Summary of Key Points
Three Principles and a Question
There are three essential principles that I found to be consistently helpful in effectively managing fear – Accept, Balance, Clarify (ABC, with a reminder to always start with Balance). Applying these principles removes obstacles to our natural abilities. Using them together allows us to restore full capacity and use all of our personal resources to effectively deal with fear.
Identifying the source of fear (asking whether its coming from a direct threat, thoughts, the build-up of tension or past trauma) provides a clear direction for applying the ABC’s.
1. SUMMARY OF THE ABC’S
Accepting a threat allows us to see it more clearly and to respond more effectively.
The principle of Acceptance does not imply approval. It involves acknowledging conditions, situations, and events without getting caught up in resentment, blame, or unmet expectations.
Acceptance bypasses the common habit of putting everything and everyone into categories of good or bad, like or dislike. It frees us to respond in a healthy way. Acceptance recognizes what is. It allows us to address what needs to be done without getting stuck in recrimination or diverted by judgment or guilt. Acceptance is being at peace with where we are and who we’re with.
Accepting other people doesn’t mean we approve of what they have done. When people don’t feel accepted or respected they tend to become defensive. This creates a major impediment to communication, and an obstacle to working together to resolve conflicts. It involves putting ourselves in another person’s shoes and seeking to understand what they feel and how they see things. This provides a clearer view of what’s happening and a broader perspective of what’s possible.
Acceptance leads to a clearer understanding of a problem and gives us the flexibility to respond according to the needs of the situation. It builds trust – an essential component for creating lasting solutions to difficult problems.
Accepting fear allows the full experience of emotion without resistance through tension or breath holding. Acceptance is a critical component of emotional balance because it allows us to recover from emotional tension resulting from past fears or trauma.
Prolonged fear and the continuing build-up of tension keeps us out of balance physically, mentally and emotionally. Being out of balance makes us less efficient, less effective and more prone to mistakes and misjudgment.
Balance allows us to see and think more clearly. It keeps us even and levelheaded, and helps keep our feet on the ground, our minds clear, and our emotions appropriate.
Everything is more difficult when we’re out of balance. Everything is easier when we’re in balance.
Restoring balance makes it easier to accept and clarify. It’s best to start with balance whenever possible. Specific techniques for restoring and maintaining physical, mental, and emotional balance are described below.
Clarifying involves looking at situations from various perspectives and asking questions that help us see the whole picture and relevant details more clearly. When we clarify problems and concerns, we gain insight that leads to solutions. When we clarify the source of our fear, we can see how to manage it most effectively. Being clear about the timing and potential danger of a threat defines the range of options we may have. Asking questions about the nature and history of a threat helps us understand what we are dealing with.
RESTORING AND MAINTAINING BALANCE
Fear throws body, mind, and emotions out of balance by shutting down physical, mental, and emotional operations not needed for survival. Restoring Balance is the most important first step in effectively managing fear. It allows us understand what’s happening and to respond appropriately.
Restoring physical Balance makes restoring balance to mind and emotions much easier. Tension narrows and fixes our thinking and blocks or numbs our emotions. Letting go of tension allows mind and emotion to function naturally.
There are three essential components to restoring physical Balance:
- Stimulating the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) and keeping it activated.
- Recognizing when and how tension is building, being able to relax those muscles, and learning to maintain posture and movement that minimizes tension and wasted energy. This is called “Grounding.”
- Proper sleep
1. Stimulating the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS)
The primary nerve that activates the PNS passes through the diaphragm, a flexible muscle at the bottom of our lungs. There is a precise rhythm in the movement of the diaphragm that has consistently been shown to activate the PNS. We establish this rhythm with effortless breathing that allows the diaphragm to move down for three to four seconds as we inhale and, without pause, to move up for three to four seconds as we exhale with minimal pause before the next inhale. This is called Natural Rhythmic Breathing.
The key to maintaining physical Balance is to stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system sufficiently over time so that it becomes our normal way of being when we’re not engaged in physical activity. This restores body, mind, and emotions to a receptive state and stops the build up of tension from eliciting the fear reaction. It allows us to see, think, and respond more clearly and effectively.
The liver plays a primary role in clearing stress hormones from the blood stream which have been activated SNS. It is only able to clear these stress hormone when the PNS is fully activated. This allows the PNS to become our normal way of being.
