Are We Wired for Fear?
If you were born before 1990, it is highly likely you would be able to tell someone exactly what you were doing and where you were on September 11, 2001. But September 10, 2001? For most of us, it's pretty fuzzy. Older generations of Americans have a similar touchstone moment for November 22, 1963, the day JFK was shot in Dallas.
Such moments bond us together as a nation through a shared tragedy, but why is it so much harder to recall a shared joyful moment? They exist, to be sure, like when the all-amateur US Olympic Hockey Team beat a powerful and highly experienced Soviet team in the 1980 Olympics or when Neil Armstrong took his first steps on the moon, but they seem to be few and far between. We seem to recall tragedy much more easily. Why?
Essentially, it is because our brains are wired to do just that. We've all heard of the fight or flight response - nearly every sentient living creature experiences this. When we lived in caves, our response to a life threatening situation enabled us to fight off or figure out how to escape from animal predators. Once we were out of danger, we knew we had to protect ourselves from this threat, and our brains were able to think about how to design weapons or other solutions to keep us safe.
In our modern era, the threat of an animal attack is now pretty remote, but our brains are still fearfully scanning the horizon for danger and thinking about ways to protect ourselves. Fear is stored in a portion of the brain called the amygdala, which is part of the brain's limbic system. In addition to emotions, the limbic system handles memory, learning and motivation.
When the attack on the World Trade Center and Pentagon occurred, it seemed like everything was collapsing around us, not just the buildings. As Americans, we had a belief that there could never be a serious attack on our soil. We had good relations with our neighbors, were surrounded by oceans, and had the best military in the world. In a matter of hours on 9-/11, that entire belief system was destroyed, and we were in a state of collective fear and confusion.
In that heightened emotional state of fear, our brains were working to process a massive amount of information and emotion in order figure out how to be safe again. If you recall in last week's article, we mentioned Donald Hebb's law that states "Cells that fire together wire together." Our brain's emotion and memory were strongly wired together on 9/11, and as a result, we remember details about that day that we don't for 9/10.
If you remember the day of the attack, try to remember what you were thinking, not feeling. For most of us, we were not able think at any high level. Many people in non-essential jobs were sent home, partially because if they worked in a skyscraper, there was a fear that it could be hit by a plane, but also because in this emotional state of fear, worry, and sadness, people could not concentrate on their work. We were all in what Daniel Goleman terms an amygdala hijack. We were in such a state of fear that we could not use our neocortex to think critically and creatively.
9/11 is an extreme example of what happens, and is completely understandable as this was a serious national tragedy, but as Goleman points out in his book Emotional Intelligence, we can have an amygdala hijack when we have an overwhelming emotional response that is out of proportion to the stimulus (situation), which is often imagined. Research has shown that our emotional brain, the amygdala, responds to stimulus a few milliseconds faster than our rational neocortex. We may not get eaten by a saber tooth tiger today, but what do we do if someone criticizes us?
What are the default responses that have wired together in our brains over our lives? Chances are they are wired with fear with our survival in mind. But is this really what we need currently or is it antiquated wiring better suited for previous generatio
As we shared last week, the brain is plastic. We can consciously choose how we want our brain to be wired. How can we change those ingrained responses? We will explore various ways to rewire your brain in future articles. Awareness is the first key to rewiring, and exploring one's limiting beliefs can be extremely beneficial to cultivating awareness. We'll explore limiting beliefs and their impact on our lives in next week article.
As always, we love to hear from you! If you have a question or comment, please comment or email us.
Through her ability to listen and connect intuitively on a deep level, Julie guides clients to acknowledge and honor their own personal strengths to (re)discover their own unique spark and achieve their goals, both personal and professional. She is a certified Spiritual Life Coach and MBA currently living in Dallas, Texas with her husband and two rescued Labradors, Candy and Boom. Shine Bright!
John dedicates his life to helping others deepen their connection with the Sacred in the world, nature, and within oneself. He is a Certified Spiritual Life Coach, Coach Trainer, NLP Practitioner, and Authorized Guide to John of God in Brazil. John currently lives in Boulder, Colorado with his fiancée, Cristina, and their wire hair terrier, Angel, who was found on the streets of Brazil.