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Fear Is Not Your Friend

Is fear using you?

Fear used to be an asset. When we Homo sapiens wandered around the planet hundreds of thousands of years ago, fear was our key to survival. It warned us of real threats like that saber-tooth tiger stalking us or the avalanche about to run us over. It was helpful.

Tero Vesalainen/iStock
Source: Tero Vesalainen/iStock

As our brains developed, we no longer distinguished between real experiences and imagined experiences. Where fear used to warn us about present physical dangers, we now can fear things that have nothing to do with physical survival. We can fear things that have never happened and may never happen. We can even fear things that are only threatening to our self-esteem. This is not helpful.

Though you might think that being in “fear” would help you out of a crisis, that simply isn’t true. Martial artists will tell you that if they bring fear into a fight, they’ve already lost. Firefighters will tell you that people who panic are the ones most likely to die in a fire.

So, here we are in a global pandemic, and fear is more prevalent than ever. And it’s not helpful.

Fear shoots out hormones to prepare us for fight or flight. It does things like shutting down our digestive systems and making our hearts beat faster. But ongoing fear and anxiety cause all kinds of issues, from cardiovascular damage to ulcers and irritable bowel syndrome.

Ongoing fear does damage to parts of the brain, which leads to more anxiety. It affects our mental capacity to understand non-verbal cues and new information. It negatively affects our judgment, decision-making, and our ability to control our intense emotions and impulsive reactions.

Oh, and did I mention that it weakens the immune system?

Fear and anxiety will not keep us safer.

Fear and anxiety do not help us act and react appropriately and make good decisions.

When you let go of fear and anxiety, that doesn’t mean you’ll just stand on the railroad tracks while a train comes barreling toward you. It means that you’ll recognize the situation for what it is, decide the best course of action, and calmly walk off the tracks and get out of the way.

We teach several techniques to deal with fear and put you in a better state. Here’s a simple method you can use for yourself:

1. Establish your timeline. Our unconscious minds organize us—our memories, our present, and future—using time. If you stop and think about it, you intuitively know where that timeline is in relation to your body. Just think of a memory of some event in your past. As you think about it, where is it in relation to your body? Many people experience the past behind them, but it could also be to your left or right. Now think about something that will happen in the future. Where is that in relation to your body? In front of you? To the left or right? Just notice that you can draw a line between where your past is and where your future is. This is your timeline.

2. Now think about an event in the future that you are anxious about. Maybe it’s trying to go back to work or a restaurant after months at home. Perhaps it’s the end of the month when you’ll have to pay bills. Get that specific event clearly in your mind and notice how you feel about it. You might have a clenched jaw or queasy stomach. You might have a feeling of panic or hopelessness. Whatever you feel, notice it.

3. Next, think about the best possible outcome for that event. What would a successful result be? How would that feel? What would happen to let you know that you were successful? Maybe you go out with friends and feel safe and have a great time. Maybe you easily pay all your bills and still have money left over. It’s OK if you don’t know how this could happen. Just get as clear an image of a great result as you can.

4. Close your eyes and simply float above your timeline and out into the future until you are 15 minutes after the successful conclusion of the event. Float for a moment above your best possible outcome. (Don’t worry about doing this exactly right. Just play along.)

5. Float down and into the moment that is 15 minutes after the successful completion of the event. Notice what you see, hear, and feel in this moment. Stay for a few moments to enjoy your success.

6. When you’ve had a clear experience of that moment, float back up above your timeline and back into the present moment. Open your eyes, take a few deep breaths and be present in the room.

7. Finally, bring to mind the event in the future you were anxious about. As you think of it, notice how you feel. Do you have a different attitude about it? Do you feel more confident, more capable? And, can you see how your new attitude could lead you to a better outcome than your old anxiety?

Give this technique a shot. Most people notice that their anxiety is gone. Some even don’t remember having it!

Dr. Matt

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