How to recognize and face your fears for improved mental and physical health
It's time to consider one of the biggest roadblocks to achieving your dreams: fear.
Fear can crop up anywhere, and you may not immediately recognize it for what it is. It could be so deeply engrained in your mind and body that you dismiss it as normal, or you unconsciously avoid thinking about, trying, or doing things that you inherently fear.
Humorously accurate acronyms for FEAR abound. A censored version of the one I hear most often is below.
Becoming aware of how fear appears in our everyday lives, its potential effects, and how to more healthfully respond to situations or thoughts that we fear can lead to improved mental and physical health, happier relationships, and higher productivity and focus!
Let's get started learning how to recognize and face your fears!
How our natural fear response can help or hinder us
When in real or imagined danger, our brain and body automatically activate our sympathetic nervous system, which is a fancy way of saying we go into “fight or flight” mode. The amygdala (our “primal” brain, if you will) perceives a threat and signals the physical body to prepare to run from danger (the mountain lion around the corner): the heart races, adrenaline and cortisol course through us, and our more rational, logical brain center, the prefrontal cortex, if not properly trained, takes the backseat.
Even though today most of us don’t live with mountain lions or tigers lurking nearby, ready to pounce and maul us, our biological default to fear hasn’t adapted to understand that our physical surroundings are usually safe and it’s our thinking driving our fears. When you ruminate on your relationship troubles, job stress, or financial instability, or worse – you “awful-ize” what might happen in the future – your body and brain think you’re in danger and respond by going into fight or flight mode.
Fight or flight mode is exactly how it sounds, and it can play out in modern day just as it was intended to in the cave days.
Cave days: While walking through the forest, I hear rustling in the nearby brush, and my sympathetic nervous system immediately prepares me to run from a potential predator. The response protects and helps me.
Modern day: While reflecting on a previous conversation with my partner, I begin imagining I said something wrong, he’s mad at me, and now everything is ruined. Unchecked, this can escalate to “I should just break things off now; this will never work!” The maladaptive response can harm me (and my relationships), and chronic underlying stress resulting from this type of thinking contributes to a wide variety of physical diseases and ailments.
While fight or flight mode can save us from true imminent physical danger, it can also create highly reactive, unhealthy dynamics and situations.
Recognize when fear begins creeping up or already has taken over
Becoming aware of fear, particularly the physical sensations you experience while in fear, is a great first step towards heading it off. You might think of this as anxiety, nervousness, that knot in the pit of your stomach, or the sneaky tightening creeping into your upper back and neck. Whatever you physically experience, take note.
In the cave day and modern day examples above, the physical body's reaction is the same. My muscles tense, breathing quickens, heart races, blood pressure increases, and I’m suddenly ready to fight the predator (or my partner) or run from the predator (or my partner).
My physical alertness results from my amygdala revving the body’s gas pedal. If there’s a predator lurking, great – I’m not going to try explaining to the tiger how I’m feeling and calmly ask to discuss what happened earlier and why it wants to eat me; I’m going to run.
But with my partner, I need to be able to take my amygdala’s foot off the gas and brake with my prefrontal cortex. I need my logical, rational mind so I don’t fire off an angry text, make dramatic assumptions, or self-sabotage by going AWOL or silent. I need to cognitively regulate, access my relationship tools, and objectively assess the situation. But when my primal brain and adrenaline are yelling “flee!,” how can I calm down?
How can you switch “fight or flight” off and turn on your logical, rational prefrontal cortex?
Once you realize fear has crept in, begin intentionally calming your physical body by slowing and lengthening your breath.
Below is a brief explanation of retention breathing or box breathing, which I regularly integrate into yoga experiences, with a link to a free guided breathing exercise to lead you through it.
Begin by breathing fully in and out through the nose.
Gradually slow and lengthen both your inhale and exhale.
After several rounds of normal, slower breathing, begin to add a “hold,” retaining the breath inside after inhaling to your maximum capacity. (Example: inhale fully, stay full for 4 counts, then exhale fully; repeat at least twice.)
Next, you’ll add a hold/retention after fully exhaling. (Inhale fully, stay full for 4 counts, exhale fully, stay empty for 4 counts; repeat and continue to hold full and hold empty).
You can perform this exercise for as many rounds as you like or need, even lengthening your breathing cycles from 4 to 5 to 6 counts and beyond.
Return to your normal (now slower) breath pattern, without the holds, when ready.
Not only does retention breathing mitigate your body’s "fight or flight" sympathetic nervous system, it engages your parasympathetic nervous system, which controls your “rest and digest,” heal and relax functions.
Decrease fear, increase serenity - Everyday practical application
Develop awareness of when your body and mind go into fear or stress mode. How does it physically feel for you? What is happening around you, or what are you thinking about when you begin feeling fearful? Simply gather data about the circumstances.
Intentionally slow your breathing and recenter, using this free guided deep breathing exercise, designed to help you mindfully and intentionally slow your breath, activating your parasympathetic nervous system.
I'm rooting for you!
If you'd like help facing your fears, moving towards your dreams, or just learning more about what a Certified Life and Relationship Coach does, schedule your Complimentary Clarity Call. Spend 45 minutes focusing on your deepest dreams and desires, and devise steps to actualize them!
Questions? Send them here!