This is the final column in the three-part series I have been writing about dealing with fear.
A brief re-cap: most fears begin in our imaginations. It is the drama we write in our head about our illness, or the future we script for someone we love and worry about. Fear can be the all the painful scenarios that we “see” in our mind’s eye that may never come to pass. But once we see them, our bodies react as if they have really happened.
You know that clench in your gut or the adrenelen rush to your heart that happens when you think about something that frightens you? Upcoming surgery, speaking in public, a doctor’s visit you dread – all have an effect on your nervous system, causing chemicals to cascade in a rush to prepare your body to flee.
Only most of the time, the fear is in our head, not our environment.
In the last two columns I described ways to begin to dial down that fear reaction. It begins with minimizing the situations that trigger your fear, whether they are encounters with people or places that are scary. The second column suggested how you can get some perspective. A little distance, physical or mental can calm your body down and lessen fear. This relates to mindfulness and calm steady breathing as the beginning point.
This final column describes the third step – telling yourself the story another way.
The practice of changing your narrative is one of the most effective – and also the most challenging.
Some have called this “re-framing>’ That phrase was coined by Richard Bandler and John Grinder who developed a brain modeling techniquer called Neuro-Linguistic Programming. The idea is that events happen, but we decide what that event means. We take the some facts a(not all of them) nd weave those into a story about how this event affects us. We are meaning makers as human beings, but most of us don’t stop and assess what kind of meaning we are giving to our tale.
Take one of my neighbors. She had such severe arthiritis in her hip she was barely able to get out of bed because the pain was so bad. Her doctor determined she needed not just one hip replacement, but two. As she brought those facts together, her story sounded like this: This is the most difficult dreadful thing that I’ve ever had to go through. I don’t know how I’ll stand surgery. Then there’s the long recovery period – I’m not good at being in hospitals or rehab centers. How will I get to physical therapy? And the pain… I can’t imagine how I will ever withstand that. Plus my doctor told me that I won’t be able to do so many things with these replacement. I don’t know if I can do this.
The meaning she gave these upcoming events was that they were bringing more suffering into her life and she saw herself as someone who couldn’t cope.
Contrast her with a close friend of mine who also had severe hip arthritis. She too had trouble moving around her house and even began to gain weight because movement was so painful When she got the same diagnosis – encountered exactly the same event, she called me up and said, “I am so excited! They have a way to fix this. I never imagined I could look forward to something so much.” She went on to talk about all the things she would be able to do again, and what a relief it would be to be out of pain. When I mentioned that double surgery sounded daunting, she laughed. Compared to what I’ve been living with? I can do surgery and rehab – I am so looking forward to being mobile.
Same event – same diagnosis – but two very different stories.
We begin to deal with our fearful reactions by noticing how we are telling the story about what is happening to us. Do we see our resources? Are we able to claim our power and ability to handle what is going on? Can we look at the support we have and use it? For many of us that takes practice. If we want to live boldly and with full energy, we have work to do.
Living bravely is a challenge, and we have the power to sculpt our brain’s reactions. Think about where you want to start. You can teach your brain not to be afraid.