It seems to me that everyone these past few weeks is talking about their relationship to fear. Maybe it’s just the season for that, with Field of Screams to attend and The Witches to stream on Netflix (in case anyone was curious: Yes, Roald Dahl’s classic book and movie still pack a spooky punch). We all harbor our own unique relationship to the emotion of fear: Some people love to feel afraid and intentionally seek out scary movies or thrilling roller coaster rides, while other people avoid that stomach-dropping sensation and the thoughts that come with it like the bubonic plague (which, as it happens, was also very scary).
All this talk got me started thinking about the other ways that this emotion shows up in our lives. Of course, sometimes fear is an acute, fleeting feeling that shows up when we’re startled by our cat zooming out from under the couch, or by something more serious, like when all the cars in front of us on the highway slam on their brakes and we have to, too. That is one type of fear: that full-body tingling, heart-pumping feeling that kicks in before our rational mind has time to create a narrative. In that moment, it’s those physical feelings that are the emotion itself.
Other times, our mind creates fears for us, often in the form of the “what if” variety. You probably know these: What if I fail my big test? What if [insert important person in your life] is upset with me? What if that thing that I said in my meeting was actually weird and people judged me? What if…the list could go on and on, and for many of us, it often does. This is what we might call anxiety.
Kate Murphy wrote a great piece for The New York Times about how to “outsmart” our primitive response to fear. She explains that fear originates in our amygdala, which is an almond-sized part of our brain that is part of our limbic system, which controls our fabled flight-flight-freeze response. She says that “consciously activating the more measured, analytical part of your brain is the key to controlling runaway fear and anxiety.” In many ways, I agree: When we work in therapy to examine the evidence for a feared thought or belief, we’re calling on our executive functioning skills (our rational, cognitive, highly evolved mind) to interrupt our reactions to the more primitive fear we’re feeling. Sometimes, this is enough to help the feeling of fear dissipate.
I would add that because the feeling of fear is often such a felt, embodied feeling, we sometimes need a body-centered approach to get ourselves unstuck. Think about it: If I were to ask you to list five physical feelings you feel when you feel scared or afraid, I bet you could rattle them off pretty quickly. You might say, “I feel frozen and tingly,” or “I feel really shaky” or “I feel my heart pounding in my chest,” or any number of other physical sensations. To me, that’s strong evidence to support the idea that a physical practice—whether it’s yoga, deep breathing, going for a run, taking your dog for a walk, asking someone you love for a hug—is an effective intervention.
As a yoga teacher and practitioner, I clearly believe in yoga, breath, and movement to help, but I support anything that works for you—because you’re the only one who lives in your body and in your mind. I know when I feel anxious or afraid, it sometimes helps to rest in a forward folding posture. To try it out: Stand with your feet hips-width distance, then drape your torso over your thighs and let your chest rest on your legs (knees can be bent) and your head and neck relax. For other people, it helps to close their eyes and place one or both hands on their heart or belly. For you, it might be something completely different. If you’re curious, here’s a few simple restorative postures you could try.
So, to end for today: The next time your feel afraid, see if you can start to change your relationship with it in a compassionate way: Check in with your rational mind and examine the evidence for what is causing the fear, and then see if there’s a way that getting your body involved could help. If you try out any of these ideas, we’d love to hear about it!
PS: If you’re curious to hear more of my thoughts, check out my blog: www.sonia-heidenreich.com/blog Thanks for reading!