Life Unlocked: 7 Revolutionary Lessons to Overcome Fear
Publisher: Rodale Books
ISBN 10: 1609611462
ISBN 13: 978-1609611460
Winner of a Books for a Better Life Award
Many people who find themselves "stuck" in life are vaguely aware that fear is responsible for holding them back. Whether it's a fear of intimacy, mortality, success, or failure, the majority of us experience an inhibiting fear at some point in our lives. Naming these fears and examining them is critical to becoming aware of and, eventually, overcoming them. Life Unlocked - by Srinivasan S. Pillay, MD - draws from cutting-edge research in human psychology and neuroscience to illuminate the ways in which fear applies a brake to our movement through life.
Informed by the latest breakthroughs in brain imaging and psychiatry, Dr. Pillay offers readers an enlightening understanding of how our brains work and physically process feelings of fear and anxiety. Based on this research, and his extensive clinical experience with patients, Dr. Pillay has developed 7 essential lessons to help move people past their fears:
1. What you don't know can hurt you
2. Dread is not something you feel; it is something you attend to
3. If it's hard to change, it is not unchangeable
4. We all know that we fear failure, but fear of success is equally relevant
5. Attachments are not just crucial to survival; they affect your physiology
6. Fear-based prejudice may register entirely outside of awareness
7. Trauma can impact the developing brain
In Life Unlocked, Dr. Pillay examines a wide breadth of issues and shares real examples from his practice to show readers that when they are able to move past the things that limit them, they can truly unlock their potential, and their lives.
“Dr. Pillay does a wonderful job of translating neuroscience into layman's terms, vividly explaining how the human mind works. Life Unlocked provides a tremendous opportunity for introspection and can help anyone understand their fears and how to overcome them.” —Steve Ward, coauthor of Crash Course in Love and star of VH1’s Tough Love
About the Author
SRINIVASAN S. PILLAY , MD, serves on the faculty of Harvard Medical School and is the director of the Panic Disorders Research Program at Harvard's McLean Hospital. He lives in Boston.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
What You Don't Know Can Hurt You
Moving Beyond Unconscious Fear
Death is not the biggest fear we have; our biggest fear is taking the risk to be alive--the risk to be alive and express what we really are.
--Don Miguel Ruiz
The human condition is a vulnerable but powerful one, based on the primitive brain forces of animals lower in the evolutionary chain yet surrounded by a shell of magnificent brain tissue that gives us our unique abilities to think, speak, and express ourselves as we do. These primitive forces of the unconscious brain crouch on all fours as they scour our surroundings for signs of imminent danger. The unconscious brain is never truly silent, always purring in the background, bathing its thinking counterpart with vigilant warnings--"Watch out!" "Don't go there!" "Be careful!" Kindled by a constant flow of electrons, which slide down one neuron and into another in milliseconds, the unconscious brain lights up at the mere hint of danger.
The conscious brain picks up this heat and relies on it in the way that we rely on the sun for our survival. Yet this "giving" of the unconscious is a double-edged sword, as is much of human nature. This same heat that protects us can also burn us when it is not regulated. And cooling down the dubious gift of fear is no easy feat. This tension between the conscious and the unconscious brain, the latter with its suffocating diligence and overprotectiveness, is in many ways responsible for much of our daily ambivalence.
No wonder, then, that recent research has shown that we are consistently unable to recognize the things that will make us happy. Given a few choices, we almost always make the choice that leads us into trouble. So, many of us blame ourselves for not making the right choices in our lives without realizing that in many situations, our choices are beyond our immediate control. They are locked up in the invisible cage of fear that is the unconscious. To unlock this cage, we have to first see it. But "seeing" fear requires much more than just recognizing our inner tremblings. It requires a special kind of attention and knowledge that a vast body of scientific research permits us to employ. In this chapter, we will explore some of this knowledge, with the goal of gaining a deeper understanding of the inner workings of fear--so that we can do something about it.
Every day, people tell me the stories of their lives: people who want to move in one direction, but instead find themselves moving in another; people who claim to be trying, but repeatedly find themselves failing; people who are bored and stuck, yet are unable to make the changes they know they want to make; and parents who worry that their children are depressed, have learning disabilities, or suffer from attentional problems that just aren't improving despite intervention and treatment. If we know what we want, why are we unable to act on it? Why are we unable to follow the directions given by our conscious minds and reach our goals unimpeded? And when we do try to do the right things, why are we unsuccessful? For many, this is a source of much heartache. Whether it is a tortured relationship or a difficult job situation, we often feel regretful after we realize we've made the wrong choice. Why do we continue to make these choices, and what steers us toward them in the first place?
