On a family holiday in the stunning Vicentina Coast Natural Park on the west coast of Portugal, the teens and I went walking off the beaten track, up a sharp, rugged cliffside.
Not a soul in sight, it felt exhilarating, uplifting, freeing. The views and the adrenalin rush were stupendous, but then, in the blink of an eye, I was hijacked by self-doubt and anxiety.
An executive decision followed the hijack, and a more sedate adventure on a flat beach ensued.
Afterwards, I reflected upon how free I really am, and sometimes how the smallest of decisions are made by my anxious brain, without realising and without me consciously thinking about the enormity of what is happening inside my brain and body.
Simplistically speaking, we have two operating systems in the brain – the anxious and the free – and, just like many systems, only one can operate at any one time.
The free brain is exactly that: free … a brilliant thinker, creative, a planner, a dreamer, optimistic, positive, resilient, experimental, explorative, interested in social interaction, empathic, solution-focussed.
Likewise, the anxious brain is the polar opposite: it chooses lockdown, avoidance, safety, restriction, defensiveness, self-preservation, catastrophe and negativity.
And, importantly, despite the anxious brain sounding like the kill-joy at a party, this operating system has its uses; it will kick into action to save and protect lives, especially in an emergency.
Imagine a big, growling, grizzly bear appears in front of you right now. The anxious brain will switch on, and the following will happen inside your body and mind:
1. Your digestive system will switch off – Why? So, you don’t decide to eat at this stage 2. Your reproductive system will switch off – Why? So, you are not distracted by the attractive person you are chatting to! 3. Your muscles are pumped, so you can fight the bear or run fast. 4. Your body releases hormones, so you have extra energy to fight or run fast. 5. Your thoughts will be catastrophic and negative. This type of thinking will say … “get out”, “you’re about to die”, and so, you act fast.
Once you have escaped the big, growling, grizzly bear and the emergency is over, the free brain can take over and do its brilliant work: plan, think, solve, create, engage, connect and more. Great. Why are we not in this operating system more often? Research shows many of us are actually in the anxious brain state a staggering 70% of the time.
Imagine that, for a moment.
Imagine not using the most intelligent part of your brain for years and being stuck in emergency mode. This is anxiety. Anxiety is the opposite of being free, and we are at high risk of being trapped in this mode right now, without even knowing.
But it’s not often that we will be confronted by a big, growling, grizzly bear, so why would we be in anxious brain 70% of the time?
The answer lies in neuroscience, in how the brain works. Every time we behave in a certain way, we deepen a neural pathway in the brain. Just like a path through a forest, the more it is trodden, the easier it is for us to take that route rather than any other. This is how habits form and why they can become so difficult and energy intensive to break. All too easily our freedom to think in the way we aspire to can slip through our fingers.
‘Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery, none but ourselves can free our minds!’ – Marcus Garvey
So, the next time I take a walk with the teens on a rocky cliff-edge, my brain will remember that I became afraid and avoided this kind of walk before, and then, my anxious brain will switch on and I will be driven by my body and mind state to avoid it again. I do not act freely, I act out of a neural pathway or a habit that has formed in my brain. Avoidance is a behaviour that is created by the anxious brain.
Many of us choose avoidance, procrastination, delay and these are all products of the anxious brain, but we don’t always realise this. We usually label people with visible signs of anxiety like nervousness, shy, panic, fearful, sleeplessness, excessive worrying, and imagine that we are free of anxiety, but perhaps we are not as free as we like to think? Neural pathways are formed in our brains through experiences early in life, which, in turn, create a response. We don’t usually review the response, we just accept that this is how we are, just like the story of elephants born in captivity.
Elephants born in captivity are restrained by a chain that attaches one leg to a metal spike driven into the ground. This prevents them from roaming. They become accustomed to the fact that, as long as the chain and spike are next to them, they are unable to move.
As they grow older, their minds become programmed, a neural pathway is formed. When they see the spike and chain, they ‘believe’ and accept that they will not be able to move. They become so incredulously conditioned that when their owners replace the chain and spike with a small rope and wooden peg next to them, they make no effort to step away from even this. Even though, in truth, their actual power as adults is so great that they could easily pull up the original chain and spike of any size. Their neural pathway or ‘belief’, however, allows the tiny rope and wooden peg to limit their movement.
We are all very much like these elephants. We allow the weaknesses, fears and rejection we experienced as children to programme us into a life in which we lack power, courage, peace, love and happiness. We become controlled by false childhood assumptions we have made about our ability, strength and self-worth.
We can move away from these ‘pegs’ of self-limitation, but we must choose to do so.
The pathway to being in the free, brilliant brain is to take a deep, breath and be in the moment, think in the moment, rather than being dictated to by the habits formed by the anxious brain or the ‘pegs’ of self-limitation. Make a small change to face something you have been avoiding, be brave, live on the edge a little, and then keep doing it and create a new neural pathway, a new belief and be free.