In my last column, I wrote about fear and how much it affects our lives. We can “catch” it before we even realize what’s happening. I shared the first of three steps developed by neuroscientist Kevin Ochsner at Columbia University. His system is called “Cognitive Reappraisal” and its focus is on helping you develop habits of thinking that are steady and calm, even in the face of ongoing stress or difficulty.
The first step that I asked you to practice was to notice what triggers your fear, what your fear feels like to you, and then find ways to change the situation where your fear occurs. If you find yourself anxious and frightened when you finish having coffee with a co-worker, perhaps that person fixates on negative health issues, or is just generally pessimistic, and you find yourself “catching” their mindset. Emotions travel quickly and can easily be caught by others.
Maybe you have watched medical television shows, but now they fire up your worry about yourself or a loved one.
One person I know felt upset every time she finished shopping in a particular mall. When we reviewed her day, she suddenly realized that to get to a favorite store she passed a medical supply store with a wheelchair prominently displayed. That set off an internal cascade of fearful thoughts that she didn’t even realize she was having. It was only the result that got her attention – a gloomy and snappish mood. When she began to reflect and review what had occurred, she began to recognize the internal anxious dialogue that was occurring.
The next step builds on the awareness that you have been developing.
After recognizing your fear, step back and observe.
This is sometimes known as mindfulness or creating a small space where you can look at your emotion, rather than just being absorbed by it. You are not your feeling. You can distance yourself from your anger or your envy or your fear by watching it as you would see a movie. Let it be outside you.
One way to practice this is to watch your breathing. Slow and steady breaths in and out calm the nervous system and give your brain some space. Neuroscientists talk about “sculpting” new neural pathways. It’s a great phrase. It helps us see that what we do repeatedly over time makes physical paths. Our thoughts do this – they make real pathways that can become superhighways. Observation helps us choose what path we want to get on and develop – we don’t have to be reactive and zoom along. When we have practiced calm even breathing it helps us create that observer space where we can choose and respond rather than absorb and react. We begin to sculpt pathways of rational thought and find ways of accessing them in times of stress.