Written and contributed by Stephen Gibb
Around nine months ago, my daughter Willow developed a fear of elevators. Each time we walked towards one, Willow would become hyper-vigilant. Her breath would quicken, and she would cling tightly to me. If I resisted, Willow would begin to cry and become incredibly distressed.
Willow and I live on the top floor of an apartment block. It was upsetting to see her in distress every time we would leave or return home together. My reassurances that elevators held nothing to fear didn’t help. And, while I did my best to convince her, infants don’t care about calming breathing techniques or cognitive reframing when in floods of tears. These tools are, however, very beneficial for adults — more on that later.
On one swelteringly hot day, when the elevator was out of order, Willow and I were forced to climb down and then back up four flights of stairs. Willow complained of sore legs and tiredness every step of the way (other than when I was carrying her of course), which made what happened next even more surprising.
Every day afterwards, Willow asked to use the stairs rather than the elevator, even volunteering to climb all four flights unassisted. Willow had found a way to avoid the uncomfortable feelings brought on by the elevator and was undeterred by the extra effort, discomfort and inconvenience involved.
I, however, wasn’t a fan of Willows labour-intensive plan. I believed she would outgrow her fear and, in what now seems like an act of torture, subjected her to many more stressful rides in the elevator. That was until I understood the underlying cause of her distress.
Fear primarily refers to an experience in which we are faced with an immediate or expected threat to our life or wellbeing. This is called a rational or appropriate fear and is typical and even helpful in dangerous situations. It serves a protective purpose, activating the automatic “fight-or-flight” response to keep us safe.
Another category of fear exists, namely irrational or inappropriate fear. These are fears of something that poses little or no actual danger. Although irrational fears can become so severe that they interfere with everyday life. When they do, they’re called phobias. When confronted with the thing feared, the terror is automatic and overwhelming. The experience can be so nerve-wracking that you will go to great lengths to avoid it — inconveniencing yourself or even changing your lifestyle. This is what was happening to Willow.
As it turns out, Willow didn’t feel threatened by the elevator at all. In fact, the elevator was only a trigger for Willows phobia and experience of anxiety. Willow was anxious about the elevator doors separating her from her dad, and the potential of becoming lost.
Anxiety is a natural part of life and, at normal levels, helps us to function at our best. It’s what motivates us to plan for the future. In this sense, it’s a good thing. It’s that nagging feeling that encourages us to study for that test practice harder for that game or be at our very best in that presentation. However, some people experience such intense anxiety that it is no longer helpful or useful. They may become so overwhelmed and distracted by anxiety that they fail their test, fumble the ball, or spend the whole presentation stumbling over their words and staring at the floor. Anxiety can be incredibly challenging to control and at its worst completely debilitating.
The difference between fear and anxiety is exceptionally nuanced. The perceived threats (physical or imagined) are processed in the same parts of our brain and cause us to experience many similar symptoms and feelings when they occur. However, being able to spot the difference is critical in being able to handle the situation and alleviate the discomfort.
Because Willow never feared the elevator, my attempts to convince her that it was safe were destined to fail. When Willow offered to take the stairs, it wasn’t to avoid using the elevator, it was to dodge the stimulus of the anxiety associated with becoming lost. Willow had stumbled upon a way to suppress the anxiety through avoidance. However, she wasn’t addressing the underlying phobia, meaning there could be numerous other triggers that could cause distress in the future.
Stress, the bodies response to fear and anxiety, is a rapidly increasing challenge of modern society. From an evolutionarily perspective, stress was designed to help us focus on the present moment and by preparing the body to move. It was intended for short irregular applications to help us escape from something or capture something else. Today, however, many of us live in a state of perpetual stress, or, to give it its clinical name, chronic stress. Over time, repeated activation of the stress response takes a toll on the body. It can cause high blood pressure, the formation of artery-clogging deposits, changes in the brain that may lead to depression and addiction and even obesity.
It appears that benign irrational fears can, in fact, be as life-threatening as their rational equivalents. It is critical, therefore, to take steps to lessen stress in life to maintain a clean bill of health.
I am adept at findings ways to relieve the discomfort of stress, and like Willow, will accept sacrifices to do so. These can be as trivial as leaving the house early to avoid busy public transport or as significant as giving up a personal ambition for fear of failure. Regretfully, this behaviour has deprived me of our meaningful opportunities to learn, grow and lead a liberated more vibrant life.
