As an explorer of the wholeness of human experience, I have been exploring the Primal Fear Response, the angry, fearful toddler of the psyche. The part of the human nervous system, stored in the amygdala, that is based purely on survival and is designed to stay alert for possible threats. It is the part of the brain which takes over when we feel threatened or devalued….either in a physical sense or in an “imagined” sense. It creates that deep feeling of dread and hopelessness that can plague us late at night. It is responsible for nearly all unhelpful behaviours, including irrational thoughts, mood swings, hyper-sensitivity, addiction, depression, anxiety and self-sabotage. It can make us feel like we are helpless, drowning in negative emotions, powerless to do anything about it.
Although survival is an important function of the human nervous system, more often than not, the difference between perceived threat and actual threat becomes so blurred, that the primal fear response gets stuck on “red alert”. I like to view my fear response as my internal car alarm. For a long time mine was set on hyper sensitive mode, going off like crazy with seemingly innocuous events like a door slamming or a driver behind me on the road. Why does this happen? Well at some point during our lives the alarm system gets so overwhelmed, perhaps due a traumatic event such as a parent leaving or being bullied, that it gets locked on. The event or events can happen very early in our lives, sometimes pre-memory and pre-speech, so processing them and resetting the alarm can become very difficult if we try to think our way out of them. Over years of hyper-fear response we become so used to this way of being, that we forget this isn’t normal and adapt our lives to fit around these perceived threats. Our world shuts down as we see people and situations as potentially threating and do not engage, we avoid making changes to our lives as our alarm tell us this will be too much. Sadly this can result in us living a shadow of the life we have open to us. Very healthy normal human behaviours like playfulness, adventure, mischievousness and pleasure seeking can be supressed. Instead they may be replaced with unhealthy behaviours like neediness, toxic relationships, numbing with food and drugs and keeping ourselves “small” to feel safe.
“Amygdala hijack is a term coined by Daniel Goleman in his 1996 book Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ. Drawing on the work of Joseph E. LeDoux, Goleman uses the term to describe emotional responses from people which are immediate and overwhelming, and out of measure with the actual stimulus because it has triggered a much more significant emotional threat.”
We can spend years and thousands of pounds on various talk therapies and self-improvement workshops to try to “fix” ourselves out of these patterns, but is that the answer? Our fear response does not know the different between actual danger and a danger-filled thought. Maybe talking about our perceived failings and painful memories further stimulates the amygdala into alarming that something is gravely wrong. So how do we switch the car alarm off and return to our natural state of playful, pleasurable curiosity with the world?
What I have found exceptionally helpful for dealing with my overactive primal fear is recognising (with support) that it is not a rational thinking and therefore, cannot be reasoned with or “solved” with rational discussion with it! Imagine you have a toddler who is in a rage and head-butting the wall. Would you enter a long discussion on why this wasn’t a good idea and negotiate with the toddler about stopping at some point? Of course not, you would intervene immediately and stop them. The amygdala fear response does not need reasoning with, it is out of control and needs to be told a firm “NO”. Once you stop jumping to its alarms and reacting, it automatically rewires to respond in a far less hyper-sensitive way. Each time this process is repeated the alarm quietens more, until you only get a fear response when there is an actual threat.
This rewiring process usually requires support because when triggered by fear, it is very difficult (unless you have the mindfulness of a meditation master!) not to jump on board and react, either by shutting down, avoid life or getting angry. Personally I chose to avoid talk therapies as they made me feel more of a victim, and opted for somatic (works with body sensations) therapy and hypnotherapy. Both of these techniques were “solution-focused”. This means a focus on positive thoughts, behaviours and sensations rather than painful ones. The goal isn’t to fix a broken person, rather remind the body and mind that it is ok to have a positive experience of the world. Once guided back to this natural state of being I found my amygdala quietened down and my positive brain chemicals like oxytocin and serotonin flowed much more. I have found it is really very simple, whatever I focus on becomes my reality. Now I focus of pleasurable experiences and feelings about my world this is what I encounter again and again. Occasionally a random event or internal sensation may get my amygdala primed but I calmly and firmly say “No” and move on. Without the constant racket and reactions of fear I am finding my natural state is one of deep love, peace and joy with life. My heart is open to let in more connection and playfulness. I feel held and accepted by the world, why wouldn’t I be? Warm waves of bliss move over my body from eating good food, laughing with friends and smelling a flower…I am remembering my natural state of being!
Here are my top tips for rewiring your way to feeling connected and blissed out!
- What I found essential, is learning to take full responsibility and ownership of this fearful, reactive part of your mind and stop falling into “victim” thinking. This is deeply empowering and prevents you confirming to your brain that you are a fragile, helpless person being flung around by a terrifying world. Only once you recognise you have complete choice not to respond will you start to be free.
- Get professional help. I can’t recommend this highly enough. I spent years trying to self-help myself out of perceived failings and fear and this was really exhausting and kept me stuck. I found somatic therapy and solution-focused hypnotherapy particularly helpful but it is important to do what feels right for you. I know others that have had amazing results with dancing, conscious connection work, Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT) and massage.
- Recognise and let go of your inner “drama queen!” This is part of our ego which loves responding to the amygdala and creating elaborate stories around being a victim, avoiding important decisions and generally being dramatic. This may manifest as a sulky child, constant complainer, flamboyant crisis lover or poor little me victim. Find yours and own it! It will need bringing home with firm loving hand and given a more nourishing job to do from now on.
- Give yourself full permission to live a joyful, pleasure-filled life! Say “YES” to fun interactions and activities even if it feels a bit scary…Fake it ’til you Make It Baby!!
I found it took about 8 weeks of hypnotherapy (once a week) and home practice of saying “No” to my amygdala for it to shift my fear response to a healthy baseline level. I was shocked at how quickly a positive focused therapy changed my whole relationship to the world around me. Something which years of talking about my problems and analysing them had failed to do.
The alarm has stopped ringing constantly, the sense of peace is unlike anything I have ever known. My natural state is one of happiness, play and bliss, it just took losing it to fully appreciate that.