How to Feel Safe in Times of Fear
When we often think of fear, we think of something intimidating or scary, like being in a car crash, or losing a loved one. What we often ignore are the everyday stressors that actually trigger our fear response system. Our brain is made up of a rich neural network that involves something called the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis. This is the centre of our brain that processes emotions in our environment and you guessed it, fear. Things like getting a not so nice email from a co-worker, or boss, deadlines at work, having too many things to do in a day like picking up the kids from daycare, rush hour drive to work, cooking dinner, doing laundry, all can trigger the stress/fear response system and look very little like something that is dangerous.
Signs Fear is Taking Hold
Let's look at this for a moment. Is your heart racing, breathing rapid, shaky legs, nausea? These are some physical symptoms of fear. These often exist along with fearful thoughts but at times our body does a good job at holding the fear physically. What I mean by this is sometimes we might not even notice these signs then, and thoughts become unconsciously suppressed, but we might have symptoms that our central nervous system is hyper aroused such as sweating, teeth grinding, insomnia, irritability, body pain, eating more or less, or finding yourself feeling angry more or wanting to disconnect and shut everything/everyone out.
All of these are normal symptoms (don't worry there is nothing wrong with you) designed to help us read our environment in order to see whether it is safe or not.
4 Proven Ways to Move from Fear to Safe
1.Bring Awareness to your nervous system state.
Getting to know how it feels to feel calm vs. fear means being able to identify the symptoms and signs that our body is shifting into a heightened arousal state. This means noticing when we doom scroll on our phone for hours (numbing), feeling exhausted, or like staying in bed all day (defeated, giving up state), or like punching something (adrenalized). Or maybe it is some of the symptoms listed above, quick or shallow breathing, tense muscles, pain, or insomnia. If you feel calm you might feel like nothing bothers you, and you likely will feel socially connected & engaged with your environment.
Once you can identify and know what state your nervous system is in you might find relief in just knowing that this was an automatic process and that it can be turned off with the right tools. Something you can ask yourself is, "What do I need right now to make me feel safe?"
2. Remind Yourself that Nothing is Wrong with You
Our nervous system is here to help us navigate life and interact with our environment, control our bodily systems and align them with our inner and outer worlds. Our brains are malleable and believe what we tell them. In other words, if we are used to ruminating and feeling constant fear (which is often seen in someone with childhood trauma), it develops a rich neural network designed to make these behaviours in the future repeat much more easily ---- essentially becoming habit. Whatever we practice repetitively becomes wired into our brain in an effort to make it easier for us to do it the next time, instead of us having to learn how to do something each time we do it (which would take forever). With this logic, something positive can be wired the same way and often therapists refer to this as 're-wiring' which means trying to change habits that harm us or have some consequence, into more positive healthier habits. A good analogy I like for this is thinking of a field or forest path. The more you walk down the path the more the grass or leaves become worn down and the dirt is exposed.
Before long you are able to identify and see the path, and have an easier time walking without all that grass in the way. This is exactly how it works in our brain. The first time we try to do something that goes against what we are used to it can be hard. Just like walking down a new path that has not been walked on before there are weeds grown over and tall thick grass everywhere. Again the more we walk this new path the more it becomes easier to walk as the weeds and grass disappear. Just knowing how easy it is to change a negative pattern can allow a person to feel more control over their arousal states and thus be more motivated toward trying something new.
3. Try Not to Fixate On Your Symptoms
Sometimes people who are in a chronic state of fear can develop chronic fatigue syndrome, chronic pain or tension (which can include chronic migraines or the diagnosis of fibromyalgia) or irritable bowel syndrome. Often the medical community diagnoses these things to be related to a virus or mitochondrial dysfunction. The groundbreaking work of Dr. John Sarno illustrates that our brains create physical symptoms as a defense mechanism (Freud) to protect our psyche from the underlying emotions. Neuroscience shows that we can get stuck in these patterns fueled by fears of something being wrong with us. Assuming that things like physical disorders have been ruled out, mind-body symptoms are reversible.
The more you understand this the better you are able to calm your nervous system. Dr. Sarno also talks about how the more we resist pain or try to make it stop the louder it might get. To me this is the same as invalidating someone's emotions - what usually happens? A person often becomes enraged and eventually yells since they feel they are not being heard. Our body does the same, making the symptoms more ingrained and louder the more we ignore them. This relates to acceptance of the present moment and what is happening now and the work of Eckhart Tolle speaks to this very strongly. Once we accept we feel the pain and do no try to get rid of it or suppress it with medications only then can we process the underlying emotions to then regulate. Remind yourself that your brain is creating the symptoms and that they will eventually pass and they are unable to hurt you. If it is difficult to do the former you can keep trying shifting yourself back to the present moment. The more present you are the less symptoms you will have in totality, that includes physical and emotional pain.
4. Noticing your Fear-Based Thoughts (Cognitive Distortions)
Labeling fear based thoughts takes a lot of power away from them. What do I mean? An example is catastrophizing. Let's say you are having difficulty falling asleep. You look at the clock and keep fretting that if you fall asleep in the next hour you will get 7 hours of sleep, then your anxiety goes up, what if I can't sleep and then my next day is shot, and then I won't be able to get that paper done in time or see my friends after for dinner. Then it escalates and before you know it you have convinced yourself you will never sleep again. Catastrophizing is not only a false prediction of a phantom future existence, but it almost always never happens the way we are imagining it. Unfortunately our imagination might as well be reality because our brain can not tell the difference and before we know it we are now in an adrenalized flight mode and unable to relax.
