Most introductions to topics of fear and stress in psychology use a hypothetical bear scenario to demonstrate our primitive responses for survival: fight, flight, freeze. I’ll spare you the bear and instead cut to the response itself and the repercussions. When faced with something scary or stressful, the bears of your life, your body releases chemicals that keep on high alert to respond accordingly. However, this high alert is exhausting and consumes what your body needs for immunity and to function properly. Stress might be the root of all of our problems, disease, depression, impulsivity, etc., and it’s often no coincidence that when one thing goes wrong everything else seems to slip at the same time. It’s the reason why when we’re vulnerable and tired we reach for comforts attempting to cure our woes (whoas!) with sleeves of Oreos. So, it’s important to manage your stress responses to be in homeostasis, or your home-base status.
Let’s get to the deep kind of fear bubbling below our conscious awareness. Fears like death, rejection, the unknown, and being alone seem to embed themselves into who we are and our personalities. One of the ways we fight or flee from these fears is by building walls. Walls may keep us in safety and from feelings, but they cost us so much. Of course everybody has different experiences and different ways of reacting, but generally walls go up for these purposes: as an emotional response, control through either avoidance of the situation or sabotage (to manage who, when, and how a situation goes/ends), and ego maintenance.
Knock the blocks that keep you from speaking, doing, and living fully (and fluently!).
- Practice is a way of turning what you learn into something automatic. I find that sometimes when I’m in moments of anxiety or a situation where I’ve laid the thickest bricks, I go blank and can’t seem to apply all of the strategies I know to help myself. It’s freeze, or the inability to think straight when overcome and distracted by fear. Practicing strategies that help you both when you need them and when you don’t allow it to be more automatic when you’re frozen. We all like familiarity, so even when the unexpected comes toward us, we’ll already know what to do as if we’ve been awaiting its arrival. We will know what we used to do and be able to replace it with something more effective, like choosing a spoon instead of a fork to eat soup.
2. Move. I recently was in a workshop hosted by a woman Katie Hendricks (she has website and whole program), and I learned to match my movements to my thoughts. This means moving your body for every thought you have. It can be more subtle like moving fingers or waving your hand. If your thoughts can be anything like mine, your hands might move so fast you may start to levitate, but the awareness of your movement eventually slows your thoughts. For frustrating thoughts, you may shake a clenched fist until the ridiculousness of it naturally becomes softer. You could do also yoga poses to reflect your thoughts. Becoming aware of your body in movements and its posture not only help you notice where you hold your stress and fear, but it makes you more present so you can respond to situations more rationally.
3. Breathing, a classic fear killer. It’s an innate resource for healing. One of my professors from her research suggests breathing in for a 4 count, holding for 2, and breathing out counting to 6. Some people like to inhale and exhale for the same amount of time. You can start with a count of 4, then gradually work your way to 8 second long inhales and exhales. I like to notice the spaces between my breaths.
4. Unlearn old habits of fear by tracing them to an experience, your childhood, or if you believe in a before/afterlife and reincarnation, they could be imprints from another life. Everybody likes a good origin story right? To unlearn is to go deep into the archives of your experiences and see why you’ve learned to respond to your bears (fears) the way you do. Then it’s catching yourself in the act and eventually doing differently. You begin to acknowledge the stories you carry and harmful scripts overplayed in your head. Release what is no longer serving you.
5. Create a safe, imaginative place in your mind. Smell the saltwater waves crashing to shore, the silence of snow falling, feel plush green grass as the support beneath you. Try to keep from imagining people in your space. What plants are growing in your safe place? You can go to this place anytime because it is always available to you.
6. Identify supportive people. Even if we’re not readily fearless with anyone in any situation, it’s important to have someone, maybe a few, who you know requires no walls, resistance, judgement, shame, or apology. If you can’t identify them, there’s no volunteering someone for the job. It could be that you haven’t met them yet!
7. Steer clear of stigmatizing fears in yourself and others. We all have them, and we all have reacted to them in irrational ways. Often, behind anger and sadness, loudness and silence there is insecurity. Even the ignorant and inconsiderate are behaving from fear. Chances are, we’ll be less harmed talking about fears than from the behaviors that come from them.