The brain’s job is to make sure that its vehicle, the body, survives. To that end a multitude of complex response mechanisms have evolved which allow us to negotiate the many challenges our environment provides, be they the challenges of a harsh climatic pattern or the adversity posed for many by simply being asked to speak before an audience.
Although teenage girls have a tendency to say, “That’s scary!” about almost anything, fear has been understood traditionally to be an unconscious neurophysiologic survival response to physical danger, designed through natural selection over eons to prepare the body for fight against or flight from an immediate environmental threat. For example, many people have experienced the “rush” associated with having had a near miss in or with an automobile. Before you know it, you’ve swerved and are once again safe on your merry way to your destination, heart racing. Such an experience gives one pause. Aren’t we glad something in us reacted and we didn’t have to take time to think about what to do to get out of what could have been a lifethreatening situation?
Unlike the fear response, which takes over in cases of perceived immediate threat, the responses of anxiety and stress have been understood to result from an individual’s state over time. Thus thinking processes about uncertain future potentials play a much greater role in the dynamic. For example, the interview you are about to have for the new job you want poses no physical threat whatsoever. Nonetheless, your palms are sweaty (how embarrassing!), and your heart is beating faster and you can’t quite catch your breath. What’s the big deal?
The frontal lobe is the “executive” part of the brain. It is the seat of focused thought and willful decisionmaking. Remarkably, the frontal lobe also shares direct connections with every other distinct functional portion of the brain.
As neurologist Dr. Richard Restak explains in his book, Poe’s Heart and the Mountain Climber, “When we’re afraid, we want to get away from the dreaded object as quickly as possible, whereas anxiety creates in us an inner conflict involving both approach and avoidance . . .” [Psychologist] Rollo May’s description of this kind of conflict neatly distinguished between fear and anxiety: ‘In fear, your attention is narrowed to the object, tension is mobilized for flight; you can flee from the object because it occupies a particular point spatially. In anxiety, on the other hand, your efforts to flee generally amount to frantic behavior because you do not experience the threat as coming from a particular place, hence you do not know where to flee.’”
The biochemistry of the fight/flight response involves a complex system of information transfer between different parts of the body. In his groundbreaking work The Synaptic Self, Dr. Joseph LeDoux identifies the sensory area of a structure called the thalamus as being the originator of the response. The thalamus, which is located in the middle of the brain under and between the two large hemispheres of the neocortex, processes, on a subconscious level, crude but actionable sensory data from the environment. Should any of this information prove threatening, another part of the brain, the amygdala, immediately goes into action. The amygdala is composed of two almond shaped structures, one on each side of the brain, located within the limbic system, the whole of which is most associated with emotional feeling and behavior.
“When we’re afraid, we want to get away from the dreaded object as quickly as possible, whereas anxiety creates in us an inner conflict involving both approach and avoidance . . .” – Dr. Richard Restak
Dr. LeDoux refers to the neurological pathway between the sensory thalamus and the amygdala as the low road. However, he also identifies the high road, a slightly longer and more circuitous pathway through which the amygdala receives more complete information via the sensory cortex area of the brain. Thus the low road provides the information necessary to avoid immediate danger such as the automobile incident we discussed previously. However, the input through the high road allows some level of analysis to take place in which a perceived threat can be distinguished from an actual threat. The input from both roads reach the same neurons, and thus the cells which are affected by the first response are already primed to act should the information from the cortex confirm the threat, or can be signaled to stop the reaction process if in fact the threat turns out to be benign (a branch scratching against your window rather than a truly threatening intruder).
The hypothalamus is the next part of the brain to play a part in the overall stress response. The hypothalamus is responsible for sending messages to the pituitary gland (located in the center of the skull and to which the hypothalamus is attached), in order that the pituitary can, in turn, activate the adrenal glands which sit on top of the kidneys. In moments of fear and acute anxiety, the adrenal glands secrete increased amounts of adrenaline which results in a cascading series of effects including increased heart rate and blood pressure and the channeling of blood and oxygen from the internal organs to the extremities and the brain. The stress hormone cortisol (also secreted by the adrenals) is simultaneously released and begins to alter the immune system, preparing the body for the possibility of injury and/or infection. Meanwhile, the bronchial tubes within the lungs have dilated, allowing more oxygen to be delivered through the bloodstream to the brain, thus bringing about a heightened state of mental awareness. Concurrently, the pituitary gland is also producing endorphins, the body’s natural painkiller, so as to offset any potential pain.
We now know that we can activate the frontal lobe by simply applying focused attention to it, and thereby we can begin to modify our emotional and chemical responses.
