Re-Wire May 2015



It's a big, unconscious biological response. It's triggered by our perception of immediate or future harm — social, emotional, physical, financial or otherwise. It's FEAR, and just our beliefs or thoughts alone can set it off. In fact, we scare ourselves a lot and expend considerable energy being overcome by fear and living with its consequences. Which can squelch our growth, creativity and even our joy.

But it doesn't have to be this way. And video footage of a kitten with two bearded dragons holds a clue about how to change things for the better.

First though, let's start with a computer analogy, where...

     hardware                   our body
     operating system     our brain+nerves
     software                    our beliefs+habits+perceptions+feelings+thoughts


The software runs on the operating system that resides in the hardware. It’s all integrated, so all of it affects the output. Yet we’re rarely aware of this complex psycho-cybernetic mechanism. The whole show tends to play out on autopilot, keeping us in habituated balance, somewhat like a thermostat keeps the temperature hovering around a set point. This internal regulation spans how, when and why our fear circuits fire — and what effect that has on us.

The beliefs, emotions and habits that comprise our human software typically run in the background. They're neural patterns, or mental blueprints, that whir away unchecked, unnoticed and unaltered. Sometimes this whirring gets stuck in cycles of unproductive or even damaging output. This can happen without our realizing it and then even if we do, without seeing why  we got stuck.

Here's the good news: these mental blueprints and neural patterns of ours aren't set in stone. I.e., the software that drives the output is re-writable. And even our hardware (body) is highly plastic and re-trainable by the software inside it.

So, how to rewrite the code, reset the switches, and reroute the processes? To inhabit our fear better, for healthier actions and outcomes in our life?  In other words, how do we upgrade our operating system, our software, and our hardware?  (And what about those lizards and kitten ... ?)


FIRST, PAUSE AND PAY ATTENTION  when sensations of fear start to rise in you — even if you feel worse by doing so, and even if the sensations themselves frighten you. Rather than avoid them, stay with and really notice the sensations. (Especially check your gut: the complex neural network we have there significantly shapes our fear response.) Do all of this long enough to see that the threat triggering your fear doesn’t grow, just from noticing how it alarms you.

When you can, go beyond merely staying with these fear sensations: actually lean into them with your awareness, so you feel them even more. Notice more closely their distinct qualities throughout your body. Let the sensations, and your experience of them, shift however they do. And notice that, too. Lean in again to what’s happening anew in your body. Each time, as best you can, allow what you find there to loosen and lighten. And repeat …

When you’re ready, make a small, deliberate movement and acknowledge that you CAN do it. Then take a more complex, constructive action. Again when you’re ready, carefully move yourself back into “normal” functioning. It will likely be a different place from where you started. Over time, as you cycle through multiple episodes of handling your fear response this way, also start to notice what your particular triggers are which stimulate a real sense of threat for you.


THEN GET TOUCHED, by YOURSELF or OTHERS  Our individual nervous systems are highly tuned to interpersonal interaction. Caring touch, even self-applied, communicates safety and support within our social network. It does this by releasing endorphins and hormones (including oxytocin), which in turn trigger physiological processes that comfort and bond us together.

Research published recently showed that when people were asked about certain fears, they were less anxious and more comfortable if they were also touched (by another person or even by a Teddy bear) at the same time. *

For example, if you notice your gut trembling, gently place your hand on your belly so that it rises and falls with your breath. Don’t try to press back the fear or the butterflies; rather, intend to connect with them through your hand. Just this physical act alone could calm your anxiety.


COMBINE ATTENDING WITH TOUCHING  for greater effect during periods of stress. Get the benefits of both techniques with this Companion Tool. I’ve used variations of this exercise myself with real success, both to soothe my own fear of flying in aircraft, and also to calm down tension between myself and family members. This whole iterative practice actually relaxes, re-organizes and re-equilibrates your nervous system. Ultimately, it boosts your resilience and stability in the midst of disturbance.


DISCHARGE YOUR SHOCK ENERGY  Animals do this naturally and in a timely way; people all too often don’t. It's not just about giving yourself ample time for your system to metabolize stress (frequently mis-translated as “next month, when I go on vacation” or “whenever I can get to the gym”). It's also about literally shaking off  your stress – bodily – right when it happens. As a form of hygiene. This short video clip illustrates the point (best with volume muted).


Note the “aftershock” during 0:39 - 0:43. It's like wringing out a wet towel to remove the last few drops of loose water; then you’re on your way without dripping a troublesome trail of residual anxiety as you go. How well and how soon do you let your own body release its residue following a fearful or jarring experience? And how much of that residue are you importing into your work, your recreation, your relationships, and your dreams?

One-on-one coaching can also help you flourish through fear, by sparking the brain's neocortex. That's where reasoning, logical decision-making, and deliberate self-regulation occur. Activation of this “higher brain” releases GABA, a substance that calms the "emotional brain" (i.e., your limbic system, which regulates anxiety). The more this sequence activates, the stronger the cortex’s influence over your limbic area. Which means the less you're governed by your emotions, the more reasoned choices you can make, and the greater self-mastery you acquire.

We coaches foster this through a vast array of tools and techniques, like the ones shared above. By customizing the developmental approach for each individual, coaching done well can cultivate a powerful capacity for the client’s personal growth and even transformation.

*  Sander L. Koole, Mandy Tjew A Sin, and Iris K. Schneider "Embodied Terror Management: Interpersonal Touch
      Alleviates Existential Concerns Among Individuals With Low Self-Esteem" Psychological Science   January 2014

     With added thanks to the folks at NeuroGym for the opening frame and metaphor.


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                               © LAURA  J.  NIGRO, M.S.

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