“The purpose of fear is to raise your awareness, not to stop your progress.” ~Steve Maraboli
Fear used to scare me and I hated it. I was terrified of my fear. It drove me to the edge at every turn when it arose.
The worst thing for me is to be driven off the cliff. If that happens, my control would cease, and I may lose all functionality. The details of what might happen to me if fear took over my life were not something I could fully comprehend. That’s because I spent most of my life trying to control it.
It’s why, when things don’t go according to plan, when I am running late or things change at the last minute, I can get snappy and sound angry. I feel rage when people come along and do things that seem to amplify my fear—like my husband using the bathroom three minutes before the train is leaving, or not locking the front door at night with all its three locks.
This fear made me so judgmental. This fear was horrible, but it made me even more anxious. It made me feel ashamed and disgusted that I didn’t want to try things other people found easy. I also felt shameful for panicking when I got sick thinking I was going to die.
I carried the shame of fear around with me, hoping I didn’t have to reveal it, and if I did, if I had to show people how terrified life made me, I would be horribly self-deprecating.
Because I had this sense that I shouldn’t be like this. It wasn’t normal. Then I attributed it to myself, as it was a character error.
That’s why I wouldn’t want to walk toward scary things. That’s why I avoided things that brought up the fear because if I didn’t, it would have driven me off the cliff so freaking quickly, and I’d think, how stupid could I have been to allow it?
I see now that my fear lived at such a low-level frequency in my body that I didn’t notice it was there. It was on a low buzz all the time, like a refrigerator noise—not really in my awareness but controlling how I made decisions.
This is because I noticed that I had been trying to choose the most frightening option. However, I found that my life was becoming smaller when I continued to choose the least frightening, most challenging option.
It was something that I did not realize I was doing. It felt as if I were being sensible.
Sometimes I’d see a glimpse of another place, where I could do the most exciting and interesting things like traveling alone or learning belly dance. Unbounded and free from fear, I found a place where I could live. I said what I meant, I did what I wanted, and I didn’t worry all the time about terrible things happening to my loved ones.
Being engulfed in fear made it feel like someone was tying me with an invisible rope. And because people couldn’t see this rope, they would ask me to do things that I couldn’t possibly say yes to.
Things started to change when I didn’t just ask how I could get the fear to stop, but I started to learn Why?It was difficult to understand why I felt so afraid in my body and what it meant for me. My fear stemmed from my lack of safety as an adult and sometimes of physical safety.
Once I was able to become curious about fear, and not treat it as an attribute of my character, it began unravelling. This combined with strong emotional processing and nerve system regulation transformed my perception of fear.
Here’s the thing: We don’t intentionally create bodies that can’t handle emotions like fear. We don’t intentionally create nervous systems that are jumpy and hyper-vigilant. We don’t create sensations of immense doom For pleasure.
How we were taught to be with emotions, how we were taught to allow or not allow them, how we were cared for when we were in the midst of emotions—this all informs how we now deal with fear.
It makes sense that fear feels too much for our bodies to handle when we have lived with too much fear; when we haven’t had enough emotional support of someone helping us hold that fear; when we’ve had experiences that have terrified us down to our very bones, that have stayed trapped in our bodies; when our lives have been rocked by tragedy; when sudden life-changing events shake any sense of stability from us; when fear has just been too much for too long.
It is important to be able to offer deep emotional support and validation to those who have suffered so much pain and suffering. It is important to understand how to meet and tend to our needs.
It is important to feel, see, and hear emotions. When we haven’t learned how to do that, how to hold emotions and really be with them, we get pushed into a part of our brains where things feel deeply overwhelming and urgent—our survival reactions.
It’s a part of our brain that uses primal methods for dealing with emotion—meant to be utilized in emergencies and when our survival is under threat, but too commonly used to discharge uncomfortable emotions. These survival reactions don’t feel great.
If we feel stuck in survival reactivity we may feel helpless and hopeless. We might feel no other options. You can either go crazy doing too many things or you just need to stop and slow down. It feels overwhelming.
That’s why we feel we could go over the edge. That’s why we don’t feel safe. That’s why we desperately try to stay in control. It’s because we feel an overwhelming sense of an unknown and dark force inside our bodies.
We don’t know how to deal with this part of our brain, these survival reactions, so we spend our lives attempting to control our fear, hoping that it won’t rear up and push us over the cliff edge.
There is another way. And it’s not by feeling the fear and doing it anyway. I couldn’t dislike that piece of advice more because of how wildly misunderstood it is. You can only feel the fear and do it anyway if you have a comfortable relationship with fear and it doesn’t push your nervous system into overwhelm and survival reactivity—where you feel like you are actually fearing for your life.