If we are consciously doing our best and yet not getting to where we want to go, something outside of our consciousness must be driving us in another direction without our knowledge or consent. I call this the rip current of human nature. A rip current is a very powerful surface flow of water that is returning to the sea from close to the shore. It can turn an eerily calm- looking body of water into something extremely dangerous that has the power to drag swimmers out to sea. Many people caught in rip currents eventually drown due to the sheer exhaustion of trying to swim against the current.
The unconscious is the rip current of the mind. From a distance, it's calm, barely noticeable, and difficult to anticipate. And at its core lies the threatening force of fear. Much like a rip current is helpful to surfers who rely on its force to pull them away from shore, fear may be helpful if it urges you forward toward your goal. But like the unpredictable rip current, fear can also drag you away from your goals and destinations.
When Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, listened to his patients relate their lives as they lay on his couch, he concluded that their behavior was motivated by factors outside of their immediate awareness. Though mysterious and somewhat unsettling, this idea was appealing enough that it formed the basis of psychoanalytic therapy for many decades. The fundamental idea was this: We are capable of doing things that may be the exact opposite of what we actually want for ourselves because our unconscious motivations conflict with our conscious intentions. When Freud told the world that human suffering could be alleviated by understanding the unconscious, many people supported this theory. Yet, for those who required hard evidence--for those who could not heal themselves with abstractions--there remained a void and a strong suspicion that Freud's conjecture was unfounded and had no basis in reality.
In this chapter, we will come to understand the many ways in which Freud was correct about our unconscious motivations, as well as the other important insights into human behavior that have since been brought forth. We will also come to understand how this powerful, unconscious fear keeps us from living our fullest lives--and what we can do to transcend it.
The Foray into an Unknown World
In order for scientists to prove that human behavior is influenced by unconscious phenomena, they needed to examine the brain. For centuries, our ability to do this was limited. X-rays were not of much help, because they weren't sensitive enough to pick up the subtle changes that would indicate different brain functions. Measuring brain waves using EEG (electroencephalography) proved to be of some help, but because the EEG leads were attached to the scalp, this usually showed only surface brain activity. With the advent of MRI (magnetic resonance imaging), the entire landscape of understanding brain structure and function began to change.
Still, within these limits, not much could really be learned about how the brain functions. Then in 1990 came the advent of functional brain imaging, also called functional MRI or fMRI. At last, scientists and doctors could actually observe the changes in brain blood flow that coincided with the arising of different emotional states. Though it was first used only for clinical applications in neurology, researchers soon began to use this technology to understand how fear affects brain function. What they saw profoundly changed our understanding of the science of fear.
Your Brain Is Bombarded by Fear Even If You Don't See It:
Scientific Evidence That the Blind Can See
Our brains are made up of nerve tissue, including neurons, other specialized cells, and matter surrounding the cells. Nerve tissue is alive. Like an electrical cord, if you plug this nerve tissue into a power source, current begins to flow. If you plug an electrical cord into a battery, which produces direct current (DC), direct current will run through the cord. If you plug the cord into a wall outlet, which transmits alternating current (AC) from a power plant, alternating current will run through the cord. The nature of the power generated by the source determines how the current flows.
For nerve tissue in the brain, events in the world are literally power sources. And like an electrical current, the nature of the power (a physical sensation or emotion) generated by the source (an event) will determine the nature of the current. An electrical cord receives current simply by virtue of being plugged in, and this is also the case for the human brain. From the time you are born, you are plugged into events whether you are asleep or awake. And because you are plugged in, current is always flowing in your brain. Like the electrical current, the nature of the power reaching your brain determines what kind of current will flow within it.
When this power is fear, the current flows in your fear circuits, even when you can't see what is making you afraid. This has been scientifically proven. In one famous case, Patient G.Y. had had a stroke that damaged tissue in the striate cortex, the part of the brain that processes nerve signals from the retina of the eye. As a result, he had a condition called cortical blindness--for all intents and purposes, he could not see. Though there was nothing wrong with his eyes, his brain couldn't process what they saw. When he walked down the street, he bumped into objects in his path. If you placed an object in front of him, he was unable to describe it.