Recognizing you are in 'anxiety-land' or feeling fear is easier when you know what to look for. Things along with catastrophizing are:
Extreme Thinking can be all or nothing or black and white, often referred to as polarized thinking which is when people think in extremes without considering all the possible facts in any given situation. An example of this is being convinced you are either destined for success or failure, or people are all good or all bad, then you're probably dysregulated.
Overgeneralization is when people reach a conclusion about something and incorrectly apply that information beyond the circumstances to which it actually applies. This means you can make the assumption that one negative happening means every subsequent event after that will be negative too. An example would be failure to accomplish a task will turn into a prediction of an endless pattern of defeat in all tasks.
Personalization is when we take things personally when they are not at all. In fact one could apply this concept to most social interactions in that when someone responds a certain way to us it really is about them and not personal to us. An example of personalization is when you blame yourself for things that are not your fault or beyond your control. An example I see often in my practice is when people blame themselves for not achieving far enough or being unwell or affected by abuse or other trauma. The reality is they are dysregulated if this is happening and getting their arousal under control can allow someone to then think of more factual/objective reasons why something really is not about them or their fault.
Mind Reading is when people make the assumption of what other people are thinking. They often can have a negative tone that relates to personalization where we assume other people are thinking negatively about us. This can be difficult to distinguish between empathy which is the ability to perceive and understand what someone else feels. In order to differentiate it might be useful to consider all the evidence. For example if John is short with me today telling myself he hates me and I have done something is probably mind reading. If I step back and look at the rest of our relationship and how positive it is it seems unlikely as well as thinking about some of the things John is experiencing himself like difficulty with his job or his home life.
Mental Filtering or Negative Self-Referential Processing - This is when we ignore positive information about ourselves and focus exclusively on the negative. In other words if you have a negative view of yourself you will discount all positive evidence that disproves your negative view of yourself and instead only count or recognize negative aspects in your life. An example of this is when you do well on an exam. If you have negative self-referential processing you might think you only did well because the test was easy, or you had the upper hand for some reason or another instead of attributing it to the hard work you put in all semester, determination, or during studying. Thus as illustrated here, people who discount the positive don't necessarily ignore or overlook it but instead explain it away labeling it as a fluke or sheer luck. This can translate even further into something called 'learned helplessness' which is where people stop trying to change things feeling as though they have no control over their circumstances.
Should Statements are a sure fire way to know you are a visitor of anxiety land. Shoulding yourself means telling yourself something should be said or done in order to be acceptable. Often we get these ideas from our families or culture, peer groups and television or social media. Stating "You should have said hello to Joan at the office, now she thinks you hate her." Is an example of both a should statement and can you guess what other type of distortion? If you guessed mind reading you are correct or if you guessed mental filtering this can also apply here. Instead ask yourself if you would say this to someone else? Shoulds often do not speak to the person's own individual expectations that might be appropriate for them. These thoughts can put pressure on you, bring your arousal up and create harsh judgments towards your character. Longer term these influence your self-esteem as should statements are not a form of self-compassion. The more compassionate we are with ourselves the less likely we will use judgments or should statements as self-compassion is positively correlated with self-esteem.
Emotional Reasoning is only thinking of how a situation makes you feel and making a decision based on that. It refers to the false belief that your emotions are always true, and that how you feel about a situation is the only reliable source of reality. It is important to incorporate logic into your decision making process, since this is based on rational evidence. It is important to point out that some people who are numb to their emotions might solely lean the other direction, basing their decisions on logic only. This is also faulty because emotions are important in seeing how you feel about a situation. Just because something is the logical thing to do doesn't mean it is right for you at that particular time and only emotions can really guide you there. In other words, logic could give you a green light for something you don't feel comfortable doing or are capable of managing emotionally.
Labeling or Judging - Judging is a huge part of emotional dysregulation. If we are judging then we are probably dysregulated and we are usually berating ourselves relentlessly, often by defining ourselves with a single behaviour. An example of this is "You did bad on that test so you are a failure. Why can't you do anything right?" The Failure comment is the labeling, the continuation of that is the beration. You might also do this to others, in turn another sign you are in an aroused state. When you judge you turn off your ability to be curious and this impedes your ability to factually look at all aspects of a situation that lead to the very behaviour you are judging. Using the test example, someone who does poorly without judgment might say, "I was not feeling well that week and tried my best to study. I also did not go to a few classes and my pet died last week. If I study more next time, and attend more class I probably will have a better shot at passing."
The dreaded word. To be honest the amount of studies surrounding this one are massive. Studies surrounding mediation are plentiful too and both can help with dysregulation. The reason I am focusing on fitness here is because fitness has actually been shown to increase the size of the amygdala faster and more efficiently than meditation. Some people really struggle with mediation and most of us do at first especially. The fact is you are deriving the same benefits of presence or no mind or basically a distance from your thoughts (which relates to the concept of mindfulness), by simply giving yourself space between the emotion and the thought, in turn reducing the emotional arousal of the thought itself. Exercise over time can really enhance the body's ability to deal with stress. It also affects our hormones and things like adrenaline which can become more easily regulated the longer we exercise. They have shown just 30 minutes a day has all the benefits one needs to feel the positive effects but very few get this.
One of the problems is being stuck in these states and I am here to help you out of them. The more you get yourself out of the hyper-arousal and back to regulation the easier it will become to do it again in the future. A person that is truly regulated most of the time still slips into these states as these are normal states our brain has developed in order to protect us. The positive to this practice is that once you get used to bringing yourself back into regulation, the faster and more static that state then often becomes. Thus a person who is regulated often is better at getting back to a regulated state faster than someone that struggles with dysregulation as their primary nervous system state.
WRITTEN BY: JACKIE BRISTOW, REGISTERED PSYCHOTHERAPIST
Copyright of Jackie Bristow Psychotherapy. No copying or republishing allowed.