When Our Limbic Brain Goes Hysterical (Yes, It Also Happens To You)
What good are wings without the courage to fly?
-Harper Lee, To Kill A Mockingbird
Recently we watched a documentary where an eagle chick, fat from months of hard parenting work, was bouncing and flapping its wings frenetically trying to lift that very fat into the air and leave the nest. Every time it did a little jump, we jumped and flapped our arms with it getting a little closer to the edge of the couch. And finally it plunged into the void and after a few easy flaps it glided away majestically towards a brand new life. I think our neighbours heard our sigh of relief.
Then we got to thinking: don’t we often find ourselves in a similar situation, bouncing and flapping our wings eager to do something that seems like plunging into nothingness? And then when we do it we realise it was not THAT difficult, and we soon begin enjoying this new point of view, contemplating all the new possibilities that have just opened. Fair enough the eagle chick had powerful motivation: I fly or I die; while we (humans and such) usually have a wide range of non-life-threatening options to choose from.
Don’t get us wrong, fear is sometimes needed because it gets us into action to prevent or deal with a threatening situation. In our case the moment we made the final decision to abandon our cool, highly comfortable London life and go travel the world, we went into a panic overdrive, flapping and bouncing and squeaking around the house. All we could think about was if we would ever get back all those much needed luxuries that we had worked so hard for. Our survival instinct was panicking reminding us that our status quo was being compromised by suddenly wiping out basic stuff like underfloor heating, Amazon deliveries and exotic restaurants around the corner, and we sure love food.
But why does this happen exactly if there is no actual change whatsoever in our physical safety or need for survival? Why do our brains sabotage our present moment filling our minds with potential “problems” that have not happened yet (and might never happen)? The answer is in our limbic brain (that’s a more primitive part of the brain that deals with emotions among other things) which has a thing for alerting us of situations that make us suffer, and is especially good -like REALLY good- at anticipating those situations and imagining the worst. A real downer. The result is that in a completely safe situation, our body can get an epic dose of stress hormones, adrenaline and cortisol, making us feel like being chased by a pack of wolves while sitting comfortably on the couch. To make matters worse, studies also show that when the limbic brain takes center stage, we have less access to our cerebral cortex (the most developed part of our brain which is responsible for things like empathy and rational thinking) and that means we become less able to solve that situation efficiently. In a nutshell: mental hysteria.
Psychologist and Buddhist teacher Tara Brach (tarabrach.com) reflects over two types of fear that nowadays have a grip on our society to an insane degree, and how these fears stops us from reaching our full potential: the Fear Of Failure (FOF) and the Fear Of Missing Out (FOMO).
FOF or the fear of failure, is the fear we have of coming short. This could be either by not being recognised, or the shame of not getting what we want, or losing what we already have like status, power, money or possessions.
FOMO or the fear of missing out, is that anxiety that tells us our life is not really good unless we have an adventure, experience some ultimate thrill or get the latest gadget, or if we miss a business or financial opportunity or an opportunity to impress.
Ultimately, Tara explains, these fears result from the armour we build to protect our most precious vulnerability: the fear of not being loved (why would anyone love me if I’m not good enough?) So the more we act moved by those fears, the easier anxiety will take hold of us in our daily lives and the longer our train of thought will fall into that trance of worrying, plotting and fantasising. As a consequence, we become less able to relax and be happy and content in the present moment.
The question then is: How can we deal with these fears? Well, the first step is recognising that this stuff is happening and not push it away, remember these feelings are universal and even the most successful people have them, so you’re not that weird. Talking to your partner or a close relative will definitely help, but due to the emotional baggage that these relationships carry, it can prove harder for some people to open up. You can always share it with a good and optimistic friend (you know the one, that person who always thinks your crazy ideas are awesome) to help you keep a positive disposition. Finally on a personal practice level, we have found that nothing works best than mindfulness meditation to understand the patterns of fear in our minds and learn to differentiate the useful from the not so useful types of fear. With some training and regular practice, it can help us loosen the grip and ultimately escape from the influence of these forces that take us into a nail-biting spiral and poor decision-making.
As it turns out, those initial worries we had about losing security, comfort and luxuries, proved to be nothing but an inconsequential detail, since our hysterical brain couldn't see all the amazing experiences we are living, the inspiring people we are meeting, and the endless possibilities we are contemplating from this new point of view.
If you are interested in exploring further, we have written a practical advice and meditation routine specifically designed to recognise, connect and overcome fear. You can find it here: Welcoming Fear.
The practice of mindfulness can be extremely powerful and liberating, but it needs some time and guidance. If you don’t know where to start, drop us a line to firstname.lastname@example.org and we will be able to give you some more information and free resources to get you started.
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