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Your Brain on Fear and What to Do About It

Updated: Aug 25, 2020

I experienced some serious adrenaline-rush, angst-riddled, stomach-clenched, fear this week. A fellow school administrator, John, likened the choices before us as having to choose between getting one’s head chopped off by a chainsaw or a hatchet. But I survived. Let me break it down for you in terms of what my brain was doing to manage my fear, and the different path it might have taken if I had let myself succumb to fear instead.

At the beginning of this week, I was humming along at a frenetic pace with my co-Administrator, putting together all the logistics of reopening school -- student rosters, staff schedules, bus routes, after school programs, etc. -- all of which needed to be completely redesigned from years past. I was fully operating in my “thinking brain”, the outer, wrinkly surface of the brain that neuroscientists call the “cortex”. The cortex manages all your higher order thinking like planning, strategy, communicating ideas, and organizing teams.

I was interrupted by a call from John. “Did you hear? Many of the big traditional districts in town are switching to all distance learning.”

“What?!? You’ve got to be kidding.”

“Nope. They are all terrified about lawsuits and the liability of reopening.”

A bill in the state legislature that would have waived all California schools from liability regarding COVID related claims died in committee. No insurance company that anyone knows of will cover COVID either. Add to that this recent statement from Randi Weingarten, President of the American Federation of Teachers, “if authorities don't protect the safety and health of those we represent and those we serve ... nothing is off the table. Not advocacy or protests, negotiations, grievances or lawsuits, or, if necessary and authorized by a local union, as a last resort, safety strikes."

My brain switched into full on fear mode. If all the nearby traditional public schools go distance learning, what should I do? What if I’m the only school open? How exposed am I to a lawsuit? Could it bankrupt the school? Could they come after me personally such that I might lose my house and my savings? What if someone on my team gets seriously ill or dies? Or my students? Or their families? How will I live with myself?

And on the flip side... If we don’t reopen physically, what about all the parents who depend on us for child care? Will they lose their jobs and their homes? Will kids fall further behind? What about kids that need school for the safety, security and love they aren’t getting enough of at home? What if someone sues me for not properly educating their kid if we aren’t physically open but could be?

Argh! A chainsaw versus a hatchet indeed.

My brain was now in fear mode which means my “emotional brain” was taking over. The emotional brain involves a network of regions deep under the folds of the cortex. One specific brain area in particular gets activated especially well by fear-inducing triggers: the amygdala, a pair of tiny almond shaped clusters in the temporal lobe. I studied the amygdala and other regions of the emotional brain in my PhD research. The amygdala is activated by threats both real and perceived, but also activated by food, happiness and excitement -- whatever in the environment is especially attention-grabbing. The amygdala triggers a cascade of downstream outputs like the release of chemicals throughout the emotional brain (norepinephrine, dopamine, serotonin) and hormones throughout the body (adrenaline and cortisol). In essence, the amygdala gets your body ready to respond to that attention-grabbing thing. If it’s a threat, it coordinates the fight or flight response to think and act fast to run, hide, or do whatever is needed to escape the threat before you.

But what is really interesting is what happens next, and the choice that you have. You see, your brain is not hard-wired to respond to threats in just one way. While some people shut down or flee in times of extreme stress and fear, you don’t have to. You don’t have to freeze like a mouse caught in a flashlight beam or flee like a gazelle chased by a lion. You have a “thinking brain” which can talk to your “emotional brain” thus shifting the outcome.

My go to reaction in times of fear and stress is to harness that adrenaline-rush and direct my hyper-alertness into problem solving. Adrenaline and cortisol focus one’s thinking. So I use that to my advantage. I turn my fear response into forward-looking, no-hurdle-too-big, problem-busting energy. Within an hour, my Co-Administrator and I had a list of people to call, information to gather, and plans to make. We facilitated a series of meetings over a 24 hour span and together as a Chrysalis team, after fully considering all the threats, we recommitted to our reopening plan with added safety precautions, a liability waiver, and measures to ease teachers’ stress and fear.

The lesson here is that you are not a slave to fear and anxiety. My “thinking brain” enlisted its cortex and prefrontal cortex as well as several “emotional brain areas” like the hippocampus to get curious about the perceived threat. (“Hello risks. I see you. Looks like you are very real, not imaginary. Darn. But let’s see what I can learn. What can I control in this situation?”) I redirect my fight or flight reaction into positive, productive energy in order to reestablish a sense of control and minimize the threat to the greatest extent possible. As this Smithsonian article eloquently states: “That perception of control is vital to how we experience and respond to fear. When we overcome the initial “fight or flight” rush, we are often left feeling satisfied, reassured of our safety and more confident in our ability to confront the things that initially scared us.” You can learn to do this, and help your team reframe their fears too.

Here’s one more tool for your fear-battling arsenal. This really cool study in Science by Daniel Huber and colleagues (2005) found that oxytocin, a hormone released naturally by your pituitary gland that is sometimes known as the “cuddle hormone”, activates certain cells in the amygdala that act like an off switch for fear. And then this brain imaging study by Monika Eckstein and colleagues (2014) showed that a puff of oxytocin in their nose quieted the amygdala, boosted the prefrontal cortex, and reduced the sweaty fear response in people. Oxytocin rises when you pet your dog, when moms cuddle or breastfeed their children, and when you fall in love. I know I feel less fearful when I cuddle my kids or get a hug from my husband or talk to a friend. I’m proud to be part of a teacher-powered team that really relies on one another to figure things out and deal with the challenges as a team.

So try a little cuddle therapy or redirection of that fear response when you’re afraid. You too can rewire your brain to conquer your fears.

Read More

This Smithsonian article offers a lovely, succinct, accessible overview. So does this TED talk by Dr. Lisa Barrett. For much more depth and nuance, check out this Scientific American article that interviews the top scientists in the field.

And read more about the stress response in this blog post of mine on “Controlling Back to School Stress with Science”.

Going Further

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