Getting a grip on fear

“Of all the liars in the world, sometimes the worst are our own fears”- Rudyard Kipling

Your brain cannot be trusted to give you accurate information. Everything you see, hear, and feel goes through a filter. The filter of perception and judgment. The need for this filter has its basis in evolution. Our long-ago ancestors needed to be on high alert at all times to avoid getting eaten by a saber-toothed tiger. Today we do not have saber-toothed tigers running around, but our brains have not changed much as compared to our ancestors. We see danger in a lot of places, sometimes in places where it does not exist. For example, imagine you are hiking on a trail. At the start of your hike some other hikers inform you that just last week, a man was bitten by a rattlesnake while hiking this trail. You go on your way and not long into your hike, you notice movement in a nearby bush. You remember the rattlesnake story and for a split second the squirrel who scoots out of the bush looks like a snake! This is the brain at work, keeping you safe and ensuring you survive. The problem is that your brain is always looking for danger, which can lead to you seeing things that are not really there.

Take a moment and see if you can think of a time when your brain did something similar. You thought you knew for sure a situation was disastrous and it turned out that everything was just fine. The human brain does not like mystery. It does not like ambiguity. The human brain likes certainty and it will go to astounding lengths to created that certainty even when what it creates is false. When I am working with clients and their fear, I often tell them that the brain does what your smoke alarm does when you are making tater tots. Generally, the instructions on tater tots say to cook them at 450 degrees. That is a hot oven. If you have a heat sensitive smoke alarm anywhere in the vicinity of that oven, it is going to go off. Your smoke alarm thinks there is a fire, but you are just making tater tots. The fear alarm in your brain does the same thing. If a co-worker passes you in the hallway and does not greet you, you think the worst. If your teenager is late for curfew, you are picturing them dead in a ditch somewhere. That is just what the brain does.

What do we do about our brains that work like super sensitive smoke alarms? First, you must breathe. Three really good, long, slow deep breaths will activate the parasympathetic nervous system- the part of your nervous system that turns off the internal “smoke alarm”.Then you can question whether or not what your brain is telling you is accurate. Assuming everything your brain tells you is true is where you can end up more fearful than you need to be. It might also be helpful to regularly practice meditation. Meditation facilitates the observation of your own thoughts and can make questioning those thoughts a more natural process. Breathing, slowing down, and questioning the stories your brain makes up can be a key part of living with less fear.

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