The Overprotective Brain

When humans walked the earth as primitive beings there were many reasons to feel fear and stress, legitimate reasons. Humans were vulnerable and weak compared to the predators lurking within their given environments. Stress caused by fear was necessary for survival, triggering adrenaline and the fight or flight response. It literally was a case of life and death for our primitive ancestors.

But what about now, what about the stress, anxiety and fear in the life of modern humans? Is this stress actually warranted? In most cases it absolutely isn't. The human brain has adapted and evolved to protect us from danger, but the original reasons for this protection are no longer present. Sure there are still lions and sharks, violent criminals, terrorists, potential accidents and other legitimate reasons for our brain to go into fight or flight overdrive, but how often in your life do you expect to be chased by a lion, really? So if our brain no longer needs to protect us from such things or maybe only in rare occasions at best, what does it do with this evolutionary adaptation? It re-directs this physiological resource to what we tell it to fear, either consciously or subconsciously. Instead of predators, we now fear public speaking, embarrassment, rejection, failure, making mistakes and what others may think of us. Unlike true predators, which would seldom attack primitive man- the opportunity to fail, be rejected, make a mistake or embarrass ourselves comes up frequently. Even the mere thought, idea or possibility of these things occurring can trigger anxiety. The fight/flight response is only meant to occur and last for as long as the perceived danger is present. Once a gazelle evades the pursuing lion, it relaxes and carries on with its usual business of grazing. It essentially goes from physiological overdrive to homeostasis in a very short period of time and although it remains alert the survival systems settle back to normal.

An over protective brain will hold you back in life, from goals, possibilities and your potential. Anything you think or feel may cause you pain, discomfort or embarrassment will be enough to trigger your brain into action. When your brain starts to perceive the possibility of one of these situations occurring it will start working on you by creating thoughts and feelings, which are designed to persuade you to change your mind, avoiding the potential hazard. Consider these examples-

  • You are thinking to enroll in a course, but have reservations because you didn't perform well at school. You start feeling like you are not intelligent enough and worry about failing. It only takes one person to suggest you shouldn't do it and you walk away from your decision immediately.

  • You have been asked to speak at an event but think you will embarrass yourself. Instead of pushing through your anxiety and growing stronger for it, your fear gets the better of you and you decide to make an excuse, saying you are sick and can't participate up.

  • You like someone and want to ask them out on a date but you have been rejected and hurt before. Your brain tricks you, telling you that you are not good enough, that this person is probably horrible anyway and it wouldn't work even if you tried. You decide to do nothing until your interest fades away.

  • You are asked to fix a problem but people are watching you. You worry that you might end up looking stupid and if you do a bad job people won't think you are as good or smart as you believe yourself to be. You deflect the request and avoid the topic over the following weeks.

  • You are heading to the gym on your third night in a row, attempting to lose some weight. Its starts to rain very lightly so you immediately decide that it is too wet to go and choose to drive home instead. You sit at home eating a tub of ice cream thinking about how others would have judged you anyway if you went to the gym. You tell yourself that it wasn't working anyway and you felt silly exercising in front of people.

All of the above are normal situations in life. When we consider moving forward and trying to do things differently, our brain tells us this is a risk and could cause pain, not death, usually just emotional pain at worst. We have somehow aligned emotional pain with being chased by a lion intent on killing us. Even our adrenaline can be triggered by this self-provoked and self-inflicted stress. These examples demonstrate just how your brain can go to work on you. It starts to cast doubt, creates legitimate sounding excuses, it looks for false or misleading evidence to confirm these fears and it sends you the running back to where you came from. At the end of each potential pathway, your brain sees pain and so does whatever it has to, to scare you off. It is in fact protecting you, but often protecting you from the very things which may change your life for the better. So what can you do to control these false beliefs, thoughts and emotions-

  1. Be ready for your brain in advance. When you are thinking about attempting something new or different, expect push back in the form of negative thoughts and negative future predictions.

  2. Don't turn back. Once you have decided force yourself to jump much like the first time you parachute. Just do it.

  3. Stop listening to the rubbish your brain feeds you. Remember it will be very convincing and the thoughts it implants will seem completely reasonable. Assess and analyze these thoughts and be as objective as possible when doing so.

  4. Enlist support. Have some one behind you, to help push and support you. When you think about running, they can back you up and stop you before completely withdraw.

  5. Write down the associated thoughts and emotions and consider them thoroughly. Look for evidence to prove these feelings wrong. Are you really too dumb, too ugly, too incompetent or too weak? The honest answer to these questions will likely be 'no' and even if they are true in the moment, most things can be changed overtime anyway.

  6. Read books about fear, confidence and human behaviour. Learn and understand how and why our brains work in such a way.

  7. Know that most of your fears are irrational and that they are often the gateway to amazing and positive change in your life, if you can find the courage to push through them. Life is too short to care for such thoughts or to even give them a second of attention.