We all find ourselves confronting situations that feel like we are being chased by sharks or have just met the tiger in the tall grass. Our fear is activated and we are pushing hard for flight, fight, freeze or freak out. What if we could change our reactions to those situations that feel scary, and really aren’t dangerous? What if how we face our fear could change our brain?
I watched a show called “The Brain” several years ago. It was a fascinating program for several of the pieces that they documented. The program really looked at how the brain operates under different circumstances. One of the segments of the show was a piece on Training the Brain to manage stress, and specifically how the Navy is working to improve the passing average in the Navy seal program. What they found was about 25% of the troops in training the program were passing, but the Navy found that there were 5 to 10% of each group of men that should have passed the Seal’s training, yet didn’t. Some of these men quit in the last week, last days, or hours of the training. So, the Navy set out to find out what key things these men needed in order to be able to pass the training.
What the Navy found was there were four areas that needed to be addressed and taught to the men, so that this 5%-10 % of men might be successful in the Navy Seal training program. The four areas that they discovered needed to be addressed were: Goal Setting; Visualization; Self Talk; and Arousal Control/Breathing.
Tools to Face Your Fear
What the Navy found about goal setting was this, people needed to have very clear short-term, midterm, and long-range goals. What I mean by short-term goals is this, the person might need to be saying to themselves, “I can make it through this next minute,” “I can make it to lunch,” “I can make it one more step or I can make it one more mile.” Midterm goals might look like, “I can make it to the end of this training day,” or “I could make it to the end of the week.” What long-term goals are, is the ability to remember what the greater purpose is, of any action. For instance, “I want to be a Navy Seal.” And, for mere mortals, we might have a long-term goal of being an Artist, or Writer or own our own business.
Visualization or Mental Rehearsal
I’m using the terms, visualization or mental rehearsal, interchangeably. But the Navy found was it was very important, for the person, to see themselves practicing training successfully in their mind. For instance, one of the images that stood out for me was the underwater test. A Seal trainee would be in a pool and their trainer would swim down and mess with their air supply. This would trigger a primal fear of drowning. The trainees, who visualized how to handle this situation successfully, tended to be far more successful in actual practice. Another example of this is something we have all seen in the Olympics, athletes mentally and physically preparing. While watching the downhill skiers, you might see them practicing turns or jumps in their heads moving their bodies around as they visualize themselves competing on the course or making a complex jump.
They mentioned in the piece that the average person says between 300-7000 words per minute to themselves. If the majority of that self-talk is negative, it’s really no wonder that we can freak ourselves out of completing tasks. Part of making self-talk manageable is to first become aware that you are actually saying so much crap to yourself and then working on challenging the negative words and beliefs.
Dr. Amen of “Change your Brain – Change your Mind” talked about asking 2 important questions when you were flooded with negative beliefs. 1. Do I know that this self-talk or belief is 100% true? and 2. What do I know that contradicts the negative self-talk or belief? So, for an example: “I totally can’t finish anything I start!!!” Question One: is this 100% true? I don’t know, maybe… maybe not. Second question: what do I know that contradicts the thoughts? Well, I finished the laundry… I finished brushing my teeth… I fed the dog this morning… I finished this blog article… Ok, it cannot be 100% true.
When we are facing our fear, it feels like we are having a stress reaction or Arousal Response to a situation (getting scared, anxious, nervous, angry, worried, etc – any strong negative emotion) our brain can have an amygdala trigger, flooding our body with the chemicals Cortisol and Adrenaline. There are some other chemicals that the body also produces, but these two are very powerful. We may notice that our hearts start to beat really hard, or our breathing gets quick and shallow. Our bodies may start to shake or tense up, ready for Fight, Flight, Freeze or Freak-Out.
Unfortunately, when we are in the middle of an intense arousal response, our ability to think through the situation is lost and we become very reactive. What the focus on breathing does, is it shifts our attention away from the situation, as we work to normalize our breathing, we can calm our responses to situations. This then will help us stabilize our brain back to a place where we can start thinking again. Creating the wiring in our brain to calm ourselves in a stressful situation will help us make more effective choices, be less reactive and ultimately help us to survive the situation as best we can.
How will turning to Face Your Fear, Change Your Brain?
What happens in our brain, when we begin using new techniques is that we begin the process of managing our neurochemical responses to situations. We can reduce the levels of neurochemicals firing on all cylinders as we slow down our breathing and work to keep our brain functioning in a thoughtful manner.
Our automatic responses are like superhighways in our minds. This neuron fires and this leads to a cavalcade of reactions, like dominoes falling. These superhighways are our default responses. When you look at the image of the neuron superhighway, you can see there are also networks that aren’t being lit up, yet they are also pathways to get from one place, fear for instance, to a solution.
As we slow down our reactions and responses, we give ourselves time to look for one of these new pathways, maybe an exit we haven’t seen before, or a deer path that is hardly visible when we are whizzing by on our mental superhighway.The more we practice slowing down and going on new neural networks, the more we develop the new pathway as an option. We literally change our minds.
The Navy has the Seal’s train for stressful often combative situations over and over again. These men learn skills and develop strategies to manage their reactions in the most intense and deadly situations. As a quick aside, I appreciate what they do for me each and every day.
And, the coolest thing we can learn from their training is that we, mere mortals, can work on training our own brain’s reactions and responses to be less reactive and more proactive. So, face your fear and change that big brain of yours.
I would LOVE to hear from YOU!
- How have you learned to change your brain when you’re stressed?
- How much practice does it take to change your reactions and responses?