How your mind works – Part 2

How does the fear response apply now?

In Part 1 we learnt how the lizard brain reacts to fear.

“Learning about Ook is great, but how does this apply to today?”

Glad you asked. Lets find out what happened to Ook’s friend Ukk…

While Ook had recognised the Sabre Tooth tiger threat and his lizard brain had started the fight or flight response, he also produced stress pheromones. These stress pheromones alert other members of the herd / pack / tribe that there is danger in the area that they may not even have seen or heard but someone in the group did. So Ukk suddenly senses unease and starts to feel a sense of danger and he’s in a heightened state. Suddenly Ook makes a run for a tree, Ukk just runs too and follows him as he’s aware something is wrong. They both make it up the tree, the tiger eventually gives up and they survive. Go Lizard brain.

Since Ooks time our brains have developed a bit more and had two upgrades, we got a subconscious part first then we had an additional extra with self awareness.

To keep things simple imagine the brain divided into three areas. The lizard brain section is at the base of the skull, The frontal lobe of the brain is where the self awareness and logical thought part is, and the large bit in-between is the subconscious.

From birth you store experiences in your subconscious, things you are not even aware of. Lets take our friend Jan, Jan at the age of three was watching TV with her Mum. Mum is terrified of snakes. They are watching Austin Stevens trying to photograph a King Cobra. Cameraman suddenly runs as the Cobra lunges for him. Jan’s Mum is already stressed, she’s been giving off fear pheromones too. So Jan’s body is already in a mild flight or fight state. Then Mum jumps and screams at the sudden snake attack on TV. Jan sees the snake on TV, hissing, she’s already alert thanks to the stress pheromones now Mum is spazzing out. Jan is terrified and crying. Jan’s subconscious stores the snake image and flags it as “Danger”. From now on Jan is afraid of snakes.

8 Years later and Mum has avoided watching anything with snakes on TV or seeing images in books or on the internet. She’s kept Jan safe too from them. Jan goes on a Zoo trip with school, she visits the reptile house and she’s looking at a particularly cute gecko, when she subconciously sees something in the corner of her eye. That’s right it’s a snake. Jan’s body reacts like it did when she was three “to keep her safe”. Jan has a panic attack and runs out of the reptile house, screaming and crying. Later when she has eventually calmed down she doesn’t even remember running, it all happened automatically.

As you can imagine, no matter how bizarre the trigger, this is where fear comes from, your brain trying to keep you safe

Now you are learning constantly throughout your life. Your subconscious is full of memories and learnt patterns that form your beliefs, attitudes and values, some will invoke joy others fear, some anger, others calm. The fact your brain can learn means it can also unlearn (or overwrite) these patterns. This is because our neurons are changeable, and this process is known as neuroplasticity. It just requires practice.

Petting the Lizard

If the sympathetic nervous system response is on that generates feelings of fear, it’s counterpart is the parasympathetic system response, and one that generates calm.

Combine this response with neuroplasticity and you can permanently change your responses to trigger stimuli.

So what generates calm? In the blog posts I will cover specific techniques, but below are some that I won’t touch on there:

  • Chewing – If you are eating then you couldn’t be in danger could you? A primal parasympathetic response
  • Exercise – all that adrenaline in your system, burn it off with exercise
  • Distraction – distract yourself with something you enjoy like a comedy movie
  • Puzzles – If you engage the logic part of your brain by doing Sudoku for example it will bring you out of the fear override state.

Whatever you do, do it often to practice calm. It’s like riding a bike. Feels strange at first, but the more you do it the better you get. Then you train your brain to default to calm. I’ll end Part 2 with this Native American story:

There’s a story of the two wolves in Cherokee culture in which a grandfather teaches his grandson an important life lesson.

The grandfather tells his grandson that there is a battle going on inside all of us. It is a battle between two wolves that live inside us.

He says, “My son, the battle is between two ‘wolves’ that live inside us all. One is negative. It is anger, envy, jealousy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego. The other is positive. It is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion and faith.”

The grandson thinks about it for a while and says, “Which wolf wins?”

The grandfather replies, “The one you feed”.

A word on self medication for stress

DO NOT use Alcohol or Drugs to combat the uncomfortable feelings, they cause more problems for your health. Drugs especially can really mess you up, I used to teach former addicts and the mess they were in is not worth it.

Some people find herbal tablets like Kalms or Rescue Remedy helpful, they can be helpful in a mild way but you are masking a problem rather than rooting it out.