We are all afraid of something. There are the common fears of snakes, public speaking, and bad guys. Then there are the deeper fears - failure, loss, and death.
What does fear feel like? And where do you feel it in your body? These are important questions to ask yourself when fear arises. It is also important to recognize that fear is the ego’s way of protecting us. However, the ego is sensitive, and much of the fear responses we experience are unnecessary.
Similar to stress, fear is a fundamental emotion and a necessary psychophysiological construct. Both biological or primal fear and psychological fear can manifest in very real ways, and they are often important for our survival. The problem is when our mind and body occupy a fearful state too often. The danger is when we run on overdrive.
Can we overcome fear? Absolutely. We’ve all seen it. Here are some steps to take:
First, pause. As soon as you recognize the first signs of fear, take a beat and a deep breath. Then, acknowledge the thoughts that are arising and ask what they are trying to tell you. Is there a specific action you should take in that moment? Fear is paralyzing. It prevents us from taking action. So, recognize that and rise above it. If there is no action warranted, then it is time to be completely present with this fear. Pay attention to what you are feeling, rather than what you are thinking. The physiological response to fear is uncomfortable and we have a tendency to ignore those sensations in an attempt to pull away from them. But, being present with fear means to drop in to what you are feeling - and where you are feeling it. Allow yourself to be absorbed by those sensations. Furthermore, take a cue from the Navy Seals and use your breath to address the physiological fear response. Inhale for 4 counts, hold for 7 counts, and exhale for 8 counts. Lastly, trust that those emotions and thoughts will pass through you. This last piece can best be explored through a meditation practice.
In meditation, we move through different layers of our psyche. As we move deeper, we can become aware of repressed fears and emotions. These uncomfortable thoughts and sensations rise to the surface or our psyche. While sitting in the safe space of meditation, recognize these thoughts as simply that - thoughts. We have 70,000 thoughts each day and this fear thought is just another one. It will move through you if you allow it to. If you attach yourself to it and believe the story it’s telling you, then you give it permission to remain trapped inside. It doesn’t have the opportunity to move on.
Contrary to early neuroscience research, there does not seem to be a clean-cut “fear circuit”. Different regions of the brain activate depending on the extent of the threat. For example, in a life-threatening situation, the brain activates the “low road”, which is essentially a direct path toward emotional and muscular activation. Specifically, the thalamus senses the threat and sends a message to your amygdala (the “emotion center”), which activates the hypothalamus to trigger the adrenal glands, which cause your muscles to move. In this case, the cognitively more advanced regions of the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex are not involved. In all other cases, the brain takes the “high road”. When the stimulus is not life-threatening, the brain engages the prefrontal cortex and hippocampus slightly, in addition to the other regions mentioned. However, with all fear responses, the brain relies less on the rational pathways, while the emotional/reactive centers are hyperreactive.
As you develop a greater awareness of what triggers your fear response, take advantage of your ability to slow your response and more actively engage your rational brain. It is not beneficial to constantly live in a state of fear, and yet, in these times, so many of us are there far too often.