Fear is as old as life on earth, and for good reason. Sometimes, just living can be pretty scary.
In your mind’s eye, go to a high plain anywhere in Asia. It’s a hot day and you’re walking alone through tall, dry grass. Seemingly out of nowhere, a huge, adult tiger appears and lets out a deafening roar. It’s eleven feet long, weighs about 650 pounds, has three-inch incisors, and by the look of things, is very hungry. It’s just you and the tiger – staring each other down. What are you going to do? Run, fight, hide?
Chances are high you’re going to be its next meal.
Over the hundreds of thousands of years of human evolution, things like this happened all the time. Because of the ever-present high risks involved in survival, we grew to be acutely aware of danger. It was smarter to be a bit more skeptical than not. That large, brown boulder in the bushes might be rock, or it might be something that wants to eat you. Better to be alert and hesitant than to be some vicious predator’s dinner.
Fear, a fundamental, deeply-wired reaction, evolved to heighten our awareness, and to support this worried way of thinking. The amygdalae, two almond shaped groups of nuclei buried deep in each of the temporal lobes of the brain, are dedicated to detecting the emotional relevance of what we sense “out there”. The amygdala activates whenever we experience anger or fear. The sight of a predator, such as the hungry tiger, triggers a fear response in the amygdala, which activates motor functions involved in fight or flight. It also triggers the release of stress hormones that heightens the likelihood of your survival. The brain becomes hyperalert, pupils dilate, the bronchi dilate and breathing accelerates. Your heart rate and blood pressure rise. Blood flow and stream of glucose to the skeletal muscles increases. Organs not vital in survival – such as the gastrointestinal system, slow down. Now, whatever you do, run or fight, you have a much better chance of survival than you did a few moments earlier.
Unfortunately, our modern brains are still wired much like our ancient ancestors. While we rarely, if ever, come face-to-face with predators who want to eat us, almost daily we deal with high stress challenges that trigger similar fight or flight responses. Our jobs, money problems, relationship quarrels and the many complexities of living, all come to mind. Real or imagined, these perceived, life-threatening situations keep our brains operating in high beta – the high-energy brain state designed to operate for relatively short periods of time, that work best when interspersed with the slower alpha brain state. In beta, we gather information. In alpha, the brain organizes information gathered in beta. Both are critical to optimal brain health and function.
Because of our lifestyles, many of us have lost the ability to slow our brains down, to go from beta to alpha. We’ve habitualized worry and are so used to being afraid, anxious and uneasy that we’ve become “alpha-blocked”. Like our ancient ancestors, we anticipate danger around every corner – almost expecting that tiger to show up and eat us alive. In addition to heightening our anxiety, too much time spent in beta makes us tired and irritable. We are unable to think clearly and deliberately. Our decision-making skills suffer as a result.
Is there a solution to this madness?
Yes. Slow down. Make it a high priority to get out of beta a number of times throughout the day, every day.
Research at Boston University and Harvard Medical School showed that after only eight weeks of mindfulness-meditation classes, participants had far fewer fear signals transmitted throughout their brains, and the electrical activity and blood flow in the amygdalae had significantly slowed down.1 And, not only was there less electrical activity, the amygdalae themselves were smaller in size. As a result of this time spent slowing down, the participants were less anxious, more compassionate, more at peace, and felt happier than they did before the classes. They also felt more capable and able to do their work.
For every few hours you spend in beta, you should spend at least ten to fifteen minutes in the slower alpha state. Learn how to meditate. Take time to day-dream, to rest your mind. The brain works best that way. And you’ll be happier and more effective in whatever you choose to do.