Fear and Anxiety
We all know what fear and anxiety feel like. The cold grip of tension down your spine, the knot in your stomach, the clenching of muscles that signal something is happening–and your body is preparing you for it. Whether we are responding to something real, like a dangerous animal in our midst, or something imagined, like the uncertainty that comes with great change, our brains respond to the call and help us kick into action. Experiencing fear and anxiety often, especially when not in present danger, is draining, both mentally and physically. This fatigue can leave us vulnerable to relapse and other unhealthy decisions. So how can we reduce fear and anxiety, especially in recovery?
As defined by Steimer (2002), anxiety is “a psychological, physiological, and behavioral state induced in animals and humans by a threat to well-being or survival, either actual or potential.” What happens in the physiological body and psychological mind when anxiety is present includes increased reactivity to people or situations. In fact, Schwartz (2018) talks about how, during this anxious fight/flight/freeze mode our body and mind go into, our digestive system begins to shut down, our ears are only able to hear certain pitches and we become hypervigilant to anything that is a perceived threat around us. Our body goes into this fight/flight or freeze state in order to help us cope with life-threatening situations.
Our emotional and cognitive processes are inter-exchangeable, meaning they affect one another. These direct exchanges between our thoughts and emotions are then shown to directly affect the behavioral responses to fear and anxiety.
Socially Acceptable Mental Illness
Interestingly, Kamal (2017) talks about how fear, anxiety, stress are “nothing but the socially acceptable form of mental illness.” He compares it to the humming of an air conditioning. We are not aware of the air conditioning constantly running in the background until it stops, we then notice a change. Similarly, he states, that socially, we will continue to accept these forms of mental illness until we experience its absence.
Kamal (2017) explores how fear and anxiety are caused with a preoccupation of the past or future and not being fully present in the moment of now. “As a result,” it states, “it ends up [robbing] today of all its strength and joy.” Reducing fear and anxiety allows you to experience more of what is present in the moment.
Physical Symptoms of Stress
As Steimer (2002) explores, this preoccupation leads our nervous system, physiological and psychological state to be in constant fight/flight or freeze mode. By doing so, not only does our body react in negative ways (chronic pain, diseases), but our mind begins to try to find a relief for this state of being we were never meant to stay in—many times through maladaptive behaviors such as alcohol and drugs or other addictive behaviors.
How Fear and Anxiety Manifest
How does this fear and anxiety manifest in our lives? Kamal explores 6 ways:
- Fear of Love and Belonging
- Fear of not living up to your true potential
- Fear of failure
- Fear of Uncertainty
- Fear of being left out
- Fear of wasting precious time
The question then is, what’s the solution? What can we do if we find ourselves in a perpetual cycle of fear and anxiety? How do I stop this almost automatic system of fear and anxiety feeling through these maladaptive behaviors? The good news, there is an answer!
Four Ways to Reduce Fear and Anxiety
- Slow Down
Deep breathing is a very powerful tool in bringing us back the present moment. Our breath is always accessible. Recent research has shown that the outbreath is the most important piece to this exercise. The longer the exhale, triggers our nervous system to return to Vagus which is the healthy, balanced nervous system in our body. Our breath is information to our mind and body that “you are not in danger, you can let your guard down.” In essence, it helps bring us back to the now rather than staying in the past or future.
- Incorporate a Mindfulness Routine
Through a mindfulness practice, you begin to exercise the brain similar to strengthening muscle groups in the gym. Through a practice of mindfulness, you begin to thicken the synapse that allow the flow of neurons and by doing so, increase neuron flow. This then, activates the brain at more of its capacity, allowing you to begin to get out of fight/flight or freeze mode. The nervous system begins to relax, recognizing there is no immediate threat.
- Be Curious
As you begin to practice being more present you become curious about the emotions, thoughts and physical sensations that arise. The more of a curious stance we have, the less attachment we have towards those emotions, thoughts and physical sensations. They can be a part of us but not BE who we are.
A simple and powerful visualization exercise adapted from Schwartz (2017) exercise is as follows:
- Find a Safe Space: As you think of a safe or calm place in your mind (it can be a physical location, a feeling, a memory), practice deep breathing and looking around and utilize your 5 senses to feel, touch, taste, smell, hear what is in your safe place. Repeat to yourself “I am safe, I am connected, I am calm.” Check in with your body and notice any sensations that arise. Notice your thoughts and emotions that arise.
- Increase Activation: Bring your attention to the event, person, situation at hand which increases your anxiety/fear. Take deep breaths while you notice any sensations, thoughts and emotions that arise. Rate your anxiety or fear from 1-10, 10 being the highest.
- Return to Safe Space: Bring your self back to your safe place. Take deep breaths while you notice any sensations, thoughts and emotions that arise. Rate your anxiety or fear.
- Repeat: Repeat until you notice your self-rated anxiety or fear has reduced below a 2 or 3 out of 10.
Through this exercise, you are training your neuropathways to recognize that you are not in imminent danger. The anxiety and fear is self-imposed and out of proportion to the situation and you are giving it permission to let its guard down.
Anxiety is a part of our needed defense mechanism to survive a threat to our physiological body and psychological mind. However, as the world has adapted on the exterior, our fight/flight/freeze mechanisms internally are still wired to react to perceived threats that may or not be there. This protective system is triggered through out fixation of the past and future as it cannot comprehend a sense of time. Therefore, it is imperative to practice living in the present moment, being curious when thoughts, emotions or physical sensations begin to arise, incorporate a mindfulness practice and utilize exercises such as the one above to train our brain that it is safe.
If you want to learn more about how Centered Recovery helps clients reduce fear and anxiety in recovery and beyond, call us at 800.566.2966 for more information.
by staff clinician Rebekah Tchouta, LCSW
Kamal, P (2017). Is Anxiety Your Mode of Survival? Better Humans. https://medium.com/better-humans/is-anxiety-your-mode-of-survival-1e4c840709d4
Steimer T. (2002). The biology of fear- and anxiety-related behaviors. Dialogues in clinical neuroscience, 4(3), 231–249.
Schwartz, A (2018). Restore Health for Vagus Nervous System Disorders. https://drarielleschwartz.com/vagus-nerve-disorders-dr-arielle-schwartz/#.XoitmMhKg2z