The Thing About Bravery

drawing of girl, the brain and the neurotransimitterI started writing this post months ago. I kept leaving it, only to come back to it several more times. Bravery and being brave is an interesting concept to me. It is a concept that is portrayed in movies and on the media as this brash, loud, and pronounced interaction. It usually involving males and lots of muscles. I see those representations of bravery, and I think that they do a great disservice to what bravery is. 

What got me thinking about bravery was that I had the opportunity to bear witness to the quieter, more common form of bravery. A friend was standing before a courtroom of strangers telling her story of an all too common occurrence. Her husband, in a drug and alcohol-induced rage, had tried to kill her. I was there to provide moral support. I felt honored to be there to see such courage. 

I thought then how brave my friend was (and still is) and how so many people go through that and have to go alone. The sheer strength and force of will it takes to stand in front of strangers and tell your story. Much like my fascination with resilience, I wondered how one person could be brave while another may not be able to. With domestic violence, there are many, many other factors at play. I am not downplaying those at all. I am intrigued by what role the brain plays in being brave.

Where does bravery originate? 

Surprise, surprise your brain is where bravery originates. As do most things, it is our brain that helps us to push through that wall of fear and move forward in the face of a threat. That threat can be physical (which is how much of popular culture presents the adversary to show bravery) or psychological (much less presented in popular culture). As I wrote in My Amygdala Went Rogue post, the thalamus has a backdoor synaptic connection to the amygdala to ensure that we can react quickly to dangers in our environment. 

So what is it that would also create a connection to use the amygdala’s immediate reaction system to go towards the dangerous thing that triggered it in the first place?  It turns out that the link is through the hippocampus. Remember that seahorse looking area of the brain that helps to mitigate the amygdala’s responses and is also vital in the formation of new memories. 

In 2018, scientists from the Department of Neuroscience of Uppsala University in Sweden and the Brain Institute of the Federal University of the Rio Grande de Norte in Brazil found that. There are specific cells in the hippocampus, known as OLM cells, also referred to as bravery cells. When those cells are stimulated, they produce a brain rhythm that is present when animals feel safe in a threatening environment. The research showed that anxiety and risk-taking behavior could be controlled by the manipulation of the OLM cells.

The Bravery and Anxiety Connection

amygdala asking hippocampus if they need to run towards the dangerBravery would appear moving towards something dangerous versus away from it—or feeling safe when you shouldn’t. The way I read it, the OLM cells are triggered, allowing for a more logical assessment of the amygdala’s quick reactions. I also think it seems there is in some way to use the heightened anxiety that the amygdala triggers to put yourself into action other than fight or flight.

As a person who has anxiety, I was intrigued to find out that anxiety may play a role in being brave. The connection is risk-taking behavior. Those who are averse to risk are likely to have high anxiety, versus anxiety plays a role in the fight or flight response as heightened awareness. Having anxiety is healthy. Too much or too little creates an imbalance.

Being calm in a situation in which there is danger may mean that the amygdala is reacting to a point, but then the anxiety associated with the need to flee or fight doesn’t stay around as long. Or that perhaps your brain is using that extra anxiety to speed up other reactions, which means the chemicals that are released like epinephrine and cortisol, to get the prefrontal cortex to apply logic faster or differently.

Anxiously Brave

As a person who has anxiety, I was intrigued to find out that anxiety may play a role in being brave. It makes me feel kinda cool that my anxiety is a superpower. One that maybe helps me to be brave. What a world when something that so many others think makes me weak actually makes me more potent than others. 

Yes, yes, I know that high anxiety may be linked to lower risk-taking behavior. I choose not to focus on that. What I choose to focus on is that anxiety plays a role in heightening my awareness. That heightened awareness provides me the ability to see things in the world that others don’t. Because I notice more of the world around me, I see all of the fantastic qualities.

Yes, I also see the not so great things, but I choose not to focus on those. 

My anxiety also gives me an uncanny ability to be introspective. I think about things on a deeper level. It is how I came to write this blog, how I came to realize that I am an alcoholic and need not drink. To work on myself and my issues so that I can be the best me. My anxiety is oddly a good thing that helps me to be brave. Sometimes it is the things that we think make us weak that make us stronger in the end.

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