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Feeling Fear: Is It A Trick or a Treat? 

Scary movies, haunted houses, creepy crawlies that go bump in the night…yes, please! If you’re like me, you enjoy a good scare. The anticipation as you wander through the haunted house, knowing that someone – or something – is waiting to jump out at you at any second. Startles and screams followed by laughter, a delightful release. In a controlled, realistically safe situation, feeling fear can be fun – a real treat, if you will. 

If you’re not like me in this regard, that’s ok. Lots of people hate scary movies and rollercoasters and the like. The reality is, lots of people truly hate the feeling of fear itself, even when it’s intentional, even when they know it’s a trick, that there’s no real danger present. Honestly, that makes a lot of sense. By design, anxiety is unpleasant. It’s our body’s built in warning system, created to keep us safe and alive. Our heart rate goes up, we go into fight or flight mode. Fear is an intense human emotion with strong physical symptoms that, even when there is no actual threat, is incredibly uncomfortable. It feels so icky so that we’re highly motivated to get rid of it by avoiding or escaping and, by doing so, returning to safety and security. 

This is an excellent feature when it comes to avoiding car accidents or dangerous situations, but fear can also hold us back from taking physically safe but socially or emotionally uncomfortable steps, like being vulnerable, going for a big goal, or making a change.

It keeps us alive. It holds us back. It can be fun. It can be awful. It’s a trick AND a treat, depending on the situation.

Understanding the Fear System 

Fine tuning your relationship with fear and anxiety is one of the most empowering tasks to take on. Learning to be open in the face of it – to venture boldly into those real and metaphorical haunted houses, is a life expanding move. And to get there, you have to know what you’re working with. You have to understand the ins and outs of our fear system.

Here’s some interesting info to know. The part of our brain that is primarily responsible for fear and anxiety (the limbic system, with its superstar the amygdala), continually scans looking for signs that indicate potential threat. Unfortunately, anxiety can’t tell the difference between real and imagined threats. When we watch scary movies or go through those haunted corn mazes, we’re capitalizing on that fact. We experience the fear response even though we’re not truly in danger. It’s a brain trick…and a treat for those of us who enjoy it.

Here’s where it gets interesting to think about. We have another part of our brain that is capable of imagining, right? We daydream, speculate, plan, anticipate. We worry. That’s just imagining possible bad things that can happen, almost like an internal private horror movie. And our adorably strong but primitive anxiety system can’t tell the difference, so it sounds the alarms. 

Think about it, if those things you worry about were actually happening, it would make complete sense to feel anxious or afraid, wouldn’t it? And you’d be well-served to let anxiety guide your decisions and do what you need to avoid or escape those bad things. But they’re not happening in the outside world. They’re only happening in your inside world. You’re imagining it. And your anxiety system is responding, just like it does to a scary movie or haunted house. The difference here, though, is that you may not realize what’s happening, and that makes the anxiety feel real and meaningful. These mental scenarios mean danger!

Nope. It’s a trick!

Don’t Fall for Fear’s Tricks 

This year as I watch my first Michael Meyers movies (yes, I somehow made it to middle age without ever seeing one), when I feel scared, I’ll tell myself it’s just a movie, and I’ll take comfort in that. I’ll even enjoy the sensations of fear as I experience them. I’ll laugh at my exaggerated startle response and giggle at my gasps because I know I’m safe and that this is all just for fun. I 100% believe that anxiety is not bad, that it can be helpful sometimes.

And when your mind starts playing whatever scary movie it loves to give you, tell yourself something similar. Say, “That’s just the You’re Going to Get Fired movie or the Someone is Going to Get Sick story or the Everyone Will Get Mad at Me saga.” Remind yourself that it’s ok to feel anxious. That it’s just a trick.

Interested in Learning More? 

Check out this episode of the Building Psychological Strength podcast episode.

Episode 150: Break Free from Anxiety

 
 
“I think being fearless is having fears but jumping anyways.”
—Taylor Swift
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Don’t Fall for This Sneaky Brain Trick

If you’re anything like me, you’re fascinated by how the brain works! I love learning about how our brains process information, the glitches in their programming, and how those natural tendencies influence us in helpful and not-so-helpful ways. Good thing, too, since I’ve spent the last two decades studying this kind of thing!

Distorted thinking patterns and brain glitches cause all kinds of problems. In the context of the upcoming election, though, one in particular stands out to me, and I want to make you aware of it, too, so that we can all work on keeping our thoughts healthy and helpful.

