When I started teaching yoga I was surprised by the overwhelming number of people looking for ways to deal with everyday stress, chronic anxiety and fear. As part of meditation training in the early 90's, I had been taught to "look behind what's behind" to get to the root or genesis of things. Here's what I discovered:
STRESS = ANXIETY = FEAR
Whenever we are feeling stressed, the anxiety driving the stress is due to a desire to control something we fear.
So if that's true then stress is the symptom of our 'real' problem - fear. This may not be a shocking revelation but what IS shocking is how fearful thoughts cripple us, keep us stuck and make us sick!
The Fear Cascade
Understanding the fear cascade helps us to see how the anxious mind creates a biochemical cascade that is most often unnecessary and more often than not, dangerous. The infographic shows how the fear state can make us act like animals and do or say awful things but it also shows us how we can maintain, or reclaim, our power over fear, anxiety and stress.
Please review the infographic segments before the brief discussions of each below.
It all starts with a sensory trigger like a fearful thought, sound or bad memory. Most of the time, the thing we fear isn't 'real' like a tiger chasing us but instead is a perceived or anticipatory threat arising from an everyday annoyance or negative thought.
For example, let's say the anticipatory threat is that something has taken place that will make it unlikely or impossible for you to meet an important deadline. The negative thoughts of, "I'm going to get in trouble" or "I'm going to look bad" or "I could get fired" creates the state of arousal shown above.
The hippocampus, and in yoga the negative mind, is quick to remind us of problems encountered other times that something like this happened. Note, the negative situational beliefs are magnified by negative global beliefs like, "Nothing ever goes my way," thereby heightening or doubling down on the state of arousal. So rather than clearly seeing and acting on the current situation, we begin to remember and re-act to negative beliefs from past situations.
Reacting to the negative thoughts creates a state of anxiety or fear and the body becomes flooded with flight or fight hormones. Now the fear isn't in the mind anymore; the thoughts have mobilized the stress response and the stress hormones have moved the body into a state of high alert or panic.
One of the biggest problems in managing the panicked state is that the executive pre-frontal cortex or executive and higher thinking brain shuts down. The scared body and animal brain start to reinforce each other and we lose the ability to act rationally. The body is in full battle mode and wants a fight! The excess adrenaline creates trembling and the feeling of seething anger. It is in this state that we do or say regrettable things.
Whether or not we did or said something that might take the situation from bad to worse, it eventually comes to an end. Once the threat is over, the beliefs about the event and the lessons learned are stored in the brain's hippocampus. Then all systems return to the baseline or normal level as if nothing ever happened...except when the fearful thinking becomes chronic.
How Fear Keeps Us Stuck & Makes Us Sick
It's healthy to revisit an uncomfortable event to assess what we might do differently in the future. We may naturally revisit the situation a few times; who hasn't had the big "ah-ha" moment of what they wish they had said or done. This is healthy and sometimes fun. But it's how we react to, and process, the fear that can keep us healthy or prime us for dysfunction and disease.
When the thoughts become intrusive and we repeatedly re-play the movie in our heads and ruminate, we begin to create a toxic body-mind loop of fear. The brains of those living in chronic domestic/workplace abuse or in chronic child abuse are often locked in that toxic body-mind loop from years of real, perceived and anticipatory threats. They become wired for fear and often exhibit physical or behavioral symptoms like acting out, numbing with alcohol or drugs, chronic and unexplained illnesses, etc. The previous post, "The Silent Epidemic" discusses how prevalent this has become in our society.
Sadly, being "wired for fear" isn't exclusive to people currently in, or survivors of, abusive situations. All one needs to do to appreciate our collective level of stress, anxiety and fear is to turn on the television. The number of commercials for drugs to treat depression, anxiety, insomnia, heart disease, diabetes and cancer is alarming. We have become a nation suffering from chronic illness and dis-ease that marketers and politicians exploit to advance their own agendas. We become easy pickings because our executive or thinking brain is offline so we will grasp whatever lifeline is provided.
The full infographic is a wake-up call for those who wish to live a full, satisfying and long life. The good news is that the defense cascade makes a compelling case for seeing and managing our fearful thoughts especially because:
The overwhelming majority of our fears come from the stories we tell ourselves, so the biggest thing we have to fear IS fear.
It's also great to know that even if we are already wired for fear, the miracle of neuroplasticity, or the brain's ability to change based on experience, also allows us to rewire our brains for calm. The next post will revisit the infographic with what we can do each step along the way to stay &/or get healthy. To be sure to get it in your inbox, sign up here.
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