How To Use Your Brain to Feel Less Vulnerable

August 18th, 2013 by LaRae Quy

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:

  1. Recall an experience of being with people who truly care about you and stand up for you.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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? 

© 2013 LaRaeQuy. All rights reserved.


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Author of “Mental Toughness for Women Leaders: 52 Tips To Recognize and Utilize Your Greatest Strengths” and “Secrets of a Strong Mind.” 

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11 Responses to “How To Use Your Brain to Feel Less Vulnerable”

  1. This website says:

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  2. Absolutely fantastic article LaRae! I love how you combine shooting a firearm and having a Zen moment. If you can do it while shooting, you can conquer any fear! For me, it’s all about taking 5-10 deep breaths, stretching and listening to some upbeat inspiring music to get the positivity flowing! Thanks for writing such awesome content!

  3. Karin Hurt says:

    If you can get into a zen state while shooting a gun, I imagine you can do almost anything.

    For me yoga helps. Even taking a few yogic breathes during stressful times can help. I’m the family funeral singer… for some reason I can get in a state to hold it together enough to sing during such a sad service. It’s about wrapping my brain around the purpose and channeling the feelings that could take over toward achieving the goal. Great post. I admire your courage. I know I couldn’t shoot a gun, let alone get in zen state while doing it.

    • LaRae Quy says:

      Hi Karin

      Knowing you, you absolutely COULD shoot a gun and get into a Zen state while doing it! You are amazing and I see such mental strength and personal courage in the way you live your life! But I love the way you describe wrapping your mind around your purpose when in an emotional or difficult situation and then channeling your feelings…yoga is another effective way to discipline our mind to do what WE want it to do, rather than “sometimes being with us, and sometimes being against us” which we all know it can do…..

      Chat soon!

  4. Samantha says:

    A wonderful post filled with such a vivid example and analogy LaRae. : ) Your own description when learning to use a firearm brought up fresh memories of my days in the military when I was learning how to fire various weapons. That first qualification experience I remember feeling so nervous. (ARGH! What if I don’t qualify!? haha) I had no prior ‘training’ as a young woman fresh out of high school when it came to meditation or anything close to that. However, I still naturally experienced that almost zen like ‘state’ you described. It’s like everything slowed down, I somehow (accidentally) was able to tune out everything around me and ‘open’ to the experience as targets popped up at close range, mid, and far. It is definitely an exercise in discipline.

    Absolutely love your emotional anchoring technique when feeling vulnerable. Our emotions really do play a huge role when it comes to the brain. The more powerful the emotion is…such as a strong feeling and recall of being with someone loving and trustworthy person, the more powerful the anchor becomes during triggered moments.

    Thanks for linking your post to mine. I’ve added yours to the list of additional resources at the bottom. A great addition and tool to add to the mix!


    • LaRae Quy says:

      Hi Samantha

      Your post last week inspired me to write this one! Our brain will sabotage us if we’re not careful, and it takes hard work and practice to keep it in line! BTW, I had no idea you were in the military! I could really relate to your experiences because I had no firearms training, either. Worrying I wouldn’t qualify…worrying about so many things because I was a very different sort of FBI new agent and the others weren’t sure they thought I belonged 🙁 That is another post for another day….

      I love it when we can collaborate like this…shared knowledge is always more powerful.

      Have a great week!

  5. Please include me in your ‘loved it leadership read list’ LaRae Quy. A super post that thinks of two very diverse situations and pieces them together with mindfulness and focus.

    What I appreciate is meditation is a strengthening mind exercise and as mentioned by colleagues, very difficult to commit too in plenty of noise around us (urgencies, life and priorities).

    What we must control is desire and expectation as these only ‘zone us out’ than ‘zone us in’. An appreciation of flaws, emotions as familiar protection but keeping momentum towards our passion; all through a sense of personal being ‘in the moment’ and sense of belonging – community, mentors and peers – only help us in re-directing our focus inwards that spread thinly absorbing noise (that deflects us from our core purpose).

    Your super quote resonates with my experience: ‘Our inner desire to protect ourselves prevents us from taking risks when we face obstacles and adversity’.

    In leadership we trust. In being us, we trust and encourage our balanced reactions, to personal growth and opportunities.

    • LaRae Quy says:

      Oh, thank you Prabhjit! I am thrilled! Any activity that forces us to focus and be mindful is a good thing…great advice about “a sense of being in the moment and a sense of belonging.” That is such a powerful combination of emotions!

  6. Ande Lyons says:

    LOVE this post LaRae!

    You are absolutely right about uncertainty being caused by situations where we were not protected. Often we believe it’s our fault, too.

    The exercise to shift the negative script in the brain is powerful and effective – thank you!

    With deep appreciation and gratitude for your work,


    • LaRae Quy says:

      Hi Ande

      It’s so hard to stop those negative patterns of thinking that keep spiraling downward…we really need to work at it. The good news is that it IS possible to shift that thinking! I appreciate your thoughtful comments…have a great day, Ande! I love your “can-do” positive attitude!

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