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.
Last weekend I went to see my son at college. It was great. There is nothing like a bunch of 18 year olds to get you to reflect about what has changed over the decades and what has not.
As I was talking to him and his friends, I remembered driving cross country in my Ford escort, wondering what the heck I was going to do with myself, and simultaneously feeling free and terrified.
Whenever we start out on something new, we need to take risks (think old ford escort!). Doing something new implies that there are unknowns and we likely feel both exhilarated and terrified in the face of that.
And if we keep fully living, the situations change, the way we relate to them might change but these feelings are pretty consistent.
However, it can be easy to get a bit apathetic in our lives. It can sneak up on us so quickly.
We stop looking at how we can enjoy life more, how we can find a new challenge, or learn something new. Days can start to blend into each other in a type of sameness.
And, sometimes we can even feel grateful for this –for sameness and not for stress.
There is a beauty in the quiet times. However, we sometimes confuse this comfort with having it made. Then we can become attached to it and have a hard time accepting when it is no longer working for us. When it is time to leave some things behind and head out to parts unknown.
So my question for you this week is: When was the last time you felt as excited about something as when you were a teenager and trying so many things for the first time?
If it has not happened in a long time, what might you dream up that leaves you feeling really excited and maybe even a little terrified?
I consistently hear from people that they KNOW that they need to work with me but they do not have enough money, time, or support to make it happen. When you decide not to do something because of limited resources, when do you know if it is a real reason and when is it just an excuse? I feel that this is a very important question to answer so that we can make the healthiest, most empowering decisions for ourselves.
So how do you know if it is the right time to take that leap, to stretch, bend or extend yourself to get something you want?
There are a lot of opinions out there on this topic. Some people will say if you have the slightest impulse to move in a direction then you should go in that direction. Lets think about this. If you have the slightest impulse to cheat on your partner –do you? If you have the slightest impulse to eat an entire chocolate cake – do you? Maybe impulse is not the only thing to consider.
The question I ask is “What do you want for your life?” Really want. I am not talking about what are you willing to wish for when you have a few idle moments. I’m talking about what you want so badly that you are willing to work your tail off to get it.
Because if you want that amazing life, if you want things to totally change, you will get it.
You will see the change but you need to see it through.
You do not need to be without fear, you do not need to have the money, or the time. You need to have the commitment to yourself and your life. You need to know that you will stick with it. Because if you make this kind of commitment, NOTHING can stop you.
If there is something in your life that you want badly enough that you are willing to make this kind of commitment then yes,no matter what the circumstances, the time is now.
The power of positive thinking.
How many times have you heard that phrase thrown around? It’s so much a part of our vernacular now that it’s almost become meaningless. We’d all agree that thinking positively is a good thing. Especially when we’re feeling positive. When you’re feeling good, how much trouble is it to think, “Hey, I like me. My life is cool. Things are going great.”
But what about when things are crappy? What about those days when you’re so stressed the veins pop out of your forehead? When you hate your job — or you’ve lost it? What about those days when you are sucker-punched by a series of unfortunate events that makes the life of Job look like a garden party?
I’ve met people who remain perky during really bad times. And to be honest, they make me want to slap them around a bit. That Pollyanna, “life is still beautiful” attitude when things are falling apart just yanks my chain. However, I’ve come to learn that these people know something I don’t.
Here’s the secret that’s not really a secret. It’s revolutionary, exciting science.
Positive thinking really does change your brain. Not in some magical, woo woo kind of way, but in a real physical way.
The science is called neuroplasticity. It means that our thoughts can change the structure and function of our brains. The idea was first introduced by William James in 1890, but it was soundly rejected by scientists who uniformly believed the brain is rigidly mapped out, with certain parts of the brain controlling certain functions. If that part is dead or damaged, the function is altered or lost. Well, it appears they were wrong.
Neuroplasticity now enjoys wide acceptance as scientists are proving the brain is endlessly adaptable and dynamic.
It has the power to change its own structure, even for those with the severe neurological afflictions. People with problems like strokes, cerebral palsy, and mental illness can train other areas of their brains through repetitive mental and physical activities. It is completely life-altering.
So what does this have to do with positive thinking and with you?
It means that repetitive positive thought and positive activity can rewire your brain and strengthen brain areas that stimulate positive feelings.
In “The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science”, Norman Doidge M.D. states plainly that the brain has the capacity to rewire itself and/or form new neural pathways — if we do the work. Just like exercise, the work requires repetition and activity to reinforce new learning.
Here are some actions you can take to change your own brain during the bad times.
Fear of failure.
Everyone fears doing something new because we don’t wait to fail. The truth is, we can do most anything if we take action, stop negative thinking, and shift our perceptions of the truth about our abilities.
Action steps: Force yourself to stop thinking about reasons you can’t do something, even if you don’t feel brave or capable. Every time a negative thought creeps in, retrain your brain to think a positive thought about your abilities instead. Then take small actions every day toward achieving your goal or desired change. Nike’s slogan, “Just do it,” has real validity.
Have you ever found yourself trapped in obsessive over-thinking about a problem or in a state of anxiety or worry that lasts for days or even weeks? It drains your energy, affects your sleep, and spirals your mood and outlook on life. Focusing on your problem only strengthens the worry function in your brain.
Action steps: When you find yourself in that cycle of worry or compulsive thinking, remember the three R’s — rename, re-frame, and redirect. When the worry begins, mentally yell “Stop!” Rename the issue by reminding yourself that worry isn’t real. Rename it as a compulsive reaction, not reality. Re-frame your thinking by focusing on positive or distracting thoughts, even if you still feel anxious. Force yourself to think different thoughts. Redirect your actions. Go do something uplifting, fun or mentally engaging. The key is following these steps repeatedly, every time you worry obsessively, to break the pattern and rewire your brain.
Sometimes we might feel blue or out-of-sorts, and it’s just a temporary fog that settles in and lifts after a few days. Some mood disorders, like depression or serious anxieties that morph into phobias, can be debilitating and unrelenting. Psychologists and therapists have used treatments based on neuroplasticity to get to the cognitive root of these disorders and put a patient’s life back on track.
Action steps: A serious mood disorder or phobia requires the help of a trained counselor. Cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) is a type of treatment that helps people learn how to identify and change destructive thought patterns that have a negative influence on behavior and feelings. If you suffer from severe anxiety or depression, you need someone skilled to help you get to the root of these thoughts and to show you how to change them. Ask them about CBT.