Right now, a lot of us are feeling fear, and there are plenty of reasons to feel fearful. It can be mild, like background noise – maybe just feels like a little anxiety. Or it can be extreme, where we feel paralyzed by terror. You may feel anything in between, and it may even come and go. Fear triggers all kinds of changes in the body. The first thing it does is activate the “fight or flight or freeze” response, our sympathetic nervous system’s reflex answer to any threat or danger. This instantly mobilized a cascade of stress hormones that signal the body to do various things to protect and save us from imminent harm. Our heart rate and blood pressure go up and circulation is diverted from the extremities to supply more blood to our brain and muscles. That’s why your hands get cold and sweaty when you’re nervous or scared. Digestion, reproductive function, and repair or healing activities cease immediately. Sleep becomes a thing of the past. We tend to shrink, or “contract” physically and emotionally. Getting smaller can feel like a safer posture to take. Our sight and hearing can become sharper, and strength can temporarily increase dramatically. An example is someone being able to lift or move a heavy object, like a car, to save someone trapped underneath. These responses are all great in the case of a short-term real threat like an accident or grizzly bear encounter.
But when we face a prolonged or constant threat, or even worse a vague unknown threat or even a perceived threat – instead of being an advantage, staying in this state becomes a distinct disadvantage. Our brain becomes affected by the flood of fear-triggered stress hormones. These can cause something that feels a little bit like a high, because of the accompanying rush of adrenaline. That’s why bad news sells so well, and why we can’t tear ourselves away from the TV when something bad is happening (remember 9/11?) In this sense, chronic fear, chaos, or turmoil can also become addicting. It starts to feel normal to the person who has lived that way for a long time, especially a child who doesn’t have control over their situation. So, as they grow up, they continue to seek out or create situations that trigger that same rush of stress hormones and adrenaline that feels “normal”. Of course, this is not consciously or maybe even intentionally, but nonetheless often happens.
Fear also “disconnects” or shuts off our frontal lobes, the part of our brain needed for logical, rational thought and good decision making. Instead our amygdala, sometimes called “the reptilian brain”, starts taking over. This is the part of the brain that is simply wired to survive. We all have an incredible drive or will to survive. You may not be aware of that until your survival is threatened, and then you’ll know for sure. It will prompt us to do or say things that may not make sense rationally, but that we “think” will help us survive whatever threat we are facing. Fear always triggers feelings of scarcity. Therefore, when we feel threatened, we stockpile or hoard things like toilet paper, food, money or weapons.
And when things like our digestion, reproductive function, immune and repair systems are shut down, all kinds of dire health consequences start occurring. Over time this state of fear leads to chronic inflammation, which is the major contributor to most chronic disease and illness. Our risks of death and dying DO go up. The very things we feared start happening – we create what we fear.
So how do we get out of this state and prevent all the negative consequences? First, we must recognize it, and then acknowledge the fears. When we name those fears out loud, they become manageable and we can recognize that most of what we fear is not real, but perceived. I love this little pneumonic: FEAR stands for Future Events Appearing Real. Most of us, in this moment, are okay. It is in worrying about what MAY happen that so much anxiety and fear occurs, or when we are living in the future, instead of the present moment. I call it the “What if” game. It can even be helpful to let your fear have a voice. Sit down and write a letter to yourself from your fear, then respond back with gratitude acknowledging fear’s concern, but firmly informing your fear that YOU are in charge and making decisions, not fear.
There are several other simple but very effective things you can do to counteract the physical effects of that flight or fight response:
- Simply take several slow deep breaths all the way into your belly. This immediately helps calm the central nervous system and lowers cortisol. It can help to count as you breath in and then as you breath out.
- Take a drink of water. The physical act of having to swallow brings you back to the present moment, and helps your body (and your brain!) feel safer. Who would stop to take a drink when running from a bear?!
- Move! Since we tend to freeze in moments of extreme fear, consciously choosing to move can literally help get you unstuck. Do some jumping jacks, march in place, go for a walk, stretch your body.
Above all, we must consciously keep choosing to let go of fear. The longer you have lived in this state, the more determined and repetitious you must be about changing those patterns and habits that the brain is used to. Keep choosing daily, hourly, or sometimes minutely until it becomes the new “norm.” Being courageous doesn’t mean not feeling fear. It means feeling fear and acting anyway.
The most powerful antidote of all to fear and scarcity though, is love and abundance. In fact, love and fear cannot both exist in the same place and time. Neither can scarcity and abundance. Love, just like fear, is a choice. The best way to start experiencing more love and abundance is by practicing gratitude. Being grateful automatically starts expanding you, physically and emotionally. More room for love and abundance is created. And the more love and gratitude you share, the more you can receive. Fear OR Love. Scarcity OR Abundance. You can have one or the other, never both. And the difference is your CHOICE.
There is no fear in love, but perfect love drives out fear. 1 John 4:18