What was odd, however, was that when a photograph of a person wearing a fearful facial expression was presented to G.Y. as if he could see it, he accurately detected the expression of fear over and over again. The researchers examined this phenomenon until they were able to prove that chance could not account for how frequently G.Y. was correct. This finding rocked the world of fear science.
How could a blind person "sense" a visually communicated emotion? If we accept the idea that we are plugged into the world from birth, then it follows that this man's fear circuitry somehow detected that something fearful was before him. Scientists could only conclude that, because his brain damage prevented him from "seeing" the fear visually, G.Y.'s brain was taking the signals from his retinas and sending them via another route to make him conscious of it.
Given your own life experiences, this must sound at least somewhat plausible. Most people believe that they can sense things, whether or not this can be proven. But how can your brain sense fear when you see nothing fearful--or, in fact, if you see nothing at all? And if this is possible, what are the implications for your everyday life?
Even if you are "blind" to fear, your brain still picks up the danger cues that surround you and runs that current through its fear circuits. This is similar to what G.Y. experienced, which scientists call blind-sight--the unconscious recognition of visual information by a person with damage in the striate cortex of the brain. For a long time, the idea of blindsight was mere conjecture, until a group of brain imaging researchers designed an experiment to test it. Below is the theory that prompted that experiment.
How Long Does Your Brain Need to Be Exposed to Fear Before Current Runs in the Fear Circuit?
If something fearful is happening around you, your brain will pick it up. But just as one millisecond is not enough to generate current through an entire electrical cord (electricity moves about as fast as the minute hand on a clock), having fear-inducing events happening around you for one millisecond is not enough to turn on your fear circuits, either.
When your brain is plugged into something fearful, electrons start to flow through your fear circuits. But your brain needs at least ten milliseconds of fear exposure before it can hold on to that fear. It takes between ten and thirty milliseconds for your unconscious brain to process fear, and after that, conscious processing starts to occur.
"Processing" means that the wheels are spinning; the brain is engaged and starting to get some traction. It is like an antiskid device. A car equipped with an antilock braking system (ABS) will automatically try to slow itself down when the brakes are applied as it skids on ice. Fear engages the ABS of the brain after just ten milliseconds of exposure, and it signals the brain that it needs to slow down. And after thirty milliseconds, your brain starts to "know" that it has become gripped by fear, which is causing it to skid. By the time four hundred milliseconds have passed, the brain knows most of what it needs to know about the nature of the fear, and the fear can be called to consciousness quite easily.
Imagine how your brain is applying its brakes on the road of your life every time it senses this unconscious fear. Without your knowing it, your journey toward your goal may be slowed down due to this constant braking in the face of unconscious fear. To take control back from this automatic braking system in the brain, you would have to understand your unconscious fears better and somehow instruct your brain not to respond by trying to slow down. It's a profound thought, but it was mere conjecture until a group of researchers designed an experiment to test whether this "unconscious" processing actually takes place, and where in the brain conscious and unconscious processing occur.
To do this, researchers devised a process called backward masking. Essentially, a photo of a fearful face was presented to subjects too quickly for the conscious mind to register it and then immediately replaced with a photo of a neutral face, or "mask," that was shown for long enough that the subjects were conscious of having seen it; in other words, although they actually saw two pictures, they thought they saw only one. The image of the fearful face was presented for more than ten but less than thirty milliseconds--long enough to activate the brain's fear current, but not long enough to provoke the conscious brain. If this stimulus did not activate anything in the brain, then the researchers would conclude that fear sensing was not occurring. What they found was that the conscious brain could not pick up a fearful expression if it was presented for less than thirty milliseconds.
What Senses Fear in the Human Brain?
The subjects in all of these experiments had been diagnosed with anxiety disorders, but Paul Whalen, PhD, and his colleagues at Harvard carried out a similar study in a group of individuals who did not meet any criteria for psychiatric diagnoses. They showed them the fearful face very quickly, and then showed them the mask for a longer time--167 milliseconds--so that consciously, they "saw" only the mask and had no idea that the fearful face had also been shown to them. The experiment was done while the participants were lying down in an MRI scanner, so the researchers were able to see any areas in the brain where the blood flow (and thereby the electrical current!) increased when the fearful face was shown.