Fear. My shoulder blades are tight and crunched behind my heart, and I feel the tension from my back into my throat. My heart races, and it feels like the blood pumping is fueling my thoughts at the same pace, rushing energy into my head where it loops and has nowhere to exit. I feel my brow creased and my jaw clenched. I feel a little sick to my stomach, like I’m being squeezed from the inside. I imagine all the possible scenarios that would threaten my safety and security. I’m trying to determine what I would do if they happened or what I could do to prevent them.
Still, each imagining increases the stress response in my body, so the answers and plans don’t actually help but make me feel more powerless and alone. My face feels hot. My breath is shallow and short. One tiny stressor or stimuli from my surroundings that I’m not expecting will send me over the edge in a panic attack. My central nervous system will overload, send me to the floor, and unleash a flood of basic emotions that will, for a while, cripple me— fear mixed with sadness mixed with shame.
Knowing what I know, I try to tend to the feelings and sensations and stay out of the thoughts, but they are persistent. I begin to soothe my nervous system, and then my mind takes back over, and I’m back into it again. Rinse and repeat. It doesn’t take long for this cycle to become exhausting, and then the fatigue adds to the distress. All I want to do is lay down and turn it all off—manual override. System shut down. It feels like the only way, though I know it is temporary.
What you just read is an example of my fear response. I could also call it anxiety, stress, or scarcity, but it’s actually fear deep down inside. Fear of loss. Fear of pain. Fear of unworthiness, inadequacy, rejection, abandonment, and judgment. Fear of emptiness. Fear of fear
And yet this is what I also know about fear. If my focus is only on my fears and getting away from them, I will only succeed at chasing the symptoms without addressing the root cause of my anxiety and fear.
As long as I focus on the symptoms, I allow the fear to become an operating system that constantly reacts. Susceptible to being activated, I will resort to running, freezing, distracting, avoiding, and controlling. I’ll do anything to escape the fear I’m experiencing to survive when I don’t feel safe. If we want to break out of the fear operating system, we must work with the fear energy, not the specific things we are scared of.
What does that mean? For me, it means learning how to stay present when I am afraid, working with my body and my breath to soothe and ground in a practice of self-care. It means trusting that I will be ok even if scary things happen, working with my faith in a bigger picture and a higher power. It means building confidence in my skills to move through the fear episode and emerge on the other side, working with what I believe about myself, that I am capable of doing hard and scary things. Sometimes, it even means befriending my fear. I may have to turn to face it, talk to it, pull it close. I may even need to embrace the idea that my fear is actually part of me and often has something important to teach me.
And just like with all things, the more we practice, the more we build our capacity for it to be less scary and more manageable the next time. Heck, we might even begin to see fear triggers as opportunities to grow in deep and powerful ways. I will strive to remember that the next time my nervous system gets hijacked. I hope you do too.
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About the Author: Ashley Green specializes in trauma therapy and uses a gentle approach to help clients sift through life’s experiences and uncover their true selves. You can learn more about Ashley and her experience here.