We may be conditioned to believe that fear is a negative reaction, a weakness, or ‘in our heads’. In actuality, fear can be a good thing. It can be a natural response to a physical danger. We inherited this response from our hunter-gatherer ancestors. Imagine if they had not reacted in fear when an animal was chasing them. Where would be today? Would we even BE here today?
Fear stimulates the hypothalamus in our brain, which leads to the sympathetic nervous system and the adrenal cortex releasing the stress hormone cortisol to prepare our bodies for danger. This physical reaction in our bodies can lead to sweating, shaking, and many times feeling a tingly sensation in our limbs, which stems from the blood leaving them and pumping to our hearts. As our heart rate accelerates and our breathing becomes more rapid, like a hunter, our vision narrows as our body prepares for fight or flight. We are preparing for this fear sometimes before we even realize it.
As much as we might sometimes like to rid ourselves from these unpleasant sensations, fear is part of our innate survival kit.
Fear can also be falsely created or highly exaggerated, such as fear of darkness, spiders, loneliness, or fear of leaving our house. When the threat is nonexistent or greatly exaggerated our fears can turn into phobias. For example, if you get sweaty palms and feel shaky before a shot, you are most likely fearful. However, if you choose not to get the shot, your fear now becomes a phobia. There is a great acronym of unknown origin about fear.
F.E.A.R: False Evidence Appearing Real. Though the fear appears real, there may be no tangible fear present, though it may feel that way. This perceived fear creates anxiety, worry, phobias, and avoidance.
Since anxiety is the precursor to fear, one of the best ways to help curb our fears is to deal with the underlying anxiety surrounding it. Four key ways to alleviate anxiety and fear are:
1 Healthy Belly Breathing with a 2:1 Breathing Pattern
Healthy breathing involves breathing deeply into your belly and not taking shallow breaths into your upper chest. The exhalation is the part of the breath that relaxes you; so adopting a 2:1 breathing pattern is tremendously helpful in a fearful situation.
In 2:1 breathing, you will exhale twice as long as you inhale. So if you normally inhale to the count of 3, exhale to the count of 6.
If you aren’t sure how to breathe in the healthiest way, my website has a great explanation of healthy breathing. http://www.stopandbreathe.org/healthy-breathing
2 Progressive Relaxation
Relaxation of your entire body is one of the most beneficial stress and anxiety reducing practices. With practice, this can be done on your own, but initially it is beneficial to listen to a progressive relaxation guidance. My Deep Relaxation Series has 2 of these- Full Body Relaxation and 61-Points Relaxation. http://www.stopandbreathe.org/products. Both of these involve traveling throughout the body and relaxing the entire body from head to toe. This is also a great practice to use when trying to fall asleep.
3 Visualization Techniques
A helpful visualization technique to use involves becoming aware of all of your senses. This technique is often used in fear-of-flying classes. To practice this technique, you simply bring your focus to each of your five senses and ask yourself what each of them perceives. This allows you to completely focus on the present moment and not let your mind take you to a fearful place.
4 Rationalization Exercises
Approach your fear with curiosity. Try and be a passive observer of your own mind and body as you ask yourself:
Is what I am feeling real?
What am I really afraid of?
When do I feel this the most?
How does this make me feel?
What is the worst possible outcome?
What is the best possible outcome?
These above techniques will activate the relaxation response in your body, which triggers your brain to secrete hormones that calm your mind and body. You have a choice in a fearful situation; to either ‘Forget Everything And Run’ or ‘Face Everything And Recover’. Hopefully you will empower yourself to not let FEAR cripple your life and hold you back, but to propel you forward to live your best life.
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-Susan Ginsberg, Stop and Breathe