What is your greatest fear? Is it making a speech in front of a large audience? Is it appearing incompetent? Is it a phobia of heights or spiders? Let’s face it, everyone experiences fear. Fortunately, there are effective ways to overcome fears. Are you curious? Keep reading!
Biological Basis of Fear
In order to most effectively control fear, it is important to know how your stress response system work. This system is responsible for our feelings of fear and related bodily responses. You may have heard of this system in reference to the famed fight or flight response. During fight or flight, our brains divert energy to survival responses and initiate a cascade of hormones in an effort to help us survive major threats to our physical safety such as being confronted by an armed mugger. We have all experienced fight or flight responses such as our hearts racing heart, palms sweating, gastric symptoms, difficulty thinking clearly and feeling agitated. In physically dangerous situations such responses are quite useful. However, the fight or flight response is also activated by psychologically centered fears such as failing a test or being judged harshly or rejected by others. For those of us who frequently experience psychologically generated fears, we spend a great deal of time and energy coping with the fight or flight response.
Top-down Strategies: Using Your Brain to Manage Fears
When we attempt to manage our fears, we are trying to stop the fight or flight response so that our bodies can return to a state of peaceful homeostasis. Most commonly, we use what is referred to as top-down methods to attempt to achieve this goal. That is, we use our brain to try to calm our fears. Typically, we use defensive cognitive strategies such as rationalization (“If I fail this exam, it proves that I’m only human”) or intellectualization (“So far, my grade in this class is a ‘B’. Even if I fail this exam, I won’t fail the class). These strategies are not always effective. Many of us know that regardless of our attempts at rationalizing or engage our intellect, the stress response system sometimes remains stubbornly activated.
Fortunately, we can use more effective and healthy top-down strategies to overcome our fears. These responses require courage as they involve facing your fears without engaging defensive strategies. Mindfulness for example, focuses on being fully aware of what’s going on around you and in your body without attaching emotions or judgments to awareness. In essence, when you practice mindfulness, you learn to observe your thoughts, emotions, bodily sensations, and the environment around you from a neutral stance. When practiced regularly, this peaceful stance can empower you to experience fear related thoughts without activating fight or flight. This lack of activation assists in keeping your brain online so that you are better able to problems solve or otherwise figure how you might manage the source of your fear.
In response to particularly overwhelming fears, it is important to face one’s fears in a step-by-step fashion. For example, those with severe social anxiety disorder feel acute fear regarding potentially doing something embarrassing or appearing incompetent in front of others. Such individuals may elect to gradually introduce themselves into safe, welcoming social situations. Firstly, one might imagine being in a typically fear evoking social situation. Next, one might enter a typically fearful situation with a trusted friend while allowing oneself to part company for gradually lengthening periods of time. The key to success with this approach, is to allow moderate levels of fear emerge without engaging in avoidance or defensive cognitive strategies. Spreading out this gradual exposure over several social occasions often helps with not becoming overwhelmed. Additionally, it is important not to feed the fear by allowing your thoughts to spiral into thinking about the worst case scenario, engaging in self-criticism, or other stressful thought patterns. Instead focus on your present experience with the goal of letting any thoughts pass without investing in them.
The fight or flight response is designed to active our brains and bodies to respond to threats. When this response is strongly activated, one’s thoughts are racing along with an increase heart rate and shallow breathing it can be difficult to adequately apply mindfulness or other top-down strategies. When this happens, it useful to reverse communication patterns between the brain and body. These bottom-up strategies involve using your body to send messages to the brain in a manner that disrupts the fight or flight response.
One of the easiest ways of achieving bottom-up communication is focusing on your breathing. When we feel a great deal of stress or fear, our breathing becomes shallow. Engaging in deep “belly” breathing counteracts this effect. It gets better. Instead of simply focusing on getting more oxygen into your body, you can more fully engage your nervous system in your fear-busting efforts. You may do this very simply by altering your breathing pattern so that you are exhaling slowly. How does this work? Whenever we inhale, we are activating the portion of the sympathetic nervous system, which is involved in activation and maintenance of the fight or flight response. When we exhale we activate its counterpart, the parasympathetic nervous system, which is involved in achieving and sustaining peaceful homeostasis. Essentially, when we exhale slowly we are putting one of the body’s natural calming response into high gear.
Other bottom-up strategies involve stimulating the vagus nerve. Are you unfamiliar with the vagus nerve? It’s one of our twelve cranial nerves that connect the brain to the body via our spinal cord. The vagus nerve is responsible for communicating information from our skin, muscles, and internal organs to the brain. When we are fearful, the vagus nerve is hard at work sending messages to the brain that support fight or flight. Disrupting this communication can effectively help us resolve fearful states.
Deep breathing, particularly belly breathing, stimulates the vagus nerve. Using the “OM” sound associated with some forms of meditation also stimulates the vagus nerve. Simply chant “OM” repeatedly and slowly. Singing loudly simulates the vagus nerve as does gargling with water. A less convenient yet effective means of stimulating the vagus nerve is immersing your face in cold water for a few seconds. This method can be especially useful if you are feeling completely overwhelmed by fear.
All of these are relatively simple means of using your body to influence the brain to discontinue the fight or flight response. It is important to note, however, that the strategies can fail if you continuously engage in anxious or fearful thinking while using them. Focus your full attention on whichever method you are trying. If you experience an anxious thought let it pass without investing in it. Once you feel your body calming down, you may find that is now easier to recognize the irrational aspects of fear provoking thoughts or disengage from unhealthy fear-based behaviors.
Are you curious about these techniques? If so, go ahead and give them a try the next time you find yourself experiencing fear. If top-down strategies prove to challenging, add or switch to bottom-up strategies. Let me know how well the strategies work for you!