“Stress in America at an All-Time High” – American Psych. Assoc.
Four science-backed cures that you can put to work today
The American Psychological Association’s annual survey about the future being stressful is at an all-time high. The trifecta of uncertainty – a pandemic, civil unrest and economic turmoil have hit US citizens as hard as a World War. Neuroscience holds the key to reducing stress and anxiety.
Two million years ago our cavemen ancestors programmed the brain’s fear center, the amygdala, to be an early warning system for danger. When there was a rustle in the grass on an otherwise calm day, the amygdala would ignite the fight, flight or freeze response. That means our body produces a fear cocktail – DHEA, cortisol, adrenaline, and other enzymes – that changes our physiology to help our body fight better or flee faster. But when we can’t shut off that firehose of stress hormones, it eats away at our immunity, health and happiness.
You’re about to learn four ways to reduce stress, increase the strength of your immune system, and find more happiness every day. Each method is based on years of neuroscience research.
Fear not! These four steps will literally change the cellular structure of your brain while they eliminate stress and anxiety.
Understand the Root of Disempowerment
When there is uncertainty our brain’s primal warning system explodes with cautionary shouts – “Don’t go! Stay in your cave (or on your couch) and watch the world implode!”
That’s your caveman-self attempting to feel safe. You default to the best defense you have – hiding. We want to stay away from people or ideas that are different because they’re scary. When we don’t feel safe, insecurity creates a feeling of disempowerment which can make happiness, peacefulness and love impossible to access. Yet love is one secret to being happy and calm – and even living longer. Therefore, learning to deal with uncertainty is the critical first step.
Here are four core steps to reprogram your brain. (There’s a lot more in my life-changing book Fear is Fuel if this interest you.)
Acting rationally in the face of fear is courage. Courage is much more powerful than fearlessness. We can train courage as a response.
Israeli researchers asked people with a well-known fear of snakes to lie in an fMRi machine to watch brain activity, and at the top of the machine beyond their head was a snake on a wagon. The subjects in the fMRI had a button that could move the snake closer or further away. The researches told them to move the serpent as close to their face as possible. Most people immediately pushed it further away. However, those that moved the snake closer to their face literally turned off the amygdala (the fear center) and activated an area called the subgenual anterior cingulate cortex – sgACC (that’s our courage center). They did it by choice.
Lesson #1 – take a few deep breaths and focus on the action you want to take, choose to act in a way that ensures you are taking agency and acting on something you can control. Then just do it, no matter how scary it feels.
Lesson #2 – if you find yourself saying “I’ don’t want to do it” ask yourself why not? If the answer you come back with is “Just because I don’t want to.” You’re lying to yourself to cover up a fear. Figure out what the fear is and do that thing you don’t want to do to see what happens. You’ll likely feel great after you do something scary. Just remember you can choose courage. The reason you’ll fear great goes beyond pride in yourself and into our brain’s reward center where we release little happy enzymes that make us feel like we’re on cocaine. I led two virtual masterclass this week and was nervous before each one, but felt great when I was done! It works.
Tell people you care about that you love them. Give a hug if you can safely do that within the confines of Covid-19. When you hug someone and share your feelings of love the brain produces oxytocin, the cuddle hormone and you feel safer and less ego-driven.
Buddhists have used this knowledge for centuries to reach enlightenment. They meditate first sending thoughts and feelings of love to people they love and are close to, then the same two people they don’t know sending them love as well. Finally, at the most advanced state of meditation they share the same feelings of love and compassion on an enemy. If you can’t get all the way to your enemies then there’s another tactic that works. Take a chance to tell someone at work, or someone you really admire that you feel a great likeness, love or admiration toward them. If this is uncomfortable, then it will be an even more powerful rewiring of your brain because you are deciding based on opportunity rather than fear. You connect to the fear center and shut off the amygdala. Being courageous always feels uncomfortable because it’s not guaranteed to be safe, it’s risky. If it was the same old safe action you wouldn’t feel uncomfortable and you wouldn’t have a fresh opportunity.
Find a powerful motivation for courage
Dr. Abigail Marsh at Georgetown found that when mice had an altruistic motivation, when they were acting in the face of fear for their offspring, the amount of oxytocin (the feel good enzyme) they produced was higher.
The mice would press a button to open a door, even though they knew they would get a shock. They wouldn’t even think about pressing the button if it was for another mouse they were not related to.
Doing something for others also makes it easier to activate the sgACC, your courage center. Easier to connect to the courage center, and more happy enzymes – two things that make for a happier less stressful life.
Discover moments of awe and wonder
Have you ever seen Cirque du Solei? Wasn’t it amazing? If you were in awe you might actually have been part of the research Cirque did with the Lab of Misfits that followed on research from the University of Toronto that proves that when we illicit emotions of awe and wonder our perspective on uncertainty and anxiety change and we become happier. If we are in awe we feel safer. It also helps us to love others.
People care more about other people when they experience awe, and their risk taking goes up while decisions based on fear decline. People experiencing awe feel more empowered even in times of uncertainty, their sense of ego becomes less important, and they are more connected to the world. So look for moments of awe – stargazing at night, hiking among a beautiful forest, taking in art at a museum. Recognizing and looking for awe, reduces your production of stress hormones and makes you more able to love.
We are living in the safest, and most interesting time in the world’s history. No doubt the Covid-19 pandemic has caused a global response like we’ve never seen before and many people feel disempowered because of it. You don’t have to be one of them. Take control of what you think, feel and believe – that’s called having Agency. It means you control what you can control and let go of everything else. I hope these four neuroscience steps help get you the life of your dreams. Also go check out my brain blog and subscribe to our weekly newsletter here.