Black-or-White Thinking

A particularly common yet problematic brain glitch is black-or-white thinking, also called dichotomous or all-or-none thinking. Black-or-white thinking shows up when we think in rigid either/or terms. The issue here is that very few things in life are truly black and white. Black-or-white thinking creates false extremes that can lead to all kinds of problems, and it keeps us from seeing the world as it really is.

Take these examples, for instance.

  • “I ate a cookie, so my diet is blown.” What kind of choices are going to be made now, and how do those line up with health goals?
  • “Everyone is better at that than I am.”  What kind of impact is that thought going to have on continued effort and confidence?
  • “You’re either with me or against me.” (Hello, election season.) What’s the effect here on collaboration and effective problem-solving? What about on attitudes and emotions?
  • “If it’s not perfect, then it’s a failure.” How do those unreasonably high standards play out over time?

Are you starting to see how black-or-white thinking can create some problems? It becomes even more clear when we contrast it to more rational alternative thoughts like:

  • “I ate a cookie, but that’s not the end of the world. I can still make healthy choices for the rest of the day and minimize the damage.”
  • “A lot of people are better than I am at this, but I can improve with practice.”
  • “We have a lot of differences, but I bet we can find some common ground to work from.”
  • “No one is perfect. This is good enough.”

 Problems with Black-or-white Thinking

1. Negative effects on your feelings and behaviors 

You’re probably getting the sense that black-or-white thinking can negatively impact your feelings as well as your actions, and it certainly can! In fact, black-or-white thinking can also contribute to broader and more pervasive depression and anxiety, too.

2. Limited choices

Have you ever found yourself in a situation in which you had to make a choice, but neither of the options in front of you seemed like good ones? For example: either I tell my friend she’s upsetting me and ruin the friendship or I say nothing and just deal with it. Yikes. Neither of those sounds particularly appealing, does it? Pay attention to this one: Either I send my kids back to school and they’ll get COVID or I quit my job to teach them at home. Again, neither sounds ideal. When black-or-white thinking is determining our choices, we’re limited. We can choose black or we can choose white. Often, though, there are gray choices available. We’re just not seeing them.

3. Relationship damage

When black-or-white thinking shows up in our relationships, bad things happen. Most people are a complex mix of strengths and flaws, of good intentions and mistakes. When we view people in black-or-white terms, though, we oversimplify and filter out important information. We miss out on that complexity and that can cause some damage. Consider, for a moment, what happens if you view your partner in all-or-none terms. Let’s assume your partner did something that he knows you don’t like, and your automatic thought was, “He never thinks about anyone but himself.” How is that scenario going to play out? And what happens if you repeatedly think of your partner in that way? Moreover, what happens when we think about children or coworkers or bosses or even strangers in black-or-white, extreme terms? I’m not seeing a pathway to solid, healthy relationships here. Are you?

Recognizing Black-or-white Thinking

Black-or-white thinking can be sneaky and isn’t always easy to recognize. Fortunately, there are some red flags that can alert you that you are falling into this trap.

Either/or

If you find yourself thinking or saying “either/or” take a pause. This is a signal of black-or-white thinking. Your mind is only seeing two options, and chances are that’s a false dichotomy.

Extreme language

Extreme language is often a sign of black-or-white thinking. Words like always/never” or everyone/no one” signal extremes.

Shades of Gray

When you notice black-or-white thinking, I challenge you to find the gray. You may be able to do that by simply asking yourself if there’s a gray option here. Other helpful questions include:

  • Can it be both/and instead of either/or?
    • For example, can I be a generally successful person who also made a mistake? Can she be both loving towards me and occasionally do things that hurt my feelings?
  • Are there any exceptions? Is this true 100% of the time in 100% of circumstances? 
    • Does my partner really never think about anyone else? Have there really been 0 times that he considered someone else’s needs?
  • Is that conclusion extreme? Could there be another outcome?
    • For example, does eating one cookie really mean that my diet is completely blown? Could it, instead, mean that I practiced moderation and can continue to make healthy choices?
  • What’s a third option?
    • For example, are these really my only two choices? How might I get the best of both? Or what else could I do in this situation?
  • And, one of my all-time favorite, most useful questions…is this thought helpful?

Beyond the Gray Zone

I hope you’ll embrace the gray and make efforts to counteract black-or-white thinking. Keep in mind, though, that changing your thinking patterns is an ongoing process. You’re going to slip into these glitches regularly, and it’s important that you don’t get black-or-white about your success! It’s possible to both make progress on your thinking AND slip into old habits. How’s that for gray zone?

