Accelerate

Your Brain, Your Fear

I’m a brain cancer survivor. No one was more shocked than me, sitting in my neurologist’s office, trying to absorb what he was saying about the size and location of the tumor. My husband was on the phone from Barcelona, where he was on a business trip. Thank goodness my friend had also come so someone was taking notes and paying attention. I had to have surgery as soon as possible so that the doctors could tell me what kind it was and decide on treatment options.

As you can imagine, not knowing what was going to happen was terrible. The runup to my surgery (at Sloan, where they are the best….check out this pic of my awesome neurosurgeon: https://www.mskcc.org/cancer-care/types/glioma) was filled with so many emotions I could hardly breathe, but fear and anxiety were at the top of the list.

Once I came through surgery, I was told that I had the “best kind” of brain cancer (um, ok). They got the whole tumor out, and I didn’t need any further treatment.

After all this, I got very interested in my brain and what was happening with me, even after I technically recovered and the tumor was gone. Why was I so tired? Why was I SO irritable? Why couldn’t I remember things even though the surgery had no neurological impact?

I had never experienced a lengthy period of stress until that time. I didn’t understand what was happening to me.

Soon after I went back to work I enrolled in the NeuroLeadership Institute’s Brain-Based Executive Coaching certification (https://neuroleadership.com/our-events/programs-for-individuals/brain-based-coaching/), which focused on how to use neuroscience to help coachees set goals, build action plans and create insights so they acheive their desired outcomes. I also started reading (a lot) to learn more.

Here is what I found:

Your reaction to stress and anxiety starts in your limbic system, which is a set of brain structures located beneath the medial temporal lobe, in the cerebrum.
It a powerful friend AND enemy. It evolved early in humans’ lives and plays an important role in survival, acts as a control center for all your functions and regulates your body.
The hippocampus and amygdala are part of your limbic system and they work together to regulate emotion and fear.
Specifically, when the amygdala perceives a threat, it activates the adrenal glands to produce hormones like epinephrine that raise blood pressure and heart rate, elevate breathing rate, and send blood to important muscles and organs.
Ever feel your face get hot? Heart pound? Stomach get butterflies? Probably your amygdala activating your fight, flight or fright response. This was awesome when you had to run from wooly mammals, not so awesome when you are giving a big presentation to the CEO.

Yikes.

It’s not all bad. We are meant to feel fear in order to help ensure survival. Our limbic system activates, we react, and then our prefrontal cortex, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/prefrontal%20cortex acts as the adult in the room and get engaged to evaluate the situation, regulate emotions and de-escalate your body’s response. You return to normal and you calm down.

Except I didn’t. My prefrontal cortex (which, I should mention, is where the tumor was) was not “taking care of business” and I was a hot mess and experiencing a sustained fear response.

So why am I telling you all this? From everything I have seen, heard and experienced in the last 5 months, I suspect you are also experiencing a sustained fear response in this time of Covid, economic concern and civil unrest https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/anxiety-fear-and-hate/202004/coronavirus-and-anxiety-fear-panic-and-paranoia.

Our limbic systems are working overtime and we feel like crap.

So what happens next? Visit my blog next week