When asked that question, the majority of us have a conventional answer: snakes, heights, needles, things that go bump in the night.
But if we really pay attention to ourselves, we find that we are fearful many times a day, and the triggers for fear are not those we name.
Most of us feel fear when we have a scary thought: there’s not enough money, no one is ever going to really love me, my illness is only going to get worse.
Those thoughts, and their close relatives sneak in under the radar, set off by a news show, a random comment, a glance at our calendar. All of a sudden we feel our hearts pounding, or a stomach clench. Our bodies know we are afraid before our rational brain has even registered the thought.
This happens because of our amygdala, a tiny pea sized part of the brain that is highly developed over the millennia to scan for danger. Our brains were wired to be on the lookout for predators or other harm, and our brain continues to do that for us. Only now what registers most often is not an actual snake but an imagined fear: a wheelchair, an empty bank account, a lonely dinner for one.
Our brain doesn’t know the
difference between our imagined picture, and the real one. So every time we see a scenario in our mind’s eye, our brain feels it as real.
The good news is that this is something we can change! We can re-pattern our brains to stay calm – even in a situation that usually creates a negative response.
Dr. Keith Ochsner, a neuroscientist who directs the Social Cognitive Neuroscience Laboratory at Columbia University developed a system called Cognitive Reappraisal.
This process trains the brain to re-assess and re-frame situations that would ordinarily lead to that panicky feeling. He states, “Emotions are malleable, but people often don’t realize how much of what we feel is under our own control.”
His process has three parts. This week I am going to describe one of them, and next issue I will talk about the other two.
Change your situation.
This means, avoid the people or places that start the fear reaction. If someone you spend time with is always emphasizing the fearful part of life, stay away from that person, or minimize time spent.
Emotional energy is contagious – you can “catch” someone else’s anxiety or fearfulness, so evaluate where and with whom you are spending time.
One client of mine found that doctor’s visits set off a fear reaction that could linger for days. When we carefully went through what happened at the visit, we discovered that it wasn’t the time with the doctor, it was the time in the waiting room, sitting among people who were clearly sicker, and that led to anxious imaginings of what might happen next for her. She decided to set her appointments for early in the day, so that she would not have to spend so much time with other patients, and that has helped her manage her fearful worries.
The first step is to recognizing where and when your fears start. This is the practice of being mindful and observing yourself and your thinking. Sometimes you have to follow the chain back to when the thought first occurred, and see what led to it. A thoughtless comment from a co-worker or neighbor? A picture? A television show? Your practice is to recognize what is most problematic for you, and then make the change where you can.
Next week I’ll describe steps two and three, but in the meantime, start observing.
It takes practice, but is well worth it so you can begin to teach your brain to be calm and steady.