Fear is one of our most basic human responses, and it’s programmed into our bodies as a natural response triggered by our nervous system. Fear is a survival instinct that alerts us to danger and unsafe situations, a warning system that signals caution and urges us to be careful. Fear begins with an emotional response to a sensory experience, which sends signals to our nervous system, triggering a physical response.
In today’s civilized world, the things that trigger a fear response are much more subtle than “seeing a bear in the woods.” When we enter an uncomfortable situation, face uncertainty, deal with financial pressures, lose a partner or feel alone, or simply face a task that is new to us, this fear response can be triggered. But over time, continual or unresolved fear can build upon itself and result in our body functioning in a constant state of fear and stress. Our emotional triggers to the fear can become so pervasive over time that they become unconscious, and we may not even know what is causing our physical response. When this cycle continues unmanaged it can overwhelm our ability to act and move forward in our lives.
The physical manifestations of fear and stress include shortness of breath, increased heart rate, tightening of the muscles, an increase in adrenaline and cortisol, sweaty skin, irritable bowel and constipation, to name a few. This is the body’s natural reaction to harmful, unsafe, or uncomfortable situations and is known as the “fight or flight” or stress response. This response is controlled by the sympathetic nervous system, the branch of our nervous system that defends the body against attack. Over time and unchecked, the fear and stress response can lead to depression, negative thoughts, anxiety, difficulty sleeping, heart disease and chronic pain. Living in a constant state of fear and stress is living life at every moment in preparation of an attack—and it’s actually a root cause of disease!
We can eliminate the physical manifestations of fear and stress by turning off our sympathetic response and consciously triggering the parasympathetic system—also an involuntary response. The parasympathetic system of nerves works to nourish, heal, and regenerate the body. Digestion and the immune system are stimulated, and the body has time to rebuild. So how do we engage our parasympathetic system? Through calm, conscious breathing, rest, relaxation, experiences of happiness and positive thoughts—notice the trend? These are all fundamental practices in meditation, breath, relaxation techniques, and yoga.
Whether our emotional response of fear is immediate and noticeable, or has built up over a long period of time by any number of factors, remember this: We can heal by shifting our physical state, which causes a shift in our emotional state. Over time, the practices of breathing, meditation, and yoga give us the ability to release our fears, and heal our bodies both physically and emotionally.
- Notice. When you are feeling fear and stress, notice the state of your physical body. What are the physical signals being triggered? Does your body tense up, does your heart start pounding in your chest, and is your breath shallow or rapid? Raising your awareness of these physical signals is the first step to turning them off and turning on a more relaxed physical state.
- Breathe. When you feel your body in the state of fear or stress, take a time-out and breathe! Sit quietly, and inhale and exhale on an even count. Breathe in and out through your nose, counting 1, 2, 3, 4 in, and then 1, 2, 3, 4 out. Increase the count slowly over a few breaths. Another technique is the 4-7-8 breath. Breathe in for a count of 4, hold your breath for a count of 7, and exhale for a count of 8. During both of these exercises, breathe in and out through your nose, and stay focused for a minimum of three minutes. Gradually work up to ten minutes. Starting your day with a breathing exercise will help you feel more relaxed throughout the day.
- Guided visualization and meditation. Relax with a guided visualization and meditation—this is a fabulous way to change your physical and emotional state from stress to calm. If you are facing a challenge that will trigger fear and stress, find a visualization that provides a positive spin on the experience. As you focus on this visualization, feel your body calming down. Many great resources on this subject are available on line. Find a visualization or meditation that feels comfortable for you to listen to. Set aside 30 minutes each day to listen with headphones. I recommend the Halo sync meditations and visualizations from Centerpoint.