What are you Afraid of?

IMG_3330It is no surprise to anyone that we live in a culture of fear. For the first time we actually have most of our needs met. Good housing, excessive amounts of food and few predators. However, having a low level of fear has been selected for in our evolution. Our brains were designed that way to keep us safe.

There is a part of our brain called the amygdala that is ancient. When I say ancient I’m not referring to your age. I am referring to the fact that it developed a really long time ago from an evolutionary perspective. This fear was instrumental in keeping us safe when we were running away from predators. The amygdala, affectionately called the lizard brain by Martha Beck, has nothing to do all day but send out fear signals. These are experienced as a low level awareness to be careful, that something might go wrong, that we need to be watching out.

Funny thing is that we no longer have imminent danger most of the time. We are sensing this fear and we don’t know why. So, a more modern part of our brain, the centre of our thoughts, tells us stories about what we should be worried about. Brain researchers have done experiments on people that have the left and right sides of their brains separated, an operation that is sometimes performed to stop extreme seizures. If they put a barrier between the eyes and show the person something to only one eye, that side of the brain will see it and the other side will come up with an explanation for it. The explanation often has nothing to do with what the eye on the other side of the brain is seeing.

So we can be sitting in our living rooms, fully fed, protected from the elements and predators (for the most part) and still be feeling fear. The media has taken advantage of this. Our newscasts are no longer providing information; they are strictly feeding us fear. On one morning news show that I used to watch regularly while I was on the treadmill, I was amazed that there was a story about a murder–everyday. The significance of this inclusion became apparent one morning when there were no fresh kills. There was not a current crisis so they dug up an old file on an unsolved, particularly gruesome, murder that had happened many years before. The producers of the show had decided that they would always fill the murder slot, even if there wasn’t one.

The same thing is happening in health circles. You must not eat this. You must eat that. These marketing tools are all predicated on our fear of being mortal. We have been sold the belief that if we just pay attention to the latest finding we will live forever. This is not true. The people that are living to be 110 now were born in 1900. They were living a long time before any of this new knowledge was out there and they seem to have survived anyway.

Within my lifetime every food or food group has been the culprit in bad health and every food has been the saviour. Remember when eggs would kill you? Now they know that they contain a compound that actually lowers cholesterol. The same can be said for bananas that were considered “just carbohydrates” and I can go on and on about this.

Our reality is that we do have a lizard brain that sends out fear signals. Our more modern brain looks around to see what we should be frightened about and can easily find something. But isn’t this exhausting? Wouldn’t it be nicer to recognize that the fear is just a cast off from our cave dwelling selves and that we don’t have to live by its whims?

Here’s how to tell the difference. You feel fear. Notice that you are feeling fear. Hear what your brain is telling you the fear is about. Ask yourself if there is anything that you can do RIGHT NOW to keep yourself safe from the threat. For instance, if you are walking across the street and you see a large SUV careening towards you at an alarming rate the answer would be yes. Right now, I can do what it takes to get out of the way of the vehicle.

On the other hand, if you are worried that you might not have enough money if you live to 115 and you are weeding your garden at the time, recognize it as lizard fear. There is nothing that can be done right now. I’m not saying that reviewing your finances might not be in order, but you cannot effectively do that while knee deep in compost in your back yard. So, see it for what it is. It is lizard fear. It is that low level fear that kept our species safe for centuries. It is not a real fear. Spending time while you are gardening thinking about everything that could possibly go wrong is a waste of time. You could be enjoying yanking out the weeds, improving the garden, enjoying yourself because you are in fact OK.

The key difference here is action. If there is nothing that you can do at this moment to address the fear, it is lizard fear. Acknowledge it. Thank it for keeping you safe. Recognize that you are OK and allow yourself to see how much good there is in your life and have a nice day……

Aren’t they irritating?

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If you ever notice yourself in a situation where you find someone’s behaviour irritating, stop and write it down. We all know the feeling of being rubbed the wrong way. The person acts in a way that gets under our skin and we dislike them because of it. If you experience this you’ve struck gold.

There are, for purposes of this discussion, two parts to the way you experience the world. One is through sensations in your body and the other is through how we explain our world to ourselves using words. The sensations part does not have direct access to the word generating part of our brain and must communicate through body signals. It is more difficult to hear and understand messages that are communicated this way, but that is where the irritation comes in. You experience the other person as irritating because you are trying to tell yourself something that you have noticed about them.

Sometimes a person can be irritating because they allow themselves to do things that you don’t allow yourself to do. They aren’t following the rules, as you understand them. It may be that you are trying to tell yourself that you are too strict about the rules, not allowing spontaneity and joy to enter your own life. The body  is trying to tell you this  and the emotion of irritation is how it is delivering the message.

Another friend found people that were preoccupied with how busy they were irritating. Then she discovered that she had entered a part of her life that was causing her to be too busy. The message may be subtle and easy to shrug off like any unpleasant encounter, but it is worth listening to.

Take a moment when you have a chance to reflect, and read what you have written. Try to write down, as well as you can, what irritated you about this person. Why was that irritating? Why do you feel it is unacceptable? How do these judgements relate to your own decisions? This irritating person may be just what you need to understand yourself a little better.