imprints will intensify your body’s response the moment you turn onto a dimly lit alley. Your pounding heart and trembling limbs keep you safe. There’s no sense in ignoring fear when it’s telling you the smart thing to do is to stick to the streets fully lit. But what if your fear is larger than life? What if your memories distort your experience of what’s happening in the present? Memories of a toxic boss may cause you to dread speaking to your current manager. That can sabotage your chance for promotion. Memories of ridicule, real or imagined, may lead you to turn down invitations to speak in public. Reminders of rejection may keep you from ever saying: “I love you.” Many of us procrastinate having any conversation that puts us at risk of being vulnerable.


Even if your fear is keeping you a little too safe, there’s no need to bury it. Fear is not the enemy. Just because you feel fear doesn’t mean you need to act on it. When you push your fear into dark corners, it’ll only come back to haunt you. Befriend the scary feelings. Befriend fear itself.

How do you befriend fear?


1. Stay mindful of your body’s response.


Now that you know a bit about the neurobiology of fear, practice mindful detachment to the whole process. If you sense your muscles getting tense before an important event and your legs tell you to exit a harmless social situation, just notice those responses non-judgmentally.


2. Ask your fear where it’s coming from and where it’s off to.


Acknowledge that fear comes knocking for its own reasons, even if they’re irrational.


Say: “Hey, fear, how’s it going? Are you top down or bottom up today?”


Getting a grasp on the origin of your fear will help you deal with it. If it’s coming from the bottom up, use calming strategies to tame its edges. Gentle, soothing self-touch. Regulated breathing. If it’s top down, reframe your situation and think positively. Adopt more optimistic fantasies of your future, ones that don’t push you into a panic.


3. Accept that a visit from fear is natural; it passes no one.


Bears. Tigers. Actors. Presidents. Soldiers. All mammalian brains experience fear. Eliminating fear is impossible. Accept it. Invite your fear for a cup of tea instead. Work through worries mindfully. Whatever you’re afraid of now, know that your brain and its conditioned responses to your fears can change. While you may not be able to stop an ancestral neurobiological process, you can choose how you respond when your fear response gets triggered.


In the meantime, make friends with your fear. And stay out of dark alleyways!


This post was mindfully crafted by Fanny Elizaga, OTR/L, certified Trauma Centered Neuro-Coach, and mindfulness trainer.


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Fanny Elizaga, Executive Contributor Brainz Magazine

Fanny Elizaga is an occupational therapist, certified Neuro-Coach, and trauma-informed mindfulness trainer. Over the years, she has embraced her passion for learning and applying holistic modalities for mind-body healing in her personal and professional life. Fanny is also a Reiki master practitioner and certified instructor in the art of Qi-Gong. Fanny inspires, empowers, and educates her clients by teaching brain-enhancing tools for self-improvement, expanding out of their comfort zone, and thriving. Fanny is also the founder and trainer of Neuro-Wellness Academy; she is genuinely passionate about creating content and courses based on practical brain science – for wellness, resilience, personal transformation.

 

Endnotes:

  • {1} Panksepp, J., & Biven, L. (2012). The Archaeology of Mind: Neuroevolutionary Origins of Human Emotions. W.W. Norton.

  • {2} Pittman, C. M., & Karle, E. M. (2015). Rewire your Anxious Brain: How to Use the Neuroscience of Fear to End Anxiety, Panic, and Worry. New Harbinger Publications, Inc.

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