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.
In his book The Art of Uncertainty, Dennis Merritt Jones writes:
“Between a shaky world economy, increasing unemployment, and related issues, many today are being forced to come to the edge of uncertainty. Just like the baby sparrows, they find themselves leaning into the mystery that change brings, because they have no choice: It’s fly or die.”
For persons struggling with depression and anxiety — and for those of us who are highly sensitive — uncertainty is especially difficult. Forget about learning to fly. The uncertainty itself feels like death and can cripple our efforts to do anything during a time of transition.
I have been living in uncertainty, like many people, ever since December of 2008 when the economy plummeted and the creative fields — like architecture and publishing — took a hard blow, making it extremely difficult to feed a family. In that time, I think I have worked a total of 10 jobs — becoming everything from a defense contractor to a depression “expert.” I even thought about teaching high school morality. Now that’s desperate.
I don’t think I’ll ever be comfortable with uncertainty, but having lived in that terrain for almost five years now, I’m qualified to offer a few tips of how not to lose it when things are constantly changing.
1. Pay attention to your intention
I’m not a new-age guru. I don’t believe that you can visualize a check for $20,000 and find one in your mailbox the next day. Nor can you get on Oprah by believing you’ll be her next guest. (I tried both of those.) But I do recognize the wisdom in tuning into your intention because therein exists powerful energy that you can tap.
Awhile back I did Deepak Choprah’s exercise of recording my intentions and seeing how many of them actualized. I was surprised at the synchronicity between intention and events. Psychologist Elisha Goldstein writes in his book, The Now Effect: “Our intention is at the root of why we do anything and plays a fundamental role in helping us cultivate a life of happiness or unhappiness. If we set an intention for well-being and place it at the center of our life, we are more likely to be guided toward it.”
2. Tune into the body.
Psychologist Tamar Chansky, Ph.D. reminds us to listen to the body when we get anxious. If you understand why certain symptoms occur in the body – racing heart, dizziness, sweating, stomachaches – and repeat to yourself, “This is a false alarm,” you are less afraid, less panicked by the situation. Knowing that these symptoms are part of the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) trying to protect you from danger – part of the primitive regions of the brain mobilizing the “flight-or-fight” response –the reaction becomes less about the situation and more about talking to your body about why it’s freaking out so that you can use the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) to restore the body to normalcy, which, in my case, is still pretty panicky.
3. Imagine the worst.
I’m not sure you will find a psychologist to agree with me on this exercise, but it has always worked for me every time I do it. I simply envision what it would look like if my worst nightmare happened. What if my husband and I could not get any architecture gigs or writing assignments? What if we can’t pay for health care insurance and my heart malfunctions (I have a heart disorder)? What if we both come to a bone fide professional dead end? Then I move to my actions. I think about selling our house, moving into a small apartment, and working as a waitress somewhere or maybe as a barista at Starbucks. (If you work more than 20 hours, you get health care insurance.) I research health care insurance options for persons who make minimum wage. Under ObamaCare, my kids, at least, would be covered. I invariably come to the conclusion that we will be okay. All is okay. A huge adjustment. Yes. But we are getting to be pros at that. This exercise makes me fret less about the things that I think I must have and get back to the essentials—literally a warm meal on the table, even if it’s one a day.
I am comforted by the words of Charles Caleb Colton: “Times of general calamity and confusion have ever been productive of the greatest minds. The purest ore is produced from the hottest fire.”
4. Describe, don’t judge.
In his book Get Out of Your Mind and Into Your Life, Steven Hayes, Ph.D. dedicates a few chapters to learning the language of your thoughts and feelings. Especially helpful to me is learning how to distinguish descriptions from evaluations.
Descriptions are “verbalizations linked to the directly observable aspects or features of objects or events.” Example: “I am feeling anxiety, and my heart is beating fast.” Descriptions are the primary attributes of an object or event. They don’t depend on a unique history. In other words, as Hayes, explain, they remain aspects of the event or object regardless of our interaction with them. Evaluations, on the other hand are secondary attributes that revolve around our interactions with objects, events, thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations. They are our reactions to events or their aspects. Example: “This anxiety is unbearable.”
If we are feeling anxious about the uncertainty of our job, for example, we can tease apart the language of our thoughts and try to transform an evaluation, “I will be destroyed if I am fired,” to a description, “I am feeling anxious and my job is unstable.” By naming the emotion and the situation, we don’t necessarily have to assign an opinion. Without the opinion, we can process the object, event, etc. without hyperventilation.
5. Learn from fear.
Eleanor Roosevelt wrote, “You gain strength, courage, and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face … You must do the thing you think you cannot do.” My body usually protests against that statement, but theoretically I concur with Eleanor. I sincerely believe the good stuff happens when we are afraid. If we go a lifetime without being scared, as Julia Sorel said, it means we aren’t taking enough chances.
Fear is rather benign in itself. It’s the emotions we attach to it that disable us. If we can confront our fear, or rather approach it as an important messenger, then we can benefit from its presence in our life. What is the fear saying to us? Why is it here? Did it bring roses or chocolate? According to Jones, this is an exercise of getting comfortable with being out of control, of learning to let go of the illusion of control — because we never really had it in the first place — and developing an inner knowing that everything will be okay.
reblogged from http://psychcentral.com/