Our Brains are Powerful!
Seriously, the more I learn about the brain and its ability to adapt, the more excited and fascinated I am! But ironically, one of the most intriguing facts to me about the human brain – after learning so much about it’s extraordinary power – is just how limited the conscious brain can be.
Probably most of us live under the constant impression that we are experiencing the world as it is. But in reality, we are only experiencing that which our brains have determined is important enough to be in our awareness. What we are able to be conscious of at any given point is relatively small. Take a moment to pay attention to your surroundings. All the sights, sounds, smells, sensations. Until you took a moment to pay attention to the environment, you weren’t aware of all these sensations.
And I guarantee there are still parts of your surroundings you are not aware of. While you’re observing the shade of the tile, you’re not focused on the texture of the wall. And while suddenly aware of your co-worker’s breathing, your mind can’t focus on the feeling of your feet against the floor. It’s just too much to take in all at once!!
Open a book and pick a word. How many of the surrounding words can you read while you eyes stay focused on the first word? You’ll be surprised to realize you can’t make out what those blurred squiggle marks spell that lie only a couple lines from your chosen word!
This is because we would be incredibly overwhelmed if we were constantly aware of EVERYTHING in our surroundings. We would not be able to get things done, or focus on the important things going on in the world around us. So our conscious works a lot like a spotlight. Bringing a very small bit of sensory information into our focus at any point in time.
But our subconscious is aware of all the other sensory details around us. For the most part, those other details that we are not focused on remain in the background until something brings them to our attention.
A Personal Story of Fear
Two years ago, I was writing in the dining room of my farm house at dusk. I was really focused on the letter in front of me, trying to get all the words just right. About half way through a sentence, something moved out of the corner of my eye. It was just a streak. A fast blur of movement at the edge of my vision.
In less than a second, my attention completely left the letter and was staring at the spot that I thought something had moved. My heart began beating frantically, my breathing was fast, body was tensed. Moments before I was totally relaxed.
Nothing happened after a few minutes and I slowly went back to my letter. Just moments later the streak flashed again. But this time my eyes caught it before it disappeared beneath the refrigerator. I had a mouse in my house.
Immediately I was on full alert! Terrified, I grabbed my broom and stared at the base of the refrigerator, unsure what to do next. An hour later, with nothing else I could do, I fell into a restless sleep. I could not even begin to focus on my letter again that night.
Weeks after my cousin helped me get rid of the mouse I still found myself eyeing the bottom of the refrigerator.
Why We “Hold On” to Fears
Our bodies are designed to keep us alive and functioning well. We have a built-in system to warn and help us react if we are in danger. The part of our brain that controls our fear-response is called the amygdala. They amygdala overrides the “thinking” part of your brain when you perceive danger and kicks your body into defense mode. Your heart rate increases, muscles tense, breathing quickens. You are prepared to run, fight, or hide in less than a second.
Fear is a response to a stimulus in your surroundings that triggers the amygdala. And the amygdala and hippocampus together have a very good memory. Your brain records all the sights, smells, sounds, and sensations that were occurring at the time of the triggering event. This way, if you ever find yourself in a similar circumstance in the future, you can respond quicker and keep yourself safe.
For example, if you almost step on a snake, but your amygdala notices the snake at the very last moment, you may be able to react in time to get out of danger and avoid the snake. Then the next day, you’re enjoying a nice walk through your yard to the mailbox and suddenly jump ten feet in the air! You let out a scream, heart racing out of your chest, and run about ten feet. Why?
You saw a stick lying in the grass.
Your brain remembered the sight of the snake and over-generalized to include fear of all thin, long things in grass. Your brain is smart! It’s better for you to incorrectly run away from a stick than it is to accidentally step on a snake. And it will probably take several (potentially embarrassing) occasions before you walk past sticks fear-free!
How to Begin Decreasing your Unwanted Fear
As mentioned above, one of the biggest myths of humanity is that we see things as they are. In fact, our brains construct our own reality. The person who recently stepped on a snake is now much more aware of the sticks on a lawn than the person who has not stepped on a snake. In anxiety, our “Spotlight” brain begins to focus on the “dangerous” (or possibly dangerous) too much and not enough on the safety or comfort around us.
The brain will continue to function faulty until it is taught to react differently. In therapy, one of the best practices to treat phobias or fears is called Exposure Therapy. At its basic premise, the idea is that people can only un-learn fear by placing themselves in a fear-inducing situation and experience that the situation will not cause them harm.
This is done very gradually. First, people learn good relaxation techniques to calm themselves. Like deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, visualization, meditation, and meridian tapping.
After learning, the techniques are practiced over and over and over and over again. This is so that a person is able to return to a relaxed state quickly and easily. This takes frequent practice for a few weeks everyday at home, at a bare minimum.
After a solid foundation of effective relaxation coping skills are established, a person is introduced to very basic fear-inducing situations and is instructed to use their relaxation technique until they are fully relaxed. These techniques can be used for a variety of fears, such as fear of spiders, social phobias, agoraphobia, and fear of heights. And even the perfectly rational fear of squirrels.
For intense anxieties and fears that limit a person’s functioning, professional counseling should be sought. Not every case may be appropriate for exposure therapy, and the pace of therapy will vary widely from person to person. These are components of treatment that need to be continually evaluated by a professional.
No matter if you seek professional support or not, remember that by avoiding situations that make you anxious or scared, you are actually strengthening that fear. And by confronting your fears, even in baby steps, you can begin to shake that fear into nothing over time.
Of course, this technique should only be used when you are fearful or anxious of things that should NOT cause that much fear. DO NOT try to reduce your fear of legitimate dangers by exposing yourself to them.
Leave a comment below about how you’ve faced a fear. Or about how fears or other situations have changed the way you experience the world. If you are interested in professional counseling for a fear that is controlling your life, contact me at (531) 289-8246.