2. Developing the capacity to become aware of how and when we building tension – “Grounding.”
Becoming aware of how and when we tense our bodies is another important step in restoring physical balance. Stopping the build-up of tension involves developing awareness of posture and movement. The term “Grounding” describes a process of learning to relax areas of the body that habitually build tension. It is a process of aligning posture and movement so there is minimal wasted effort. This involves uncurling toes, unlocking knees, allowing the belly to relax, the shoulders to drop, and the jaw to loosen.
3. Proper sleep
Sleep is essential for clear thinking. We tend to build tension when we push ourselves to keep going despite being tired. Research indicates that people who have been awake for 18 hours or more perform at the same level on cognitive tests as those who are legally drunk. Recent research indicates that most people need at least seven to eight hours of sleep every night to be able to function at full capacity.
Recognizing when our thoughts are creating tension and learning to redirect them are keys to mental balance. It is much easier to master this skill when the body is in balance and the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) is active.
Recognizing when thoughts are taking us in an unhelpful direction involves interrupting pathways in the brain that feed fear and stress by replacing them with other pathways that allow us to focus on understanding and effectively respond to our difficulties.
I found three techniques that consistently helped my students and patients to restore mental balance:
(1) Establish a Rhythm Phrase or Rhythm Prayer in your brain. Silently repeating a short phrase or prayer hundreds of times per day creates a well established pathway that gives your mind a place to go when you realize your thoughts are taking you in an unhelpful direction.
(2) Develop awareness of when you are becoming stuck in fear-based thinking and create a “Y” by establishing a new pathway by asking questions.
“Creating a ‘Y’ in Unhealthy and Unhelpful Pathways” (coming soon)
“Asking Helpful Questions” (coming soon)
(3) Practice regular meditation that uses a single focus to develop and maintain the skill of recognizing where your thoughts are heading while deepening the capacity to redirect them.
Emotional balance is restored by developing the capacity to allow the full experience of emotion without tension or breath holding. This requires that the parasympathetic nervous system be activated. Since the experience of emotion is blocked by tension, it also requires gradually resolving patterns of tension that cause the obstruction.
Emotional tension can be identified by paying attention to how you tense during an emotional reaction. This commonly involves some combination of curling your toes, lifting your heals (while sitting), locking your knees (while standing), lifting your belly, raising your shoulders, or clenching your jaw. Stopping this build up of this tension while maintaining parasympathetic activation with Natural Rhythmic Breathing and Grounding allows a fuller experience the emotion. Emotional tension is gradually resolved as you repeat this process over time.
A key factor in restoring emotional balance is to be able to separate thought from emotion. Thinking about events that led to an emotional reaction stimulates more emotion. Shifting focus to the experience of the emotion or using a Rhythm Phrase prevents building additional emotional tension.
There are times when reflecting on emotion helps you to learn from or determine how to manage a situation. Talking about your feelings can also help others understand what you’re going through. The point at which this is not helpful is when you begin to tense or hold your breath to block the emotion. That builds more emotional tension, which adds to the imbalance.
2. WHAT IS THE SOURCE OF FEAR (Threat, Thought, Tension, or Trauma?)
Knowing whether your fear is coming from an actual threat or from thoughts, built-up tension or past trauma allows you to determine how best to respond to it.
Threats can be immediate, emerging, impending or distant. There are also perceived and possible threats that may or may not create risk. Each provides it’s own challenges and opportunities.
A helpful first question when we experience fear is: “Am I in an immediate danger?”
If the answer is yes, the next question is : “How or where can I find safety?” It is also helpful to ask “How much time do I have?”
Taking a moment to make sure you are breathing. Bending your knees and, if there is time, taking one or two slow deep breaths allows you to accept and assess the situation and avoid reacting in ways that could lead to harm.
Accepting the reality of a potential threat without dwelling on the possible harm that could result allows you to shift your focus to how best to deal with it. Since the experience of fear is dependent on what we are perceiving in the moment, this allows you to see and think more clearly.
Asking questions about the nature, timing, and risk of the threat allows you to determine if, when, and how it is best to respond. Look for options that minimize the threat and effectively deal with the situation.
Examples of Dealing with Fear from an Immediate Threat from Personal and Clinical Experience (coming soon)
Emerging or Impending Threat
Investing two or three minutes in restoring physical balance allows more of your personal resources to come online to effectively deal with an emerging or impending threat. Natural Rhythmic Breathing, using a Rhythm Phrase, and Grounding can be done simultaneously.
