Recently, I was asked in an interview: do you have any advice for people who struggle with fear?
The interviewer pointed out that everyone struggles with fear as they move towards what they really want.
And I have to agree. Whether it’s a fear that stops us in our tracks or a low-level feeling of anxiety, our ability to deal with fear can make or break us.
So, for this week’s article I’d like to start a conversation about what fear is. At it’s most basic level, fear is a biological response. When we feel afraid, certain chemicals flood our brain and, in turn, motivate our behavior. When we’re able to understand our fear at a cellular and bodily level, we’re better equipped to manage it’s effect on our everyday lives.
If you struggle with fear, I highly recommend that you check the book, Rewire Your Anxious Brain. It’s one of the resources I used for this newsletter.
How You Can Break the Spell of Fear
Let’s be clear here – fear is a response to an actual threat. Anxiety is a response to an assumed or possible threat. So, check in with your feelings. If you’re truly afraid, listen to your body. Maybe you’re headed in the wrong direction or maybe you need to take extra measures to protect yourself. If you’re anxious, this is a different story.
Skills that help us deal with anxiety most often effect the frontal cortex of our brains. This is important. When we change the way we think about a given situation, we can feel more confident and less fearful. Recently, neuroscientists have concluded that the amygdala – an almond sized part of our brain involved with our experience of our emotions – plays a vital role in the way we respond to our environment. And because of this, new approaches to working with fear are emerging.
The amygdala causes a very quick physical response to certain stimuli. It drives you to be hyper-attentive to your surroundings and provokes a fearful response when it sees a potential threat. This has a powerful effect on our feelings of anxiety. Yet, it should be noted that the amygdala has helped us survive throughout time by attuning us to potential danger.
However, the amygdala can sometimes produce unwanted symptoms. The most noticeable of these being panic attacks. The chemicals released by the amygdala influence the way our brain works. When your amygdala is hyper-active, you may experience a feeling of chronic anxiety and changes to the way you think.
So, if you’re feeling stuck and unable to move forward in your life or business, if you find all sorts of reasons not to do things you know you should do, if you overwork yourself to the point of ineffectiveness, or if your avoid important steps forward, you’d benefit from cultivating a greater understanding of how your body’s response to anxiety might stymie your efforts towards success.
There are two main components to clearing up this primal fight, flight or freeze response. The first is learning to relax the body and the second is building new neural pathways around certain stimuli.
Relaxation can take the form of deep breathing and meditation. This is best done on a daily basis. Research has shown that a meditation practice of 15 minutes a day can provide quick, measurable and positive change for those suffering with anxiety. When you learn to relax the body and quiet your mind, you’re able to reverse the effects of an activated amygdala. This process supports our efforts to change our thinking when we’re triggered by things that happen in our personal or professional lives.
Building new neural pathways can include efforts to eliminate established pathways that lead to anxious thinking, to train the body to have a different response when exposed to a triggering stimulus, and to create a positive connection to a trigger rather than a negative one.
Eliminating the connection between a trigger and an emotional reaction is the purpose of therapies such as EMDR and EFT. Both therapeutic modes work to create new associations in the brain. To do this, a therapist will ask a patient to recall something that triggers them. Then the therapist provides the patient with an alternate stimulus to break the connection between that stimulus and the anxiety response.
Peter Levine is responsible for much innovation and growth in our understanding about how anxiety can be treated somatically. Levine believes that traumas are locked in the body and may not be available to the conscious mind. This means that the process to free ourselves from anxiety begins when we recognize where we’re holding our traumas and assist the body to release them.
Positive associations to triggering stimuli can be made through guided imagery, imagination, and real time exposure to triggers with a deliberate focus on a positive outcome. Because it takes time to develop new neural pathways, the more ways that we can approach a trigger and build new connections the better.
I leave you with a parting thought about anxiety. The most important thing you can do to help yourself overcome anxiety is to deeply care for and affirm all of who you are. The act of doing this doesn’t just change the brain and alter the chemicals in your system that allow you to feel better and less anxious. Self-care and self-affirmation supports the essence of who you are. And this makes you stronger and more resilient in all aspects of your life.