The recent tragedies in Boston and Texas remind us once again that we are not totally safe in our world. These types of horrific disasters instinctively and positively stoke within us a great sense of empathy for those who have suffered. At the same time, they also kindle our inner fears and sense of vulnerability and reinforce the fact that much in life still remains beyond our control. When this occurs, the brain's innate fear center, what I call the survival instinct, goes on high alert. Unfortunately, this can incite a reaction that's exaggerated, far greater than what is justified and needed. The result is that our fear takes hold of us, essentially taking over the driver's seat and relegating many of our other drives -- pleasure, love, joy, faith, and connection -- to the backseat.
No doubt, our survival instinct has helped us through the centuries, generally when we've been confronted with immediate physical danger, such as hunger, a preying tiger, or a spear thrown in our direction. Thankfully, these types of real dangers in our current society are rare. Yet, this is not the fear center's perception. Tragedies materializing across the world are portrayed and reported by the media in an obsessive and sensationalistic nature. As we repeatedly watch and hear each sordid detail conveyed by the 24-hour media, we have a tendency to personalize the events rather than feel a detachment from them. In other words, what we observe in the media becomes our own personal experience. This form of identification and personalization of world catastrophes is now resulting in our fear center being activated far more than it was ever designed for. Rather than our survival instinct offering us survival value, it is more often than not putting us in harm's way. In reality, most of the danger we face is of our own creation.
What's the downside of an out-of-control fear center? For starters, significant inner turmoil: By virtue of inflammatory pathways, we begin to physically cook ourselves from the inside out, essentially burning up our inner organs, including our skin, and our brain. Basically, aging is accelerated at a feverish pace. On the behavioral/emotional front, we become hyper-vigilant, overly sensitive, lose our religious or spiritual faith, and begin to approach our lives in a guarded and defensive manner, while becoming more distrustful in our relationships -- at work and home -- and more prone to anger. We make choices and decisions that are designed to protect our losses rather than further our gains. We become less tolerant of differences and find comfort typically in that which is familiar, while differences are viewed as threatening. Physical symptoms are common: sleeplessness, stomach disorders, chronic anxiety, and pain such as headaches, and neck and back pain. Addictive behaviors are particularly fed by fear and include overeating and substance abuse. As you can see, our fears can be anything but protective in our lives.
As we have become more accustomed to comfort in our lives, we are concomitantly becoming less tolerant of being uncomfortable, which is leading us to feel far more discomfort in our daily lives than ever before. Discomfort can be experienced as a feeling of agitation, angst, irritability, feeling unsettled, easily angered, or overly sensitive. Our rising level of discomfort leads us to be much more vulnerable to the fear response. In a sense, our survival instinct develops an increasingly sensitive hair trigger. Which is why now, more than ever, the mere experience of discomfort is capable of triggering the fear response, such as people cutting us off on the road, conflict, the prospect of public speaking, flying on a plane, or the mere sensation of feeling hungry.
Can we do something to reverse the fear epidemic? Yes, we have two choices: either to remain at the mercy of our fears or to take control of our fears. Choosing to manage our fears is far easier than you might think.
Managing Our Fears
• The goal is to rein in the fear center's influence in our lives. Since our rising levels of discomfort are at the heart of it, it's important to accept that discomfort is normal. It's not something to banish or avoid. Rather, build up your discomfort muscle by avoiding short-term solutions to discomfort, such as food, drugs/alcohol, distraction, or surfing the Internet. This will weaken the hair trigger survival instinct.
• Start limiting the amount of time you are exposing yourself to the media's coverage of tragedies. Turn off the radio or television the moment the coverage becomes repetitive, speculative, or detail obsessive. Also shut off this type of coverage at least an hour before bedtime. Our human brain becomes addicted to this kind of sensory input, the media companies know this, and this promotes viewership. Put simply, fear sells.
• Reset the brain by pulling it out of the fear center. This is particularly good to do at bedtime. Focus on something you are appreciative of, someone you feel love or great empathy for. The goal is not distraction, but rather a means of activating a different part of the brain that is separate from the fear center. Basically, you are building up another muscle, one that will compete and weaken the fear center muscle.
• Consider listening to a relaxation or hypnosis CD (sound file) at bedtime. This can switch off or reduce the fear center's activity while you sleep. The fear in our brain is not extinguished when we sleep. It remains very active, and if it's not turned off at bedtime, the fear smolders and ferments all night long, giving the fear center an even stronger foothold, while further cementing its dominance in our daily lives. In a research study of mine that was recently published, we showed that this bedtime strategy reduced the fear and stress response by building resilience. The results were evident in the subjects' self-reports and in changes in their blood measures.
In summary, there is much we can do to rein in the fear epidemic. It is easy to assume that it would require a monumental effort to significantly alter our fear response. In reality, by applying the above strategies across several weeks, as well as other fear shrinking tools I have described previously, can make a profound difference in shrinking the oversensitivity of the survival instinct and the brain's fear center.
Marc Schoen, Ph.D. is an assistant clinical professor of medicine at UCLA Geffen School of Medicine, where he teaches a course to medical students on performance and decision making under pressure. He is the author of Your Survival Instinct Is Killing You (Hudson Street Press, March 2013).
Copyright 2013 Marc Schoen, Ph.D.
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