This weeks’s installation of ColorfulCortex is the science and psychology behind three unsuspected fear and anxiety hacks. Meditation not included.
The Chill Elixir: Kava Kava
The Buzz: First there was Kava, then there was Xanax. Which is a downgrade if you ask me. The original chill pill, Kava is a Pacific Island plant famous for its powerful sedative and anesthetic properties. And unlike prescription meds, it offers a “clean” calm. While it kind of tastes like mud, it doesn’t muddy your mental sharpness or energy.
The Backstory: Political contenders, take note. Kava has historically been used as an “informal dispute resolution tool,” with deep roots in cultural, social, political, and medicinal heritage of the Pacific. Like Obama’s beer summit, natives pass around a bowl of calming kava during community meetings. I think it’s a key swag bag item for presidential debates and reality TV show sets…
The Science: As the plant analog of “Netflix and chill,” Kava’s two primary psychotropic effects are euphoria and relaxation. Scientists believe the plant’s kavalactones compounds modulate the activity of two main neurotransmitters, dopamine and GABA. Kava increases levels of dopamine, responsible for euphorigenic (read: happy) effects, and potentiates GABAA receptor activity, underlying anxiolytic (read: anxiety smashing) effects.
Life Hack: Unlike some of my other fun facts and tricks – LSD microdosing or female Viagra, for instance – I can attest to the power of Kava. DC’s District Tea Lodge serves up Kava tea, while Kavasutra (NYC, FL, CO) offers straight-up Kava bowls. For Kava at home, I recommend Gaia’s Kava Supplement and Yogi Tea’s Kava blend (you can find both at Whole Foods). The effects are immediate, strong, and organic. So go ahead, trade in your Cosmo for some Kava.
Hack Thy Vagus Nerve, Hack Thyself
The Buzz: So you know those “gut reactions” and “feelings in the pit of your stomach”? The kind you get when you find an unopened Comcast bill under your couch or see an ex at Trader Joes that one time you decide to go in your pajamas? When you have a visceral reaction (like when I discovered dorms for adults), that’s the vagus nerve sending a message from your gut to your brain. Stressed, anxious, tired, depressed, digestive issues, brain fog? The vagus nerve is literally the mind-body connection.
The Backstory: Like last year’s iPhone, the fight-or-flight response can feel like a clunky, outdated, embarrassing vestigial organ. In the era of apps that save you from your drunk self and allow you to collect shamelessly dirty details about your date prior to meeting, we rarely need to fight for our lives. Since we’re no longer duking it out with lions on the planes of Africa, an over-active vagus nerve can be thanked for first date anxiety, fear of public speaking, and Sunday Scaries panic.
The Science: The tone of your vagus nerve dictates whether you’re more of a Clooney or a Kanye. In the same way a toned bum gives you control over flying off the elliptical, research shows that toning your vagus nerve gives you more control over anxiety, fear, and depression. High vagal tone is related to lower mental illness, and improved physical health including optimized circadian rhythm, neurogenesis, mitochondria health, metabolism, digestion, and insulin, inflammatory, and allergenic response.
Life Hack: Like the Suzanne Somers of the vagal nerve, here are my tips to tone your vagus. For manual stimulation, you can massage the carotid sinus (back of neck) and feet, or find an acupuncturist who understands vagal pathways. Deep belly, diaphragmatic breathing puts pressure on baroreceptors and triggers a vagal response, as does activating your dive reflex by immersing your face in cold water. And great news for me: Talking a lot (or singing, humming, and chanting) tones the nerve, since it’s connected to the vocal chords. If you want to get really dramatic, the FDA approved a surgically implanted device proven to treat anxiety and depression by regularly stimulating the vagus nerve. But I like foot massages more.
“You’re Not Born a Choker”
The Buzz: Let’s face it, us Generation Y kiddos are an anxious bunch. Unlike evolutionarily useful fears like spiders, heights, snakes (Can. Not. Deal.), Gen Y’s stressors are straight out of a Girls episode. Our panic is triggered by a crippling crisis of optionality, a paradoxical, flywheel interplay between narcissism and anxiety, and overwhelming fear of failure. So crafty scientists have cooked up virtual reality to help us practice failing… again, and again, and again.
The Backstory: Our brains are hardwired for fear. Like we’re hardwired to love Shake Shack. Some psychologists believe fear is the oldest human emotion, with all other emotions stemming from the need to cope with fear. To hack fear and train your brain’s response to stress, researchers at Duke’s Center for Cognitive Neuroscience created DIVE (Duke Immersive Virtual Environment).
The Science: While some lucky jerks (the ones jumping out of planes and sampling the “melt your face” hot peppers) have genetically stress resilient brains that suavely process and recover from fear, most of us have occasional freak outs. Except me, of course. Threats come in through a sensory pathway – sight, touch, audition – and clumsily trip the amygdala. This almond shaped trouble maker living in our reptilian brain triggers a full nervous system meltdown. The good news? There’s an off-switch. Our evolved neocortex can step in and lock the situation down. But like a muscle or good boyfriend, it needs to be trained.
Life Hack: I love scientists who turn to the dark side. Cheeky researcher LaBar used DIVE to create “The Kitchen from Hell,” a high-stress virtual reality environment abounding with failure tasks (like searching for lost keys that don’t exist). Science shows the more you practice failure, the better you’ll be at managing, rebounding, and eventually eliminating it. A critical lesson for entrepreneurs, performers, and, well, pretty much everyone, being on failure’s good side gives you a killer edge. You heard it here first: Resilience is the new black.