Before I entered the FBI Academy as a new agent, I had never shot a gun. My firearms instructor told me that all I needed to do was relax, breathe, and focus. The best shooters, he told me, are very present in the moment and not distracted by other thoughts.
He was right. Ironically, shooting at a target can be a Zen moment. If your mind is cluttered with thoughts and anxiety, you won’t hit your mark. Good shooters let all of that go and become very mindful.
I had assumed that target practice would be a physical challenge; but much like golf, it takes as much mental discipline as physical ability to be successful. Shooting a gun shares many of the same characteristics as meditation. Both require the person to control their noisy inner world with a strength of mind that produces mental toughness.
Years later I learned in my meditation class that relaxed muscles send feedback to the brain that all is well in the world. It’s no accident that meditation requires a place of seclusion where people feel safe.
Our inner desire to protect ourselves prevents us from taking risks when we face obstacles and adversity (Click to tweet).
As leaders, this can hold us back at crucial moments of decision making. Many times, we feel vulnerable and our avoidance of risk is rooted in an experience from the past that keeps rearing its ugly head.
Scientists have learned that activities like meditation can not only change our brain in several ways, but also it can change the way we think about being vulnerable and our fear of risk. For example, the mental activity of meditation:
- Adds synaptic connections that thicken the brain tissues over time in the regions handling control of attention and sensory awareness.
- Increases serotonin, the neurotransmitter that helps regulate mood and sleep.
- Changes brainwaves.
- Activates the left side of your frontal lobes which produce more positive emotions.
Many of us feel vulnerable when placed in uncertain situations because, somewhere in our life experience, we felt let down by people who should have protected us from bad experiences. Psychologists have found that our deepest upsets are often not with the people who harmed us, but with the people who should have protected us—yet didn’t. This negative story keeps rewinding and replaying, sometimes for an entire lifetime.
But, you can change the way your brain thinks about yourself so it is more positive (click to tweet).
Your emotional reactions are housed in the small, but powerful limbic brain system. Here is how to build the mental toughness to rewrite the negative script that may be currently running in your brain:
- Recall an experience of being with people who truly care about you and stand up for you.
- Take in the experience in by savoring it for 3-5 seconds. It takes more work for positive feelings to register with the brain than negative ones because our survival instinct wants to protect us from bad news. Remember: negative emotions are like Velcro, positive emotions are like Teflon. Read Buddha’s Brain.
- Move out of the emotional limbic system that is holding onto your fears by verbally describing to yourself what you feel when you’re with people who are supportive and trustworthy.
- Write a message to the emotional limbic system describing the same thing. By using both verbal and written methods, you are forging more pathways into the thinking and logical cerebral brain.
Looking for and finding ways to feel safer can control our hardwired tendency to hang on to our fear of harm, even when that threat has passed. Now, neuroscience is showing us how to create new ways of thinking that can harness our brain to help us be bigger, better, bolder, and more badass.
How do you interrupt negative patterns of thinking, about yourself or others, so you can be more positive and feel less vulnerable?
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