Night has recently fallen and at last the tribe is safely gathered together in a spacious cavern of their tranquil, fire-lit cave for the first time in many days.
The smoky air, swirling with the scents of charred meat and freshly scalped hide, adds to the heaviness of their tired eyes and the warmth of the flames equally adds to the fatigue of their weary muscles that ache from an arduous hunt and from the work of cleaning the recent kill and preparing the celebratory feast. The only sounds are of the odd crack of the fire and the heavy breathing of the younger members tucked cozily away and reveling in deep, belly-filled sleep.
The older members prepare to join the sleeping when unexpectedly a rustling noise accompanied by a low, reverberating, guttural growl sharply gains the attention of the now wide-awake tribe. Fear strikes. The safety is broken. Muscles tense and senses sharpen as the realization that they are now the prey sets in. Hearing becomes acute and pupils widen in attempt to quickly gather information. Breathing is shallow and sharp, hearts pump at wild paces, and sweat seeps through the skin’s surface and gathers until the beads are dense enough to trail down their bodies. They are warriors and they are prepared for survival. They are ready to do whatever is necessary: fight or flight.
The amygdala, the part of the brain that takes care of emotional processing and activating the fight-flight response when it senses danger, is a wonderful onboard feature of the human being that helps us to escape danger and hopefully live a longer and healthier life. The physical and cognitive responses to fear, like the ones the tribe members experienced, help prepare us for either fighting that possible threat or running from it. Furthermore, if we do escape and survive, our brain believes it is a good idea to store this experience in the forefront of our memory just in case it ever happens again and this will help ensure we are even more prepared for survival next time. Conversely, since our positive emotions, like joy or serenity, don’t often go along with any life threatening triggers, our brain decides for us that these experiences are less important for us to get to know in detail or store in our active memory for future survival purposes.
Moving away from primitive human experience with fear to modern peoples, we can assess the current usefulness of this onboard fight or flight feature. if it is natural to cogitate on life’s scariest and most uncomfortable experiences, what are the possible consequences of this for humans in 2016? In Canada, those struggling with anxiety disorders are estimated at 12-20% of the population at any given time. That is a lot of us. Is it necessary? Are one in five people walking down the street really experiencing an imminent threat to their survival? Or, are our brains just being a little too overprotective?
In Canada, those struggling with anxiety disorders are estimated at 12-20% of the population at any given time. That is a lot of us. Is it necessary?
Perhaps we need to teach our brains about life in 2016. Sabretooth tigers are no longer a threat. Most of the threats we encounter in 2016 are work deadlines, trying to achieve the highest GPA possible, disagreements with family or friends, fear over that really great Tinder date not texting back. Most of us in Canada in 2016 can leave our homes in the morning without it being a great possibility that we will not make it home in the evening; Most of us have the luxury of living a generally safe existence. Perhaps we need to send a memo to our brains and let them know that they can relax a bit. We need to reteach our brains how to protect us instead of do us harm with unnecessary false alarms of fight or flight activation.
Breathe – sending deep, slow breaths of fresh oxygen to our brain is like telling it, “It’s ok. We are safe and I will prove it with this oxygen”. Oxygen will soothe the physical responses that go along with the fight or flight response.
Reassuring self-talk – As adults we need to be our own reassuring voice of reason sometimes. Practice some reassuring self-talk that may be calming in a time of false alarm. For example, “This is a safe place. Nothing bad is going to happen to you.”
Work with a counsellor to help retrain your brain, debunk negative beliefs that are giving rise to unnecessary fear, and create new positive beliefs to establish an inner sense of safety and security.
Fear has its place and function. Without it our species would not have survived and progressed to where we are today. However, fear often needs to be tamed and our system recalibrated to suit the current setting. If you find yourself exhausted from fighting your fears, please gather the courage to fight the fear for just one more minute so you can reach out for help. Fear can be tamed and our brains can be retrained.
“Everything you want is on the other side of fear” – Jack Canfield