When we face any sort of stress—be it giving a public speech or encountering a snake on our walk—we experience what’s called a stress response. A mixture of hormones and nervous system activation that prepares us to take on or run away from whatever it is we’re facing. Most of us learned this as “fight or flight.” However, there’s a bit more to it than that. What determines whether we run away or face the danger head-on? Another response: courage. One that I spent investigating in Do Hard Things, in which I found there’s deep science behind taking on challenges.
When Stanford researcher Dr. Lindsay Salay and her colleagues put mice through a harrowing experience of seeing an ever-growing black circle approach from overhead (to simulate a predator), most mice chose one of two options: fleeing or freezing. But a few mice responded differently. They turned around and shook their tales. A mouse’s way of saying, Bring it on you bastards.
As ever intrepid scientists, Dr. Salay and colleagues set out to understand why some mice rattled their tails while others didn’t. In a series of experiments, they narrowed in on a brain area called the vMT (ventral midline thalamus) as the potential difference maker. According to Salay, the vMT “receives diffuse inputs from limbic areas and the midbrain (regions that support emotion, motivational behaviors and bodily responses), and projects heavily to higher cognitive areas, such as the prefrontal cortex.” In other words, the vMT acts as a hub, integrating and connecting. And in the case of dealing with threats, it connects two important areas: the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex.
When the researchers activated the vMT that connected to the prefrontal cortex, the mice shook and rattled their tails, ready to take on the intruder. When they activated the vMT that connected to the Amygdala, the mice froze in their tracks.
What does all of this mean to you or me about managing fear in our lives?
Our responses to stress aren’t set in stone. We are capable of responding in any one of these manners. It’s the brilliance of our flexible and adaptable stress system. While Dr. Salay and colleagues’ work was the first to isolate and indicate this specific brain area, there has been a lot of work on the amygdala functioning as the threat alarm, and the prefrontal cortex serving as a brake. Research shows that interventions such as mindfulness and cognitive behavioral therapy can shift how these two areas interact. But even simpler, exposing ourselves to stressful situations, and then creating the space to navigate them, does the trick too. As I discussed in Do Hard Things, figuring out how to pause in the midst of distress and have a “calm conversation” with ourselves is crucial to navigating discomfort. It’s one reason experienced runners are able to navigate the discomfort of racing better than novices.
The next time you find yourself freezing or fleeing, know that you, too, can rewire your brain with a bit of practice. You, too, can shake your tail at whatever threat presents itself. You, too, can shift from fear to courage.