It was twilight and I had turned into the little alley to take the shorter route home. Suddenly something moved in the shrubbery. Before I could think, literally, I felt blood rush to my extremities and found myself turning back in panic. Within seconds though, it dawned upon me that it was merely a leaf rustling in the evening breeze, and I regained my composure. I had believed it to be something far more sinister, and my fear had kicked in way before my rational mind could.
Fear is part of our evolutionary journey—the oldest emotion we have inherited from the earliest reptiles of 600 million years ago in order to ensure our survival. We've managed to preserve it in the deepest recesses of our brains and carry it forth into the relative safety of the 21st century.
However, in today’s world, we rarely face the physical dangers that our hunter-gatherer ancestors did. Most of our fears are psychological, creations of an imagination that tries to protect an illusive ego. The classic fight, flight or freeze response shows up as the "attack, avoid or accommodate" tendency that harms our relationships and limits our full potential.
What are we to do? Here are 3 strategies to try.
Breathe from Your Belly
Our fear response is largely beyond our control. A pumping heart, blood rushing to our extremities, and the release of cortisol and adrenaline are all physiological reactions that run their course without our conscious input. But there is one we can control, and eastern meditation practices recognized its importance thousands of years ago. It's the breath. When we're fearful, we breathe shallowly from our chest—which is why our voice can squeak. Any vocal artist would recognize the importance of breathing from the belly to overcome fear and regain a commanding voice. In his book, The Self Comes to Mind, renowned neuroscientist Antonio Damasio talks of the importance of maintaining a natural rhythm to our breath, since it's ground zero for the way we experience life. And mindfulness practices study the benefits of focusing our attention on our breath in order to ground ourselves in the safety of the present moment and thus calm the fear response.
Reach Out to Others
It's often believed that humanity’s rise to the top of the food chain is the result of our social brain more than any other capability that distinguishes us from other primates. In his book, Social, psychologist Matthew Lieberman reveals that our need to connect with other people is even more fundamental than our need for food or shelter. No wonder we can calm others by a smile and a soothing voice, by looking and listening to them and by the warmth of a gentle touch. Neuroscientist Steven Porges explains that the new mammalian vagal nerve that enables us to do so developed as an alternate response to stress so that the traditional defense mode need not be called into action. By calling a family member or a close friend, or spending time in their company, we can initiate the parasympathetic nervous system and return our body to a state of calm.
Sit with It
Fear calls for urgency and action. For the purpose it serves, it's a brilliant mechanism devised by nature to ensure our survival. However, not all fears require the limited repertoire of the fear response. Panicking before a big presentation or feeling queasy about a difficult conversation are all fears that urge us to avoid the situation altogether. Being angry about someone’s behavior or fuming over an email are also reactions to fear that instigate us to react with vengeance in order to establish our power.
When we can sit with our fears without reacting to them, we develop an inner resilience that silences them over time. This is the basis of many of the cognitive behavioral treatments for anxiety disorders such as panic and obsessive compulsive disorder. Watching the wave of fear’s urgency rise, pound, implore, and then reduce to nothingness is one of the best ways to handle its false cries of wolf and allow our rational mind the time it needs to kick in.
Einstein famously said that the most important question facing humanity is whether we view the world as a friendly place. Our fears have gotten us thus far in our evolution. But they have also given rise to the many challenges we face. We don't need to look far to find solutions to these problems. The answers lie within us, in our ability to see the world not as foe to be feared, but as a common humanity.