Most people know when something in their life isn’t working. However, they lack the tools to understand what’s wrong and what remedial steps to take. Fear, or more specifically, anxiety, can be a great indicator of what’s not working. It can also be the catalyst and impetus to step outside of our comfort zone to address the root cause and develop as an individual.
The way I permanently address anxiety and alleviate stress is to eliminate the uncertainty associated with the underlying fear. For Willow, that is a work in progress. I’ve been teaching her what to do if we become separated, not just by the elevator but anywhere. However, the solution to becoming lost goes beyond just knowing how to find each other again. It includes reassuring Willow that I am there for her, that she can rely on me and when she is a little older, that she’ll be capable of independence. This is a tougher nut to crack, but we will get there.
Working through uncertainty is a cognitive process of gathering information that invalidates your fear or increases your comprehension of the imagined situation and how to handle it. Providing your brain with the understanding, you can overcome the fear serves to turn down the volume on the anxiety. The more certainty you can develop around fear, the quieter the anxiety and the resultant stress becomes.
Managing uncertainty can take time, and unsurprisingly, anxiety and stress doesn’t disappear while we are trying to develop certainty. It’s beneficial, therefore, to have some tools that can help release the pressure when it all gets too much. The tools below were shared by Neuroscientist Andrew Huberman from Stanford University on a recent Thrive Global post. They act on the core nervous system to shift us from “fight-or-flight” into the “rest-and-digest” state, and in doing so, calm us down.
1. Use Panoramic Vision
The focus of the eyes is closely linked to felt levels of stress. Engaging panoramic vision (looking straight ahead and allowing the peripheral vision to expand), can positively impact stress levels.
When feeling stressed or experiencing a build-up of anxiety. Lifting the gaze away from the screen and looking ahead can have a profoundly positive affect. Or better still, increase the impact by getting outside into nature and viewing the horizon; bonus points for a sunrise or sunset.
2. Exhale Emphasised Breathing/Physiological Sighs
One of the most common things people say when someone is stressed is to take a deep breath. However, studies show that it’s actually the exhale that plays the most significant role in the calming the nervous system. Inhale focused breathing (any breathing technique in which the inhale is longer) increases agitation and stress in the body; which can be valuable under certain circumstances. Exhale emphasised breathing, where the exhale is longer, allows the nervous system to be reset to base levels.
Completing two to five rounds of a physiological sigh — double inhale (breath in, pause, breath in again) and long sigh out the mouth — will be impactful in lowering stress levels.
3. Take Action
Often times when stress arises, the last thing I feel like is doing is moving. I have even found myself in a state of paralysis in exceptional circumstances. Other times I have attempted to suppress the overwhelming feeling of stress because I’m not sure how to handle it. These reactions are counterintuitive to our physiology.
Rising levels of stress are the nervous systems way of encouraging forward movement to take action towards confronting a challenge or problem. Doing so provides the rewarded of a release of dopamine — a feel-good chemical in the brain that is part of the body’s reward system. This dopamine hit suppressed the internal chemicals responsible for the feeling of stress and strengthens the “take action” circuit of the brain. Making it easier to take action the next time stress takes hold.
I can achieve a similar outcome by taking action on something wholly disassociated from the source of the stress. Just succeeding at making a cup of coffee, putting on a load of washing on or making the bed can also stimulate a release of dopamine in moments of heightened distress.
So, what can we learn from Willow, a three-year-old little girl with a fear of becoming lost?
1. All fear, including anxiety-inducing irrational fear, can be life-threatening. What life-threatening anxiety and suffering are you choosing to live with?
2. It’s easier for us to find avoidant workarounds rather than facing our fears. What are the workarounds masking your fears, and inhibiting your growth opportunities?
3. Irrational fear and the resultant feeling of anxiety can be overcome by eliminating uncertainty. What steps will you take to bring certainty to the context of an existing fear?
Just before I published this article, I spoke to some close friends. I wanted to make sure I was doing the right thing by putting a story about my beloved daughter on the internet. One piece of feedback was so thought-provoking; I thought it worth sharing.
