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How to Biohack Your Courage Using the Wizard of Oz (and Heart Rate Variability)

By: Dave Asprey

Lots of us are in the habit of thinking of the body as a simplistic machine that can be separated into separate, independent parts. It’s a useful way of thinking about the body. Your brain does your thinking, your liver is a filter, your heart is a pump, and it works to understand the system of your body at a high level. The problem is that there are much more complex interactions between our hearts, brains, and bodies, and no system in the body is truly independent from the other systems. Figuring out how to work across these systems is the key to owning your courage.

We also tend to think of emotions and intelligence as two separate entities, which is not entirely true. Your emotions are way faster than your intelligence, but that speed comes at a cost – your emotions happen whether or not it’s intelligent or logical that they do, and they happen before you have a chance to think about them. They just show up, but because they happen first, they also influence your cognition.

Some aspiring biohackers make the mistake of focusing on just their brain function, or just on managing stress. The truth is that doing either one has secondary benefits on the other, and separating them out makes them easier to think about, but it’s inaccurate.

Let’s say you’ve upgraded your IQ and intelligence with the techniques here on the blog.  Let’s say you’ve also worked to manage your stress levels by practicing meditation and other relaxation techniques.

But have you connected these things?  You’ve got the heart the tin man wanted, the brain the straw man wanted, but do you have the courage the lion wanted?

If you’re like most people, the answer is no, but it’s not for lack of trying.

How to Hack the Courage of a Lion

To build courage, you face your fears. This doesn’t have to be a dramatic show of events.  If you’re afraid of heights, skydiving right away might be overkill.  The best place to start building courage is with little things.  Walk up to someone on the street and say hello while making eye contact.  Ask for her/his number.

The problem with this gradual process is that most of us don’t understand what fear really is, so we go about teaching ourselves to “not be afraid.” When you do this, your core assumption is that your fear is rational and will listen to your rational thoughts. Fear, being survival and brain-stem based, doesn’t listen to rational thoughts because rational thoughts are too slow.

Think about it. If it was your sole job in life to spot a tiger about to pounce, you wouldn’t spend a lot of time listening to a slow-talking voice yammering about things like logic that aren’t dangerous. That’s why your fear-brain will gladly ignore you as you convince yourself that you’re not afraid of something because your rational brain thinks there’s no reason to be.

So now you’re screwed. You’ve taught yourself that you’re not afraid because there’s no reason you should be, you’ve disconnected your rational brain from your biology-driven fear response, the same one we share with all creatures that have a spinal cord. Your fear response is there for a reason – to keep your body from getting eaten, burned, or starving to death, and it will be there as long as you are alive.

The trick to hacking your courage is to know how to deal with that single fact.

By teaching yourself to ignore your fear when there’s no reason to be afraid, what you achieve is not courage. It’s ignorance. But it’s useful ignorance – it lets you temporarily overpower your fear response using sheer will. Since you learned to ignore the feeling of fear, you won’t even feel it when you’re using sheer will to overcome that feeling and act anyway.

Using sheer will to overcome irrational fear is a biologically expensive act, and all that wasted energy keeps you from being Bulletproof. When you run out of energy to power your sheer will holding the invisible fear at bay, the fear response from your reptile brain will absolutely interfere with your comprehension, with your focus, and with the way you treat other people. In other words, you’ll act like an asshole. Totally not Bulletproof.

In order to conquer your fears and build the courage of a lion, you will face your fear. Not the things that you’re afraid of, but the source of the fear itself: your sympathetic nervous system.

Learning to deal with that part of your nervous system that creates fear used to take years of meditation. Now things are different – we have heart rate variability training.

How Heart Rate Variability Training Gives You the Courage of A Lion

heart rate variabilityWhen most people face one of their irrational fears, they go into an automatic stress response.  Their heart rate quickens, they sweat a little which changes galvanic skin response, they get a lump in their throat as salivary glands shut down, and their heart rate variability (the rhythmic change in the space between each heart beat) decreases. Most people don’t notice any of this at a conscious level; it’s automatic and effortless. And it makes you weak.

Combat veterans know this well and account for it, as elegantly described in On Combat, The Psychology and Physiology of Deadly Conflict in War and in Peace, a book every aspiring biohacker should read. (That is an affiliate link; if you buy the book, Amazon may pay about 8 cents to support the blog; doesn’t go into my pocket…)

The strongest indicator that your fear-brain is getting in the way of your logical brain is your heart rate variability, or HRV. It turns out that when your brain stem is preparing your body to run away or fight (even without your conscious permission), the first thing it does is to change the rhythm of your heart beat so that your heart beat is very steady. When you’re unstressed, the space between each heart beat naturally varies quite a lot.

HRV training teaches you to control this stress response by using technology to tell you when your heart rate is highly variable, then teaching you to use your consciousness to control your animalistic fear response. There are two main ways this works. The first is by teaching you to recognize when your reptilian-derived brain stem is firing your sympathetic nervous system, priming your body to fight.

This directly gives you courage. Now, you can feel a fear when it happens, so you can acknowledge it and overcome it. It’s far less cowardly than simply pretending the fear doesn’t exist because there is no reason for it to exist. It also allows you to avoid feeling weak or unworthy when your reptile brain does something like make you lose control of your bowels in a fight, which happens to soldiers all the time.

The second way HRV gives you courage is that it teaches you to consciously turn off your sympathetic nervous system response to stress, the one you call fear. That’s amazing. First HRV teaches you how to know your reptilian brain is making you experience fear, then it teaches you how to make it stop. Then you can act with real courage, acknowledging and owning your fear rather than acting with a veneer of courage smeared on top of repressed fear.

How to upgrade your courage in 6 weeks

This list comes from my experience as a performance coach for senior executives, including ones with paralyzing fear of public speaking.

  • image of an emWave2Get an emWave2. If you like this post, please consider buying one from my small store here.
  • Agree that you will practice Heart Math training using the device every day for at least 10 minutes once or twice a day, for 6 weeks straight. 6 weeks matters. Just do it.
  • Spend as much of that time in the “green” zone as possible.  Track your progress with the software that comes with the emWave.  Pay attention to how you feel and what you are thinking about when you are in the Bulletproof state of high coherence (the “green” zone on the emWave2).
  • Do this every day without missing for 6 weeks, which will allow time for your brain plasticity to come into play and teach you a new skill – how to turn off your sympathetic nervous system.

When you are faced with one of your fears, do whatever makes the light on your emWave2 turn green, even if you’re not connected to it at the time.  You’ll notice that you don’t have the same degree of fear, and you don’t feel as drained after facing it.  Once this has occurred, you’ll know that you’ve biohacked your brain, heart, and courage, at least some.

Your brain and heart are closely connected.  Hacking both is important, but to truly upgrade your self, you need to connect them.  The simplest way to do this is with a Heart Math emWave2.

In 2010, I became a certified HeartMath executive coach, and I’m on the advisory board for the company that makes it because I believe this is one of the most important technologies available for all biohackers.  It hacks the entire world of Oz – your heart, brain, and courage.  It allows you to face your fears, and manage the stress that stops most people from doing so.  It makes you more psychologically resilient, and that’s totally Bulletproof.

Have you used the emWave2? I’d love to see some comments here….