Courage makes us feel good. It allows us to have some control over how we react to our fears. Courage gives us the bravery to stand up to our fears, again and again, whether we conquer those fears or not. Perhaps then, we should appreciate that courage can also have a beneficial effect on our mental and physical health. Staying healthy can allow us to be more courageous.
Courage is one of those intangible powers inside all of us that need to be cultivated and strengthened. It’s that inner quality that allows us to tackle the obstacles and hardships we encounter. It starts with the small things like the courage to get out of bed and face another day that is not fully in our control. In time, courage blooms into bigger things like standing up for what we feel is right. You need courage to try new things, start new relationships, find meaningful work, or to persevere doing less meaningful work that allows your family to have food on the table.
When presented with a challenge, having the courage to take action allows us to participate in facing it head-on. Refusing to feel helpless allows us to rise up with a sense of purpose, which refreshes our mind and spirit even before our circumstances change. It therefore should come as no surprise that courage and coping go hand-in-hand with managing our anxiety about our fears.
In 2010, Israeli researchers found that activity in a part of the human brain called the subgenual anterior cingulate cortex (sgACC) is associated with courageous behavior. The neuronal connections in the sgACC can be strengthened by mindfully practicing courage such as mentally reframing our fears in the context of a bigger picture allows us to stay in the moment and avoid a sense of impotence.
The amygdala is a part of the human brain that is associated with fear responses. Fears can be overinflated when the sympathetic nervous system’s fight-or-flight response is stimulated, dumping a bunch of norepinephrine and cortisol into the your bloodstream. You can feel anxiety, irritability, stomach upset, and a racing heart.
The sympathetic nervous system can be countered by a conscious effort to recruit the parasympathetic nervous system (fat-and-happy). One way to recruit the calming parasympathetic nervous system is to perform aerobic exercise, which burns off excess sympathetic nervous system activity, allowing the parasympathetic nervous system to thrive. You might notice that you are able to think more clearly after a run, or that you are able to move your bowels (a parasympathetic activity) better on days that you exercise. Another way to recruit the parasympathetic nervous system is to use mindfulness, meditation, and slow deep breathing to center your thoughts. You will find that you are rewarded with a feeling of contentment, improved digestion, and decreased stress.
As the parasympathetic nervous system has many of the traits required of courage, we can discern that courage and our mental and physical health have a symbiotic relationship. As much as staying mentally and physically healthy will allow you to reduce the anxiety and fight fears that may stand in your way, having courage is the first step in facing fears and so can also result in seeking the emotional and physical health necessary to achieve your goals.
Dr. Bren Boston is Akasha Cent’er’s Director of Pain Management and Sports Medicine. You can schedule an appointment with her by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org