Neurological research has been aided particularly by the advent of relatively recent technologies that allow for real time insight into the workings of the human brain. Positron emission technology (PET) involves the detection, tracking, and subsequent computer-generated imaging of a positron-emitting radioisotope which is introduced into the body. Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) provides visual real time imaging of areas of the brain which can be identified to be in varying states of excitation. When neurons are excited, they consume more oxygen. The presence of increased oxygen in the blood in these areas changes the magnetic resonance, which is then rendered visually.
Much of the new research that employs these technologies indicates that the stress response can be mitigated and even interrupted by the intentional activation of an area in the brain called the frontal lobe, located under the forehead. The frontal lobe is the “executive” part of the brain. It is the seat of focused thought and willful decision-making. Remarkably, the frontal lobe also shares direct connections with every other distinct functional portion of the brain.
A delicate balance between the workings of the emotional and cognitive parts of the brain offers the greatest opportunity for successfully meeting the many challenges of a survival situation.
Dr. Richard Davidson, Director of the Waisman Laboratory for Brain Imaging and Behavior in Madison, Wisconsin, has done some of the most important research in this area over the last several years. Dr. Davidson conducted extensive research with a number of highly trained Tibetan monks, tracking their brains’ activity during various states of meditation and focus. As quoted by Marc Kaufman in the Washington Post, “Davidson says his newest results from the meditation study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in November, 2004, take the concept of neuroplasticity a step further by showing that mental training through meditation (and presumably other disciplines) can itself change the inner workings and circuitry of the brain.”
Such research points squarely to the fact that ultimately we have a choice when it comes to fear and anxiety. Although the autonomic fear response can be life saving in moments of immediate danger, the prolonged experience of chronic fear or anxiety can be debilitating both psychologically and physically. We now know that we can activate the frontal lobe by simply applying focused attention to it, and thereby we can begin to modify our emotional and chemical responses. Dr. Restak states plainly, “We retain the freedom at any time to employ our frontal lobes to switch our mental focus from anxiety to concentrated attention.”
The ability to focus one’s attention in the midst of chaos is key to survival. But what is considered to be the “emotional” part of the brain is equally indispensable. Not only do we want our subconscious and autonomic scanning of the environment to continue, but also what is considered to be an emotional response to environmental stimuli may be more than simply the biochemistry of reaction. The gut feeling that people get not to do a particular thing or not to go to a particular place may very well be the brain’s way of getting us to listen to subtle, pre-cognitive information coming through areas in the midbrain that we might otherwise be prone to miss.
The ability to focus one’s attention in the midst of chaos is key to survival.
Laurence Gonzales, in his authoritative work, Deep Survival – Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why indicates repeatedly that a delicate balance between the workings of the emotional and cognitive parts of the brain offers the greatest opportunity for successfully meeting the many challenges of a survival situation. Citing Joe Simpson, a climber who survived his 19,000- foot descent from Siula Grande in the Peruvian Andes with a broken leg as an example, Gonzales writes, “He took cognitive control. He had successfully put his thinking brain in balance with his emotional brain so that the two could help him to function.” Speaking of elite performers “such as highangle rescue professionals, who risk their lives to save others,” Gonzales reiterates. “They have an exceptional balance of boldness and humility.” That is, they are possessed of both the ability to be open to environmental stimulus and change and to adapt accordingly, as well as the ability to make decisions and take action.
Gonzales emphasizes the wisdom of having a plan when venturing into the unknown and even goes so far as to say, “Plans are generated as one of the many outputs of the brain as it goes about its business of mapping the body and the environment.” Likewise, Dr. Restak emphasizes the value of planning and sticking to priorities as a means of dealing with heightened anxiety. He advises people to “determine each morning what you want to accomplish that day and stick to your goals no matter how anxious you feel. If you do this, your brain will soon learn to operate at near optimal levels under conditions of anxiety. Remember: the brain is constantly renewing itself and changing its “programming” based on your thoughts, attitudes, and actions. So if you want to reduce the level of anxiety that you’re feeling, act as if you’ve already accomplished your goal.”
Seeing oneself successfully negotiate whatever crisis may occur is a way in which to direct the neuro-chemical processes so that we can empower effective decision making and action, instead of merely emotionally reacting.
Restak and Gonzales’ work are profoundly pertinent to how we can approach the many challenges we face in our contemporary world. Whether dealing with the anxiety produced by the unceasing threat of a terrorist attack or the survival situation of an actual catastrophic event, seeing oneself successfully negotiate whatever crisis may occur is a way in which to direct the neuro-chemical processes so that we can empower effective decision making and action, instead of merely emotionally reacting.
In other words, create your day, every day. Come what may, you will live to see another.