One of the fascinating things that we are learning about the brain is how often we distort reality. Playing an active role in these distortions is the amygdala, which is that part of the brain that is related to your survival, helping you to manage fear, emotional responses, memories. It also controls the automatic part of our fight or flight response.
The amygdala is capable of processing information and initiating responses before the information reaches the awareness centers of our brain – Have you ever known someone is just around the corner, waiting to leap out at you? Knowing this in advance, have you ever jumped and gotten a fright anyway? That’s the amygdala in action!
When you are scared by something, the amygdala heightens your sensory experience, which is why we remember better the things/experiences that have scared us. This phenomenon is also responsible for the feeling of ‘Time slowing down.’ One other thing to note, is that our amygdala is linked to the cerebral cortex, which processes sensory information obtained from vision, hearing, and other senses and is involved in decision-making, problem solving, and planning.
When you have an interaction with someone that feels the least bit unsettling, your brain makes up a story about that person and what they were thinking or saying or doing. Then that information becomes a memory and that imaginary story becomes the new “truth.” Story completion is key in this scenario, because once a story is completed, you get a shot of dopamine as a reward.
Tall tale or truth, the brain doesn’t care, and either way you get that dopamine hit and subsequently feel more relaxed, because the mystery of why that person acted the way they did has been solved and your fear centers can step down.
How do we unwind those tall tales that the brain has constructed? Through curiosity. When we start to ask questions about the situation, without becoming amped up, we enter into an arena of dialogue with actual truth. When we actually stop to share with another person what we are experiencing, we slow our hormonal response and pave the way for dialogue and discovery – truth.
Take the person scaring you as an example. Jumping in fright was your automatic response. Your next response comes to the amygdala routed through the cortex, and comes supplied with context and rational thinking. That’s the point at which you laugh and calm down – realizing you had a good scare but that there’s nothing to fear.
Next time you find yourself inadvertently or consciously making up a story about some interaction or situation you find yourself in, stop and ask yourself, “What am I experiencing right now?” Then name it – “I’m afraid they don’t like me”, or “They think my idea is stupid” etc.
Next ask yourself if that is truth based on what they actually said to you, or is it simply a story you’ve made up to calm your anxiety? Use context and rational thinking to calm your fear response, and suppress those tall tales.
Of course the next step is to be brave and engage in an actual dialogue with person to see what’s up and get to the bottom of what you are experiencing. When we are moving at warp speed this can be difficult.
It’s worth it to take time to detox yourself from tall tales. Deep breath, curiosity, and validation will help to let the truth shine through!