Overcoming Fear, once and for all
Lying awake in the middle of the night, running through ‘what ifs.’ What if I lose my job? What if my project fails? What if this headache is really a brain tumor? What if… what if…
That’s not preparing or planning. That’s ruminating; chewing on various possibilities over and over. You may be desperately trying to find a plan that will give you some peace, looking for a solution you had not seen before, but you seem to go in circles. You end up following the same thinking rut back to the same scary places.
How can we get out of this frenzied thinking, and overcome fear once and for all?
First, recognize that you have TWO problems.
When we are caught in fear, we actually have two problems. The first is the original circumstance that we find worrisome. The second problem is that we aren’t able to engage our prefrontal cortex, the part of our brain where we access our creativity, logic, and problem-solving. When we are caught in fear, our ‘lower’ brain has taken over and this shuts off all of our ‘higher’ thinking. Of course we can’t find a creative solution! (For more on this see my video on the three-tiered brain).
Don’t express it. When we have strong, uncomfortable feelings such as fear, anger, stress, anxiety or frustration, it might seem like expressing it is healthy. Some would say that you are being true to yourself when you share your fear with others, or when you scream or tell someone off. But you are only being true to your lizard brain. This is not your wiser, higher self talking. Generally, when we act on our fear (or anger, frustration etc.) we make matters worse.
Don’t suppress it. If we don’t express it, then we must suppress it, right? Wrong. Trying to talk yourself out of your fear just ensures that you will find yourself awake in the middle of the night again soon. Suppressing any uncomfortable emotion causes it to build up and up until… Kaboom! This is sure to make matters worse.
A better way. The way to overcome fear for the rest of your life is to welcome it as your teacher and resolve to work with it. Every time fear arises:
1) Notice it. Just notice what it’s doing in your body. Are your shoulders getting tight? How about your teeth? Are they clenched? Where else in your body does fear live?
2) Experience it. Without trying to talk yourself out of it, just for a moment or two, experience what that fear feels like. Does it remind you of anything, any time, any place? Get to know it.
3) Relax. Intentionally relax your entire body. Stomach, neck, the muscles in your jaw and behind your eyes. This signals to your lizard brain that you are safe and that the fight or flight response is not needed.
4) Release the fearful thought. Surrender it and let it go. Imagine your fearful thoughts are like helium balloons. Just loosen your grip. Let go. While this sounds simplistic, it is incredibly powerful. Then do it again and again. If you practice this every time fear arises, you may be surprised how quickly your life is transformed.
Warning: Thinking about this process will do nothing. Zip. Zero. You’ll need to actually do it.
Resolve to Die Only Once
I have lived through a lot of terrible things in my life.
Some of them actually happened. - Mark Twain
Living through catastrophe, trauma, and crisis once is bad enough. When you live in fear, you live-out these events over and over. Your brain and body don’t know the difference. They jump to Defcon 3, unaware that you are actually warm and safe in your bed. The practice I am suggesting is that you resolve to live each moment once, as it happens, and not before, nor after.
When you are able to let go and surrender your fearful thoughts, your prefrontal cortex remains in the driver’s seat, guiding you with wisdom, logic, and creativity. The actions you take from there have a much higher chance of being effective.
Here’s the best part. Everything looks different out on the other side of fear. There, life is sweeter. Colors are brighter. Breathing is easier. Sleep is more peaceful. Overcoming fear once and for all does require diligent effort, but the rewards are priceless.
I wish you peace.