One of the biggest challenges in living a successful life is learning how to manage fear and stress.
Fear is an automatic response of the amygdala, a part of the brain that is constantly checking out its environment and warning us what might be a threat. Stress also activates this part of the brain. So if you are constantly under stress, your brain is constantly using the amygdala as a reference to make decisions.
The amygdala is a small walnut-sized part of the brain that is always referencing our history, with its goal to keep us safe. This is great if we are being chased by a bear, but this reaction often leads us confronting or avoiding (fight or flight) things that need a response rather than a reaction.
The amygdala part of the brain is often referred to as the ‘reptilian brain’ because it is reacting just as a crocodile does. I know I do not want to be making decisions like a crocodile, which is always just looking at self-preservation. Not a fun way to live.
Just like a crocodile, this part of the brain does not think through if this is the best decision for yourself. It is easy for this part of the brain to have control of our lives but it is not how we thrive in the world.
Also, when we are reacting we are unable to access our frontal lobe, which enables us to think through our decisions, listen to our intuition and judge what is best for us in the longer run – as it can look forward, back and at the present. The amygdala is only referencing how to keep you safe right now.
The frontal lobe is actually 40% of our brain so it has great ability, but we have to consciously decide to use it in times of stress and fear. Part of the problem is you cannot be in the frontal lobe and amygdala at the same time, so you can either make a choice to react or respond.
This is often easier said than done. The brain automatically feeds all information through the amygdala.
So how do we consciously choose to be in the frontal lobe? Here are some ideas.
*Make a decision to not make any decisions until you know you are calm and not in an emotional state.
*Stop, take a breath, notice how your body is feeling – if it is activated, this is the amygdala reacting. Ask yourself, what is your body telling you?
*Journal your thoughts and feelings daily to keep you centered on what is happening in your life.
*Check in with yourself, are you being the best version of yourself?
*Do not dismiss how you feel, Acknowledge your feelings (the chemical response lasts about 90 seconds) but do not react to them.
*Do not create a story about what is “going” to happen, just acknowledge “what is” for now.
*Talk it over with a friend, therapist, or mentor before making a decision.
*Do something positive for yourself: go for a walk, exercise, meditate, pray, call a friend, rest, read, journal, listen to music, dance.
*Remind yourself “this too shall pass.” Nothing stays the same, we are always evolving and changing. Allow the process, do not fight it.
*When you are aware you are in the frontal lobe, look at times when you react from the amygdala and walk through an alternative plan. For example I know when I am starting to tighten my body or become defensive I am in the amygdala, so I am in the habit now of taking a deep breath and telling myself to just let it be, and take a step back from what is happening. I do not make a decision till I can tell I am relaxed.
This takes practice, but makes life much more enjoyable and peaceful when you are not reacting to life’s challenges. Challenges are always going to be part of your life so learning how to manage them is more important than trying to avoid them.
Dr. Shelly Zavala practices in Newport Beach. She can be reached through DrZavala.com.