Last Updated on October 13, 2023 by It’s Complicated
The outward freedom that we shall attain will only be in exact proportion to the inward which we may have grown at any given moment. And if this is a correct view of freedom, our chief energy must be concentrated on achieving reform from within. – MAHATMA GANDHI
Have you ever wondered why moths and flies behave in this quasi-suicidal way of flying directly into a flame? I have. It turns out that they don’t actually intend to fly into the flame at all: Months and flies have 360 little light tubes in their eyes which they use to navigate with in reference to the vertical light beams from the sun or the moon. When humans learned to harness fire and then later invent artificial light we inadvertently messed up their navigating system by presenting them with light rays that were not vertical but instead would lead them directly to the centre of the light source. A moth’s suicide-by-flame therefore is a bi-product of an evolutionary trait that was once very useful but in todays context will often just lead the moth to suffering.
I feel similarly about some of our fear responses.
In the previous letter we talked briefly about the biology of anxiety: a threat is perceived and a pre-programed response is set in motion to either flee or fight. This program activates a series of physical reactions designed to optimise our chance of survival: We excrete stress hormones such as adrenaline; our hearts beat faster in order to pump more blood and oxygen to our legs for running; our breathing increases to retrieve more oxygen and under more extreme threats our digestive system will evacuate anything it was working on in order to not waste precious energy and our brains will do the same with glucose. This is a beautiful thing that our bodies are doing. It is awe inspiring to me how well designed it all is and if we were still in the Savannah it would be life saving: A brilliant evolutionary solution to threat when the threat is a lion.
The problem is that my threat response gets triggered at eleven at night when I am worrying about whether or not I did my taxes correctly in German or whether or not my partner still finds me sexually desirable, neither of which require me to do any running. Ideally in these scenarios I would like to keep all of the glucose in my brain so that I can remain level headed but instead I am less able to think or sustain attention than at any other moment in the day and end up eventually reacting by fighting or fleeing in other ways as the impulse to do so remains in the body.
We have all experienced this for example when going into an exam we were nervous about and as soon as our anxiety and fear spiked our brains turned to mush; when we are interviewing for a job we really wanted and began to sweat through our shirts; or maybe we got a bit gassy before a big presentation at work.
Taking inventory of what you are registering as threatening can be a very helpful starting place for regulating your stress responses from the top down. Talk therapy and in particular mindfulness practices can be useful in bringing our attention to our bodily reactions and the different things we have registered as threats over the years. Because these programs run through a part of the brain that is non verbal and “sub conscious” a lot of this information about ourselves is foreign to us.
Neuroscience research shows us that very few psychological problems are the result of defects in understanding; most of them originate from pressures from deeper regions in the brain that then consequently drive our perception and attention. Developing the practice of observing our reactions compassionately and with curiosity allows us to bring the information to our conscious mind and begin to mediate our future responses to the same threats. Being able observe what goes on inside our bodies calmly – hovering from a distance over our thoughts, feelings and actions – allows the brain to eventually inhibit, organise and modulate the reactions pre programmed in the emotional brain.
Now, I am not saying that the threats we are facing today are not real and worthy of a serious reaction; what I am saying is that some of our pre-programmed responses may prove to be unproductive and maybe even harmful to ourselves and the people around us.
Taking inventory of our feelings and reactions from a place of curiosity (a non-judgmental, curious attitude is important here) and writing those things down will allow us to get some perspective on what is serving us and what is not. Over time when the threat reappears and we recognise our response, the familiarity and consequently diminished levels of fear will mean we can begin to intervene consciously. Not just that, the activity of writing in itself means that we are doing something, we are acting in response to our fear and this is crucial if we want to quiet the alarms.
In the next letter we will explore what happens when we are prevented from action. Until then, start researching mindfulness techniques to see which ones work for you and begin to take note of what’s happening inside your body.