“…maybe change this line, because it is only when it comes to lifts, the line below implies she has it in all situations?
So, what can we learn from Willow, a three-year-old girl with a fear of becoming lost?
I don’t know if you want to label her. All kids look for their parents”
The same concern had crossed my mind. Willows situation is primarily concerning elevators, but there have been other instances too, and most kids do worry about becoming lost. But, I think this is an excellent illustration of a large part of the problem. We are societally scared to label and confront our fears. Instead, we put on a brave face, muddle through and die a little more inside each day.
I don’t want that for my daughter or for anyone else. It is my hope that the research I did to write this will allow me to help Willow overcome her fear and that in reading it, others will be inspired to do the same.
Contributor: Georgia Ellis
Back in 2013 after leaving my Senior Manager Role behind and stepping into a new version of myself as a Business Owner, I took a trip to Iceland. The icy and snowy landscape was not only epic, but it also provided a timely reminder of the cortical landscape of our brains. Kinda a weird connection to make, but stay with me...
As I took in the landscape I couldn't help but see a resemblance to a Human brain and the way our continual thinking carves out new and unique neural pathways, it occurred to me that as en employee I had been thinking a certain way, which had led me to have a rather successful career... but that thinking, and those neural pathways, were not going to serve me as a business owner.
Fast forward to 2019, and with a deeper understanding of neurobiology and the interconnection of our thoughts, emotions and movement. I now appreciate the power of post conventional and complex thinking and the importance or rewiring our brain to steer us in a new direction... partly because of the science, and partly because it's exactly what I did to grow my business. I worked on my mindset first.
In the book "The Biology of Belief" by Dr. Bruce Lipton, he explains how our thoughts and beliefs impact our biology. Did you know if you continuously think thoughts with a negative bias about life or the future, that is tell yourself woeful stories or make negative judgements of a situation or person, that you create a neural pathway in your Brain that hooks you up to seeing only the negative? Just like crevices in the snow that have been carved out by a sled taking the same path over time, those continual thoughts create a deep seeded negative bias.
When you begin to understand neurobiology and neuroscience and even epigentics, you quickly discover that we can retrain our brains to “steer our sled” on to a new path with a positive outlook, then that pathway will show a physical change in our brains. Neuroplasticity means that our brains are continually firing and wiring new pathways, the more we think a thought, the stronger the connection or pathway, the less we think a thought, the weaker the pathway and eventually it prunes away. Each one of our thoughts and subsequent behaviors are responsible for this change in our brains. It's an empowering idea that we can literally begin to prepare ourselves for these extraordinary, complex and uncertain times with the nature of our thoughts.
Not only does a switch in thinking help prepare us for the future, it has other profound effects on us physically and can even help reverse anxiety and depression. Research has shown that regular positive pole thinking can lead to:
Unfortunately negative pole thinking produces the opposite results. Take the point above about being more attractive to other people, I most certainly are turned off by negative people.
The best thing about being in control of our thoughts is that we have a new opportunity each moment to enhance our emotional experience. I discovered many years ago that we always have a choice as to how we respond to situations, events and people. Armed with the knowledge that a positive attitude to life is worth nurturing, and that we can steer ourselves onto a different pathway on our habitual cortical landscape, then we can begin to work on strategies to make this happen for ourselves. Some strategies that I have found helpful for steering my thinking into a better future are:
The more I adopted these practices the easier it was to have a positive mindset. My cortical landscape was changing, and i began to naturally steer myself in a positive direction. Changing the way I thought about things, changed the emotional attachment i had with people and situations. I moved from being the victim to the external world to being the master of my inner world, which strangely, changed the way I saw the external events that used to trigger mental anguish. People who know me somehow think I have always had a positive outlook, the truth is I haven't, I had to teach myself and I am still a work in progress, with the know-how and tools to steer my thinking back on track towards an extraordinary future.
Back in 2011, Bradley Cooper starred in the box office hit movie “Limitless”. The plot follows Edward Morra (Cooper), a struggling writer, who is introduced to a nootropic drug, which gives him the ability to fully utilize his brain and produce optimal performance.
Have you had days where you wished you could fully utilize your cognitive abilities just like Coopers character?
