Key excerpt from: “Born to Perform – Psych.Today” + my footnote on why you can train yourself to have nerves of steel

paul mccartneyPsychology Today’s "Born to Perform" article highlights new research on the mechanism underlying anxiety control.

It explains how some people appear to show "nerves of steel", even thrive on being the center of massive attention, while others can never seem to be able to get over their stage fright, public performance anxiety, or fear of public speaking ("the number one fear of many people, even more frightening than death"!):

They […] showed the subjects fearful pictures to see if amygdala activation alone predicted anxiety. Interestingly, although the amygdala is active during fear, the people who were more anxious did not have higher levels of amygdala activation. Neither did the people who had lower anxiety have more activation in the vmPFC [ventro-medial prefrontal cortex, the risk processing center in the brain] […]. The best predictor of anxiety was the strength of the connection between the two regions. Why might connection strength be more important than the amount of activation in either region alone?

The vmPFC assesses the risk a situation poses and can help decide whether or not you’re in an emergency condition. The vmPFC may calm the amygdala to help you feel more in control, but its ability to do so may depend on how well the two regions are wired. If the signal is strong, the vmPFC may shut down the fight-or-flight response and let you make more levelheaded, rational decisions.

People with stronger and heartier white matter pathways may have lower levels of anxiety because they’re able to calm down more effectively. This may be important for having the steely nerves it takes to go on stage in front of a live television audience or to speak up in class or in business meetings.

Even if you are someone who gets nervous before making phone calls, there’s hope in this finding that may give you pluck. It was formerly believed that the adult brain was static and that after the growth and pruning that takes place when we’re children and adolescents, we’re stuck with what we’ve got. What we’re finding now is that the brain is constantly in a state of revision. Not only can we develop new neurons, but perhaps more importantly we can also develop new connections or strengthen preexisting connections between neurons.

My BOLD highlights.

The last paragraph is completely key, even though the author states things rather meekly. Let me assist with that [grin]:

The white matter connections is the myelination (a form of electrical insulation around neurons), that will strengthen BASED ON USAGE. The research in this area is still relatively new (5-10+ years), because neuroscientists were always so enamored with the neurons and synapses between them. It wasn’t thought that the humble insulatory white matter could make such a difference.

Well, it turns out it makes almost all of the difference, because its buildup predicts the speed of processing and level of activation for nearly everything our brain does. And here is the kicker: Its growth is almost solely influenced by repeated activation, i.e. by use, practice, and training!

This is why I said in the title that you could train yourself to engage your risk processing center (vmPFC) more and more in anxiety or fear inducing situations. Whatever you have now, it is NOT how it needs to be forever. It can be changed. E.g. in my coaching practice I have successfully worked with a fair number of clients on fear of public speaking issues.

This is also the reason why, if you have children, you should do your utmost to train them from an early age to to process any fear or anxiety moments they have on the spot. Talk them through the event, ask them about what they’re worst case scenario fear about it is/was, why and how it’s likely all out of proportion, and what the reality and probabilities look like instead.

The point being that they are trained to engage the connection between the fear and risk processing centers as much as possible. The stronger the connection is built out over time, the less anxious they are likely to be later due to automatic strong engagement of the (rational) risk processing center to override the raw animal fear center.

I wrote a few weeks ago in more detail on how myelin works and how it is the key to establishing new habits (it goes even further, myelin may well be the missing link that is debunking the concept of innate talent, similar to what Malcolm Gladwell in "Outliers" has been arguing with his "10,000 hours" theory):

Why Creating A New Habit Is So Hard