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

Since Tuesday, We’re Into The Last 100 Days Of The Year

This past Tuesday, September 23, marked the beginning of the 100 day countdown until the end of the year. This means that as of this evening you have 97 days left to finish out the year strong. Decide right now what you want to accomplish until then in your business and/or personal life, and you’ll be doing yourself a much bigger favor than if you were waiting around to making New Year’s resolutions on December 31.

These are extraordinary times, and it could be easy to become or stay sucked into the 2008 Campaign, the Wall Street crisis and proposed bailout, and all the end of year holidays from now until then. Unless, that is, you make a time-bound and realistic plan right now, push aside the distractions, and get going.

There is a little known "law" of human psychology, Parkinson’s Law, that predicts that "work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion." What this means is that if you tell yourself that something can only be accomplished by say 6 months from now, then your inner clock as well as outer circumstances are very likely to conspire to make it take at least that long.

And since most deadlines are rather completely arbitrary in nature, it can greatly benefit you to set more aggressive deadlines and thereby shorten the time to arrive at completion. If you decide today that you will finish Project XYZ by December 31, and then it turns out that it really took you until January 20, you still come out way ahead compared to having set a much later target date of say March 31, which you STILL might miss!

Is a "100 Day Countdown" an arbitrary time frame? Sure it is. But it also happens to be one of the numbers that our minds assign significance to, as in when we speak of the first 100 days of a new administration, or of the tenure of a new CEO. We have "100 best/worst/biggest/most infamous" countdowns for all manner of things in popular culture.

And 100 also lies within the realm of "overseeability" that is expressed for example in Malcolm Gladwell’s chapter in The Tipping Point on "the magic number One Hundred and Fifty": There appears to be roughly a limit of 150 people for the maximum group size at which the individuals can sustain enough of a social relationship to function as a group. By implication we might say that we can still have a meaningful enough mental "relationship" with the next 100 days and what to do with them.

100 somehow feels a lot more tangible than 180 or even 365 days. Which is precisely the reason why most people’s New Year’s resolutions don’t work out too well for them: By making (usually vague) plans for too large a number of days (the resolutions for the whole year!) to be immediately meaningful, their resolutions disappear into a seeming black hole as quickly as they appeared on December 31.

Don’t fall into that trap. Seize the power of the moment, and make outstanding use of the next 97 days for yourself, your business, and your dreams.

Best wishes – Alex Schleber