How mindfulness changes your brain to reduce fear
You are not your fear — you are the one who chooses how to respond to it. If you were your fear, who would be there to notice it? The very fact that you are aware of any emotion means that there is a space within you from which you consciously get to choose how to respond to it.
The word mindfulness is often associated with meditation. Both concepts are tied together by self-awareness in the present moment. Mindfulness focuses on becoming aware of both your internal (thoughts, beliefs, emotions) and external environment (physical surroundings, sensations). Meditation is often oriented towards minimizing the influence of the external environment to increase your awareness of your internal environment.
The benefits of practices that bring our awareness into the Here and Now reach beyond the mental sphere. Sometimes it may feel as if the fearful thoughts that run through our minds are us — we associate who we are with how we are feeling. If we identify with our thoughts, we may then feel as if our emotions and fears have power over us. A mindfulness or meditation practice can help us break the link to our fears on a biological level.
AUTOMATIC REACTION VS CONSCIOUS RESPONSE
The amygdala is often dubbed the brain’s “fear center.” Part of the brain’s limbic system, the amygdala starts the fight-or-flight response when you encounter a situation that your mind associates with danger. The fight-or-flight response results in a release of chemicals that you feel as stress in your body.
The more you give into your fears, the more you reinforce that behavior. You are then more likely to act on impulse when you know you shouldn’t or to hesitate to take action when you know you should.
In between the physical feeling of fear as it flows through your body and the next action you take, there is a space.
That space is where your power lies. It is from this space that you can see the fear response happening. You are the one that is aware of the fear chemicals flowing through your body — you are not them.You have the power to respond consciously rather than to react automatically.
YOUR FEARS COME FROM YOUR PAST, YOUR POWER IS IN THE NOW
How do we train our brains to get into that tiny space in between an outside stimulus and our response?
By becoming more present.
When we bring conscious attention to our thoughts, we weaken the links between the stimuli that trigger a conditioned fear response. If you have been hurt in relationships in the past, for example, you may associate them with pain. That association has a physical component — a neural network that gets activated every time you think about relationships. Becoming present helps you become more objective. Seeing the association between a fear and a past event brings you one step closer to breaking that association’s power over your behavior.
Most of our fear reactions are irrational because they arise out of the past. Real thinking involves responding to what is going on in this moment rather than allowing our brain to dig up old associations from our subconscious.
Practicing mindfulness can help us break old habits of anxiety and hesitation. It helps us establish a habit of responding from a fresh space of present-moment awareness. That space allows our brains to draw from a much wider range of data. When we are not confined to our limited lens of emotionally charged past associations, we make new connections. We see possibilities that our fear-based emotions didn’t allow us to see before.
BEING PRESENT IS GOOD FOR YOUR BRAIN
Mindfulness can help you recognize the nature of your fear reactions, thus providing the space to change your response to a less-fearful one.
In addition to its countless other benefits, in relation to fear specifically, meditation has been shown to:
Decrease the size and volume of the amygdala (the “fear center”) after as little as eight weeks
Increase the size of the prefrontal cortex, the high-level decision-making part of our brain
The connection between the areas of the brain that are associated with concentration strengthens while the connection between those that are associated with the fear response weakens
The less the brain’s fear center intervenes in your decisions, the more energy your brain has to dedicate to the more logical functions of your prefrontal cortex. This helps you remain cool-headed as challenges arise. Your fearful thoughts stop running you the moment you realize you are the one who is perceiving them.
There are many ways for becoming more present in daily life. Mindfulness and meditation are practices that can be implemented on a daily basis, thus becoming new empowering habits that weaken the brain’s fear-based wiring.
For now, you could simply start by becoming more aware of your next breath. Settle into your body and remind yourself what it feels like to be here..to be alive. Is there anything your are missing in this very moment?