This week's blog was written by our Clinical Director of Neuro Therapy, Leah Zinnert. It's a really fascinating piece!
National Geographic recently came out with a documentary called “Free Solo,” about how Alex Honnold became the only person in the world to climb the 3,000 ft wall El Capitan without a rope or other safety gear.
An article written about the climb stated that:
“Elite climbers have pointed to Honnold’s unique ability to remain calm and analytical in such dangerous situations, a skill that Honnold has slowly developed over the 20 years he has been climbing… There are other climbers in Honnold’s league physically, but no one else has matched his mental ability to control fear.”
His ability to remain calm in these high-risk situations intrigued scientists. So much so, that they actually conducted a functional MRI of his brain.
This type of imaging shows changes of blood flow that occur in the brain when a person is performing a certain task or exposed to a certain stimulus. Essentially, what is activated (or not activated) will light up during the scan.
The amygdala, the part of the brain they were especially interested in studying in Alex, is a part of the limbic system. It helps us to interpret and process emotions. It helps us to identify threatening stimuli and regulate our fear response.
What they discovered in Honnold was interesting. When they exposed him to stimuli that, in you and I, would most likely cause a fearful response, it generated nearly no response in Alex’s amygdala. His brain remained in the parasympathetic (rest and digest) state instead of being driven into the sympathetic state that would occur in the typical person.
But how? One hypothesis could be genetics. Some people are just wired to be more ‘chill’ than others. Some of us are better at remaining calm in stressful or scary situations.
Or perhaps it’s a result of his training?
Has the repeated exposure to scary situations given him the ability to actually train and control his responses even at the deepest levels of the nervous system?
Maybe it’s a combination of both.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, what if your amygdala was the opposite of Alex Honnold’s? What if it was OVER active (which studies have suggested would cause the amygdala to be larger than normal)?
Could it signal a fear response in a situation that may not be appropriate, which would increase anxiety, fear, and even pain levels?
And what if we have the ability to train our brains to interpret stimuli differently?
Here are 5 tips that have been proven effective at training (and shrinking) your amygdala, so you can be more in control of your fear response.
1. Face your Fears
Avoid Avoidance. Is there something that your fearful of? Often, repeated or controlled exposure to these things can help decrease fear, help you to manage anxiety, and stress. If you’re unsure of how to do this, talking to a professional can help.
It all starts with the breath. Ever been stressed out, feel like you can’t control anything happening around you? One thing you can always control – your breath. Try this exercise to drive your brain in to chill mode:
The goal here is to increase focus and calm. There is a lot of information you can find online about best strategies to initiate a meditation practice if you are unsure. https://www.wikihow.com/Meditate or App’s such as Headspace or Calm can be helpful.
It has long been proven that regular aerobic exercise helps to release endorphins, which naturally stabilize mood, decrease anxiety, and decrease stress. Not sure where to start? Pick something simple that you know you’ll enjoy doing!
5. Why are you fearful?
Take some time to explore why you may react or be more sensitive to certain stimuli. Once you are more aware of the WHY behind certain behaviors, they are easier to manage.
Do you know someone who would benefit from training their amygdala?
Send them this article!
About the Author
Evan Lewis is a nationwide leader in Neuro Therapy and founded the Baltimore area's only specialist Neuro Therapy facility.
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