Calm Your Inner Bear


We certainly hope you’ve never had to wrestle a real bear, but you probably have mentally wrestled with unhelpful thoughts, which can sometimes feel like wrestling a bear. The similarities are uncanny: unforgiving and sudden threats, our senses and anxieties heightened, and perhaps feeling like it’s an impossible situation to get out of.

The challenge with our thoughts is that our brains can’t tell the difference between the reality of where we are and what we’re doing versus the reality we create in our minds. Consider fear: our body senses it at a visceral level and we generate a response to help us fight, flee or fawn in those moments. When we’re in danger, our body believes we‘re at risk, and our body responds as it would to that threat. The flip side is also true. If we think about pleasant situations, our body believes we’re safe and responds as it would to safety. Our body relaxes, our mind settles and our breathing returns to a steady rhythm. Sounds simple enough, but as many of you already know, simple is not the same as easy.

The Bare Essentials

Our emotional responses are rooted in our amygdala—the tiny almond-shaped structure situated deep inside the brain’s emotional centre, the limbic system. When we were cave dwellers, we depended on this primitive part of our brain for survival (e.g., our ability to detect a preying mountain lion, run away from unsafe situations, protect our food supply), but of course life doesn’t work that way anymore. Generally, our primary food and safety needs are met, and we’re not under constant threat. In spite of this, some people’s brains still perceive constant threat despite the fact that these basic needs are being met.

Some Bare Rationality

While we still need this automatic response system when we’re genuinely in danger, we now require a rational or “higher” brain that enables us to pause, think and be deliberate about responding to situations and thoughts. We evolved to have two response systems: fight or flight, controlled unconsciously by our amygdala and our rational brain, which we can use to consciously reason with ourselves.

Our rational brain takes much longer to engage than our amygdala. Therefore, when unrealistic or threatening thoughts trigger our amygdala, we depend on our rational brain to signal that we are safe. Sometimes our circuitry in this area goes a bit wild, and we end up feeling anxious, among many other physiological symptoms like sweating, increased heart rate and breathing, panic attacks and others. Fortunately, tapping into the support of a counsellor through your Arete Assistance Program can help train your brain to learn how to mentally fight that bear—and win!

“By bringing awareness to our thoughts and our responses to those thoughts, we can adapt and adjust.”

How to Train for your Next Bear Battle

Here are a few things to keep in mind when we feel like the bear is in the room:

  1. Invite uncertainty in. When you experience something unpredictable, unfamiliar or out of your comfort zone, try to spin it in the positive. Muster some optimism and embrace the unknown.
  2. Turn those thoughts into allies. Your amygdala is triggered quickly—in less than a fraction of a second—which means you will feel fear before you understand what you fear and why you’re afraid. Your amygdala turns off its alarm when it believes that you’re safe. Try questioning your thoughts to bring the danger level back down. This will help your symptoms reverse so you can focus and concentrate again.
  3. Your mood follows action. Behaviours create counter actions in your body, which helps tell your mind that you’re in a safe space. So, when you’re feeling like the bear fight is imminent, try moving your body in ways that make you feel good, and remember that each successful, positive behavioral episode builds on the previous one.
Bearing it All

Understanding that our rational brain can trick our amygdala into believing we’re in danger when we’re not is essential in training your brain for the long haul. The good news is that we can train our brain to help us control unhelpful thoughts, calm our amygdala and negate anxiety. If we’re aware of our thoughts and their impact, we can alter how we process ideas that are unhelpful and change our responses.

The key to this isn’t stopping the bear-y thoughts, but acknowledging those that are unhelpful and let them go so our brains believe we’re safe. If you’re thinking “This is simple in concept but challenging in practice!” you’re not alone, but we promise that it’s 100 per cent possible! Connect with us to find ways to train your brain for your future mental wrestling matches and start to feel and think more clearly. Your inner bear will thank you.

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