If you are in survival mode, you don’t want to be pushing through anything.
It is actually quite the reverse.
It is important to make sure you feel safe.
That’s step one. That’s the first place I go to when I feel the escalating sensations of fear.
It’s learning to look after yourself and meet your needs in ways that maybe you have never done before. It is a way to improve your safety and repair any damage done.
This can be achieved by a variety of methods.
1. Don’t let the overwhelm get you down.
My first suggestion is an exercise you can do when you feel you have entered that survival mode of things feeling like way too much—when you are overwhelmed, feeling doomed or trapped. It is called “regulating breath.” The aim is to activate your parasympathetic nervous system, which is where you are “resting and digesting.”
It’s super simple—short, quick inhale, long exhale. Keep going until that overwhelming feeling is gone. It’s a signal to the brain that you aren’t unsafe; this isn’t an emergency; you are safe to move out of survival mode and back into your body. To keep my nervous system in check and to feel safe, I take this deep breath every day.
2. Ask questions about the reason you are afraid.
The fear didn’t just show up unannounced today. If you feel overwhelmed by fear, it is possible to trace your history. It can be very helpful to know what your past is so you don’t feel as judgment about it.
Ask for your fears:Which places have you appeared in my life and where does it go back?
3. Ask your fear for the things it requires.
Feelings like fear and discomfort are signs of unmet needs. You need clarity, order, stability, peace and consistency. You can begin to meet your needs when you are able to connect to your emotions.
Talking to fear makes me happy. It is a question I always ask. My fear is: You need what? What are you trying to tell me? Is there anything you want to say?
If I’m able to sit still with fear and feel it inside, then it will give me information like: I’m just trying to keep you safe. You should be safe. I don’t want you to do unsafe things!
Knowing that fear is a way to protect me, it allows me to reassure myself and the fear that it doesn’t want any other thing than my safety. Because I am an adult and know how to take care of myself, I can make wise choices.
4. Show empathy and validation
Giving yourself deep-nourishing validation and empathy is a great way to nourish your soul. Fear is a normal emotion that manifests as physical reactions in the body because of how we’ve learned to be with emotion, or due to the limited support we have received around big, challenging experiences.
You can recognize these things and you will be able to stop judging your reactions. This is what you can tell yourself. That you are feeling this way makes perfect sense. It’s okay, I’ll stay with you. You can count on me to support you.
You can give yourself the tender validation and empathy you would offer to someone you deeply love—your child, a friend, your partner. It is possible to treat yourself as someone worthy of loving, tender empathy.
When you do things like double-check the locks at night or keep checking your phone to see if your teenager has messaged, when you are asked to take a trip to a place you haven’t been to before, instead of getting lost in the fear or loading yourself down with shame about it, offer empathy and validation instead.
“You know what? It’s bringing up lots of fear. And it’s understandable that I have fear around this; it’s completely okay. This is why I’m going to try and support my feelings. This is how I will tend to this feeling. This is what I feel best. What feels right for my body right now.”
You can change your relationship to the most difficult emotions by listening to them. If we attempt to be tough, we end up feeling more stressed out, overwhelmed and even traumatized than if they were taken gentle, tender care of themselves.
And by taking loving care of ourselves, by showing up and giving our feelings—and our sense of overwhelm—attention, we can end up naturally starting to want to do those things that maybe we were too scared to do before.
Empathy is a way to create an emotional connection that’s deeper, more loving, and more trustworthy with yourself. Once we are able to emotional support ourselves, we will be able to help others.
I am still learning about my relationship with fear. It can slip out of my reach and grow before I am able to deal with it. It is now clear that I am able to pull myself away from the edge. My nervous system is always in control, even when things feel chaotic.
Knowing that you can deal with any emotion comes your way gives us more control over our lives and allows us to choose the most frightening thing.
Fear is normal. It’s there to help us stay safe and protected and make good choices. Sometimes, however, we may end up limiting ourselves when our fears are heightened by past experiences. A great way to make a difference in your life and live an exciting and fulfilling lifestyle is to take better care of yourself. These tips were helpful, I hope.
Diana Bird is a neuro emotional coach and writer, helping people release unhealthy emotional patterns and deep overwhelm. To receive her free workshop on building emotional resilience, sign up for her newsletter here. You’ll also receive invites to her free webinars on subjects like releasing shame and soothing overwhelm. Diana works with clients in her coaching practice and in online workshops and lives on the beach in southern Spain, with her children and photographer husband.
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Tiny Buddha published the post How to Release Fear from Holding You Back And Keeps You Small.