Am I safe? How fear hijacks our brain
The following question was posed to me recently: “What is the difference between the feeling of being secure and being secure, and the feeling of being in danger and actually being in danger? A lot of travelers are scared of things not worth being scared of and are comfortable about the things they actually should be paying attention to.”
The answer to this question lies in how different parts of the brain function. In the simplest of terms, we have a downstairs brain and an upstairs brain. The upstairs is our thinking, reflecting, conscious sense of ourself. While we have the feeling that we are in control from this ‘computer desktop’ of our brain, the reality is that it only comprises a small percentage of our brain function. The vast majority of brain activity occurs in the downstairs brain that is busy keeping our whole bodily organism functioning and in balance. Our heart keeps beating without our having to consciously tell it to do so – good thing, or we would be dropping like flies.
Deep in the center of our downstairs brain is the amygdala, a structure comprised of two little nodes that are strategically positioned to evaluate whether we are in any danger. It operates without our conscious awareness but can have a powerful effect on our entire physical and mental well being. Throughout our lifetime it collects and stores the sights, sounds, smells that have been connected to dangerous or threatening situations. These can be both physical and psychological or emotional dangers. The amygdala also comes preloaded with some danger situations passed on over the millennium from our ancestors, such as an infant’s awareness of heights and not being willing to crawl over a visual cliff. When the amygdala senses danger it reacts in a big way. It sends out the message for a massive change in our bodily functioning. Our heart beats faster, our lungs suck in more air to feed oxygen to our muscles to prepare to fight or to run. We feel apprehension and fear. The digestive tract shuts down, sometimes resulting in what normally would be embarrassing results. AND our upstairs brain struggles to keep some control as the downstairs brain tries to shut it down so as not to interfere with this emergency response. The downstairs brain in essence hijacks the thinking brain in the belief that it can best preserve our lives with its storehouse of automatic defensive maneuvers.
Stay tuned for Part 2 of this series on how to understand the tug of war happening in our brains!