The only thing we have to fear is…fear itself
Lessons from Franklin D. Roosevelt and Modern Neuroscience
America has become a country almost paralyzed by fear. Worry over contracting the coronavirus has made us anxious to even go to the grocery store. As a psychologist who specializes in the neuroplasticity of the brain, I’d like to share some insights into the emotion of fear and how not to overreact; we can remain calm in turbulent times, and learn to manage the data that spins the brain into troubling emotional states.
A few short weeks ago, life was predictable. The last regular evening I remember, I came home from a productive day seeing clients in person (oh, how I miss in-person meetings), reheated Fast Metabolism Diet Chili leftovers, and watched Ozark on Netflix with my love Gregg. It was an ordinary Tuesday (back when we still knew what day of the week it was) and then suddenly we found ourselves in the middle of a global pandemic and the world we knew was off-limits, schools were closed, unnecessary travel was banned, and even major league baseball, our national pastime, cancelled spring training and opening day.
It’s scary how much things can change, and how quickly.
Bad news now dominates the landscape. And, my heart goes out to all of you and your families impacted by what is happening now in our country and the world. We are bombarded daily with endless information: new numbers, threats, and societal changes. There are challenges to the healthcare system, impacts on global affairs, trade, travel, education and, of course, economic uncertainty.
The good news is our brains are hardwired to navigate through difficult situations. And, fear is one of our most useful guides. Fear is an emotion designed to alert us to immediate, real danger. But, for many of us right now, it isn’t fear that we are feeling: it’s fear’s ugly imposter: anxiety.
How FEAR works
87 years ago, Franklin D. Roosevelt, the 32nd President of the United States, needed to inspire a nation in the middle of the Great Depression. At the time, 25% of Americans were out of work. In his famous inaugural message, Roosevelt declared, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Roosevelt described fear as a “nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror.” Roosevelt’s inaugural speech was broadcast over radio networks that reached tens of millions of Americans. Those were the days way before TV, the internet, digital data, and complex models of infection rates and projected fatalities. Yet we aren’t so different from our Depression-era grandparents. Millions of Americans sat around the radio in 1933, listening to Roosevelt, wanting to replace their fear with hope.
Neuroscientists have learned so much about the evolutionary roots of the emotion of fear in the eight decades since Roosevelt’s famous speech.
The brain operates based on survival programming, prior patterns, and predictions based on those patterns. None of us truly ever has certainty, or a crystal ball, but our brains like to operate that way, and know how to kick emotional responses in gear for survival when unpredictable events violate that certainty. And prior to the coronavirus pandemic, it was business as usual.
Once you learn to distinguish between useful fear—the need to run from danger, for example, and mock fear or anxiety, you can learn to relate to this emotion differently. You can tame and train your brain, so you can quickly restore calm. There are interventions that are easy to learn, tools to help you restore calm even while coping with fear and uncertainty.
Negative emotions such as fear, rage, and sadness are wired into the brains of all mammals. We are equipped with primitive emotion/action systems that have neural substrates in the lower brain area, often referred to as the emotional, limbic, the primitive, reptilian, survival, involuntary, unconscious brain. For simplicity, I refer to this as BOTTOM brain.
Stress or emotional pain causes the body and nervous system to activate into fight, flight, freeze or flop patterns. The brain produces these fast, automatic, involuntary, motor actions and sensations that you feel in your body. Yes, you feel the emotion of fear in your body, and your physiology changes. Your heart beats fast, and your senses are on high alert. This is useful in times when taking a quick action might save your life.
Yet when you don’t understand the origins of fear, you are more likely to be affected by it in negative ways. More prone to resist it, react, avoid or try to numb it. If you remain unconscious of your emotional pain response, the BOTTOM Brain hijacks the part of the brain you use to think clearly, rationally and plan. When you flip your lid, the TOP Brain prefrontal area goes offline and it’s harder to find alignment with your plans, goals, values or highest intentions. In COVID-time, this feels like pacing back and forth, worrying incessantly about if and when you will get sick. You become stuck in a pattern of anxiety.
The brain isn’t designed to make us feel good—its priority is we continue. Emotions like FEAR are more likely to cause us to feel bad for the purpose of mobilizing survival actions. If we lack understanding of this, we might be more likely to prolong anxiety, feel powerless and get stuck. If we understand what to do in anxious moments, we can avoid making it worse.
The place BEYOND fear
It is possible to rewire fear, bring about calm and optimize your brain to deal with what is happening now so that you might take purposeful actions to protect yourself and move confidently through and out of this crisis.
Plato wrote that “courage is knowing what not to fear.” If you aren’t facing an incoming, actual threat, then you can use Emotional Pain Intervention (EPI®) a system I developed and trademarked to harness the power of neuroplasticity, with specific Play the Brain tools to defeat anxiety. My clients are still at calm-optimal states during this crisis because they have learned to intervene when the emotional-action networks of the brain cycle into anxiety.
As Roosevelt implored, “Only a foolish optimist can deny the dark realities of the moment.” But he insisted even the worst problem has a solution “if we face it wisely and courageously.”
Fear lessens when you begin to understand the emotion of fear itself. We’ve been through hard times before. Luckily, our brains are wired to survive, to adapt, to change, to imagine, and to thrive.
About Dr. Elizabeth Michas
Dr. Elizabeth Michas is a psychologist who specializes in the treatment of trauma and anxiety disorders. https://www.drelizabethmichas.com
She’s also a brain-based coach, consultant, and author of Play the Brain for Change: How to Activate the Vagus Nerve and Use Neuroplasticity for Quick and Lasting Change, A Brain-Changing Conversation Guide for Therapists and the upcoming book Lovestuck™: The Neuroscience of Healing Heartbreak.
Want to begin incorporating neuroscience into your sessions so you can help your clients get quick and lasting change?
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