Neurohacking Everyday Fear
Once we have our fear triggered, two paths are used to generate a response: the slow path and the fast path. Both of these happen at the same time. The fast path produces quick reaction to the trigger, but its so quick that it isn’t always the best assessment of the situation. The slow path, which includes the sensory cortex, takes more time but is more thoughtful and takes into account all the information available, not just our instincts.
To illustrate I would like to tell you a story...
It was the summer of 2004. Wow that sounds like a really long time ago....
I was doing my masters research in the high desert of north eastern corner of California called the Warner Mountains. My study site was an 8 hour drive from where I lived, which meant I had to collect field data by myself a lot. One day, while checking my live traps, I hear this *pop pop pop
Instinct told me to hit the deck so I immediately drop down to the ground as flat as I can. I’m dressed in all gray, in a field of soft, gray sagebrush scrub, and it’s hunting season. Maybe not the best life choices.
Terror begins to set in as my body prepares itself for fight or flight. Scooting across the dirt, I turn my face away from the sage bush I’m nestled under to find a huge fire ant hill just a few feet away.
At this point, I have to decided which fear to give into. The very real, in my literal face, fear of stinging red fire ants or the perceived fear of the kind of people the hunters would be. With the fire ants, I knew what I would get. It wouldn’t kill me, but it wouldn't be pleasant. With my perceived unknown fear of the hunters, I didn’t know.
Maybe they were shooting at me by accident because they didn't see me.
Maybe they were shooting at me because they did.
What would happen if they found me? What would they do?
With the roar of the ATV engines echoing through the plateau, I had to decide- which was I more afraid of? The real threat in front of me or the possible perceived threat of the unknown.
The fast fear path had me dropping to the ground and hiding under a sage bush while kicking my fight or flight response into high gear. In that moment, my breathing (do breathing thing) became faster and more ragged, and my heart began to pound as blood was diverted to my muscles, that were tense and ready for action.
Snuggled there, under the sage bush, my slow fear path began to analyze all the information I had and this is when my mind started to create all the possible scenarios based on a lifetime of scary movies and news reports.
I looked over at the fire ants... just two feet away... and decided to stay.
I stayed hidden because my slow fear path decided that the reality of being stung by fire ants was better than the imagined possible stories about what the unknown hunters would do if they found me. In that moment, I chose perceived fear over reality. We will never get rid of our fear response, it helps to keeps us alive, but it can also keep us trapped in a cage of our own creation.
I want to really focus in on one word: creation.
Stories are the creations of our imaginations and stories have power. They have the power to make us laugh, to make us cry, to make us fall in love and stories have the power to terrify us. This is why we watch scary movies, right?
But if you think about it, so many of our fears are rooted in the stories we tell ourselves. These stories, created by our imaginations, usually live in a future that may or may not ever happen. Yet, to our brains and our bodies, they can feel so real that we don’t take that new job, or ask that cute person out, or say yes to giving that talk in front of hundreds of strangers.
If we write the stories, we can also change them. Making the goal not to loose our fear by becoming fear- less, but to reframe our fears and rewrite our stories.