And, if you are as fascinated with the brain as I am, you’ll love our Ascend program, especially Module 2: Your Mind. In this section of the program, we do a deep dive into how your mind works and why it does the things it does. Through the educational videos and hands-on exercises, you’ll learn about different forms of problematic thinking. You’ll get really clear on how your mind works and when it’s helping and hurting you. And most importantly, you’ll develop the skills to turn your mind into your biggest asset. Click the image below to learn more about the program. 

It’s up to each of us to learn how to make our minds work for us, and doing so can have a HUGE impact on your life experience. The gray zone, with its infinite shades, is a freer, more balanced place to live. I’ll see you there!

“Don’t define your world in black and white, because there is so much hiding amongst the greys.”
– Unknown
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The Brain Science Behind Fear

Understanding the science of fear and how the brain interacts with threats is relevant now more than ever.

As you know, cases of COVID-19 are beginning to rise in the U.S. and in many other parts of the world, and naturally, many people are experiencing some fear. Will I get sick? Will my family get sick? How bad will our case be if we do get sick? These are all scary questions to contemplate right now.

Outside of the pandemic, concerns of terror attacks, political turmoil, and the health of the planet, compound everyday irrational fears like a fear of flying or spiders.

The Brain Science of Fear

Fear is an interesting thing. It’s awful to experience fear, but it’s actually very adaptive. It’s our minds’ best tool to do its #1 job: keep us safe and alive.

Out of all the brain regions, one of the key areas of the brain involved in fear is the amygdala. This area of the brain is evolutionarily old, it runs nearly automatically, and it goes into overdrive in situations that are unfamiliar to us. Many of you know this area as being responsible for your fight or flight response. 

When this area of your brain lights up due to a perceived dangerous situation, it can cause your heart rate to increase, blood pressure to rise, and the release of stress hormones. Repeatedly having your amygdala triggered can cause quite a bit of discomfort or even lead to anxiety disorders. 

Sounds a lot like what’s happening right now, doesn’t it?

The amygdala LOVES familiarity. Routine. Predictability. These characteristics are a signal of safety. So, when things get unfamiliar, unpredictable, when we deviate from our routine, the amygdala flips the panic switch, makes our heart rate go up, and leads to the fear and anxiety response all of us are so familiar with.

Now here’s the thing. Normally, we would tell you to counter the amygdala’s automatic fear response by using a more deliberative or intentional part of your brain called the prefrontal cortex.

Normally we would ask you to intentionally and systematically appraise your fear to help balance out your thinking. In most cases, that leads us to realize that, even though the situation we’re in seems scary to the amygdala, there really isn’t an actual threat out there. We can sort of rationalize our way into being a bit calmer when we aren’t actually facing dangerous activity. 

Here’s the kicker: there is a real threat these days. The virus is real, and it’s spreading. So, not only is your amygdala on an overdrive roller coaster right now… You’re outside of your normal daily routine, you’re likely feeding it a diet of news and social media, the future seems uncertain…all the things your amygdala HATES. But, your prefrontal cortex can point at actual evidence that a threat exists. 

So now what?!

In times like these, we would still ask you to balance your thinking using deliberate, intentional thought processes. 

The news focuses on extreme, salient cases where people had very bad outcomes because that’s what sells. That’s not an accurate representation of the virus, as a whole. A common-sense approach to the actual threat level is the best we can hope for but it’s hard to drown out the noise.

Dr. Ashley’s post last week touched on the importance of appraising the problem that’s in front of you right now rather than trying to predict the future. People enjoy feeling in control, and when you take the time to appraise the problem, your sense of control will return. 

But beyond that, here’s one more technique you can use: become more of an observer of your own thoughts. Put some psychological distance between you, the core human being that you are, and the thoughts you’re aware of. 

By taking the position of the observer, you’re distancing yourself from the rumination and emotion that can come from our thoughts, particularly when we’re afraid. 

I know that sounds easier said than done, but with dedicated practice, it can be done!

Build Your Psych Strength

At Peak Mind, we are dedicated to helping you build your psych strength. We have free resources, like our podcast as well as digital programs, like ASCEND, our comprehensive psych strength building program. Inside of ASCEND, you’ll develop the skills to see your thoughts as thoughts, rather than getting wrapped up in them – and so much more! This is such an uncertain and difficult time for many people, but psychological research shows us that it is possible to THRIVE through adversity. We want to help you do just that.