The thing is, few of us realize that there are people out there doing just that… and it doesn’t involve taking a “smart pill”. Ordinary people like you and I (and some extraordinary athletes) are already tapping into this altered state of consciousness.
Over the past decade, Silicon Valley executives like Eric Schmidt and Elon Musk, Special Operators like the Navy SEALs and the Green Berets, and maverick scientists like Sasha Shulgin and Amy Cuddy have turned everything we thought we knew about high performance upside down.
Imagine a life that required less grit, no more working hard to create productive habits, and dismantling the 10,000 hours theory. From studies conducted across a number of fields and headed by Jamie Wheal and Steven Kotler, Co founders of the ‘Flow Genome Project,’ there is a surprising short cut to obtaining optimal consciousness. People across different industries are learning how to harness rare and what used to be controversial states of consciousness to solve critical challenges and outperform the competition.
Flow is the optimal state of consciousness, a state of mind in which you are able to perform at your peak, separated from time, focused solely on the task at hand.
Also known as being "in the zone", it's a state of consciousness that in the past has been difficult to reach and maintain. Most commonly it is experienced by athletes performing high-adrenaline, extraordinary feats of endurance, strength and concentration in sports like mountaineering, rock climbing, surfing, kayaking and so on. In these extreme situations, they are able to get into 'flow' or 'the zone' which enables them to survive and thrive even in the harshest and most demanding of conditions.
Until recently, flow has been inaccessible for those outside of these extreme scenarios, leaving them unable to reach this advanced state of consciousness. However separate research conducted by Dr Joe Dispenza and the Flow Genome Project Founders is showing us that we can access this state and tap into its benefits in the workplace.
“A flow state is a state of consciousness which you feel at your best and perform at your best”
By using MRI and brain scanning techniques, and analyzing what it is that athletes do to enter this state, Kotler has reached a great understanding of flow. While Dispenza has been using brain scans to better understand Gamma brainwaves, which is linked to being in flow and how the brain (when in gamma or flow) produces a super levels of awareness and consciousness along with a heightened state of wakefulness.
Now, by adopting the right habits, altering your behaviors, and adopting a growth mindset, you can access flow in your day-to-day life, unlocking enormous potential at work.
How to tell if you’re in a state of flow according to Kotler and Wheals book ‘Stealing Fire’:
1. You feel no sense of self (Selflessness)
2. Time dilates and dissipates (Timelessness)
3. The activity flows magically (Effortlessness)
4. You feel tapped into inspiration and information (Richness)
“Information richness is a feeling of a high resolution download of realization and possibility that seems to emerge from the world around you” Jason Silva
While there are a number of different methods you can use to prime yourself for an optimal state of consciousness, here are 4 of the most accessible ways to reach flow.
1. HAVING CLEAR GOALS
Understanding WHAT you are doing and WHY you are doing it is critically important. Knowing exactly what you need to achieve at the present moment allows your mind to be free from distractions and helps to unlock greater focus on your current task, and get into flow.
2. SERIOUS CONCENTRATION
Blocking yourself from the outside world – distractions like your phone, social media, gossiping, can help you move into the state of flow. Limiting the number of things your attention is divided between allows greater concentration and maximum attention directed towards what you are trying to achieve.
3. SKILLS/CHALLENGE BALANCE
There is a range between difficulty and simplicity of a task in which the capability of the brain can be unlocked. Too difficult a task leads us to disengage and try to escape the task out of a kind of primal fear. If it is too simple, then we disengage due to boredom. Only between these two, when doing a task that stretches you slightly beyond normal, is the possibility for achieving flow possible.
Meditation sharpens your mental abilities, but by learning to produce more gamma brain waves, you will use your brain in its greatest capacity. It can be as simple as putting on your headphones, listening to relaxing music. And then, when your brain and body are relaxed and blissful, focus on love and compassion. Neuroscientists believe that people can train themselves to produce more of the gamma frequency and it is believed that focusing on compassion and love is one way to do this. It makes sense when you look at elite athletes,– they love what they’re doing, and they’re immersed in what they love – so gamma is a natural state of consciousness for them!
While there are a number of different ways you can maximize your ability to enter flow, these four tips are a great place to start… and great way to tap into your limitless potential.
Contributor: Georgia Ellis, Founder of Blue Chip Minds.
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