Accepting the fact that a threat exists helps to keep you from recycling thoughts and emotions about the risk or danger. Acceptance allows you to avoid judgment, blame, and resentment, which frees you to see the situation and relevant details more clearly. Accepting people involved in the situation as fellow human beings also struggling to learn to get by in this world makes it less likely they will become defensive. It also allows you to begin to establish the trust that may be an important part of the resolution.
Clarifying how much time there may be before there is significant danger allows you to use that time most effectively. Asking what you might need to stay safe and effectively deal with the situation allows you to make sure you have needed resources. Making a short-term plan about how to get through the situation helps to maintain focus on what to do.
Examples of Dealing with an Emerging or Imminent Threat from Personal and Clinical Experience (coming soon)
Perceived, Possible or Distant Threat
There’s time to restore balance when a threat isn’t immediate or impending. Setting up a regular routine that includes Natural Rhythmic Breathing, a Rhythm Phrase, grounding, and meditation allows all of your personal resources to become available so you can effectively deal with whatever threats you may face. Scheduling time to think about the threat when you are in balance allows you to avoid recycling thoughts and emotions about the risk or danger.
The experience of emotion is blocked by tensing and holding your breath. This builds emotional tension. Restoring balance through Natural Rhythmic Breathing and Grounding allows these emotions to move through you and keeps emotional tension from blocking your awareness.
Accepting that there is a potential threat prevents worry, blame, and resentment from interfering with figuring out how best to deal with it. You are free to shift your focus to developing a plan for how best to respond, which, in turn, dissipates fear.
Accepting that you are feeling afraid allows you to fully experience this emotion without it being recycled or intensified if the parasympathetic nervous system is activated. This prevents the build up of emotional tension and allows some of that tension to be resolved. Crying, the most effective way to release emotional tension, is often a normal part of this process. It’s important not to tense or restrict breathing to keep from adding to the tension as you are releasing it.
Viewing the situation from the perspective of others involves allows you to realize where they are coming from and builds trust and mutual understanding. This makes it much easier to work together to find lasting solutions. Understanding their history, current stressors, intentions, and motivations provides guidance about their limitations and how best to approach them.
When threats are perceived, possible or distant, there is time to ask questions that help you to understand the situation, review options and think through possibilities. Clarifying when a potential threat might cause a problem provides a context and deadline for planning efforts. Asking questions about the sources of threat provides direction for gathering information. You can assess the possibility and extent of danger, understand conditions and limitations and explore options from different perspectives.
Clarifying expectations, motivation, and intentions allows you to insure they are consistent with your values and priorities and not a reaction to fear. You can look at possible long-term effects of different courses of action and revise plans to deal with new developments.
You can turn your focus away from the danger by developing a plan for dealing with the worst case scenario. This will provide direction for dealing with a threat if one does occur, and creates a pathway that can make it easier to redirect thoughts that stimulate fear. When you start to experience fear you can remind yourself you have a plan to deal with it and ask if it might be helpful to review and adapt the plan.
Examples of Dealing with Perceived, Possible or Distant Threats from Personal and Clinical Experience (coming soon)
Fear from Thoughts
Restoring and maintaining physical balance removes the pull of the mind toward possible threats and allows you to observe how your thinking affects your emotions. Establishing a Rhythm Phrase through thousands of repetitions over time provides a well used pathway to turn to when you realize thoughts are creating tension. Regular meditation using a consistent technique that involves a single focus trains your mind to recognize unhelpful thoughts while deepening your capacity to redirect them.
It is extremely difficult to “stop thinking” about something. It draws your mind to the pathway that you’re trying to stay away from. Trying to stop doing something implies that you’re doing something wrong, which creates pressure that leads to increasing tension. Accepting that you have a thought habit that takes you to unhealthy and unhelpful places allows you to see how and when that happens and to practice restoring balance and redirecting those thoughts. Each time you redirect your thinking you are reinforcing a pathway in your brain that turns your thoughts away from thinking that interferes with your peace of mind and effectiveness.
Accepting that there is uncertainty frees you from going over and over what might happen and allows you to focus on what is most important at that time.
If you are thinking about a possible or future threat, reminding yourself that you have worked out a plan and asking whether it needs revision shifts your focus away from thoughts that produce fear.
Reminding yourself that you are in a process of learning to train your mind provides motivation to continue even though you may need to redirect your thoughts many times.
Clarifying the effects of fear-based thinking and recalling that it rarely leads to a positive outcome strengthens the intent to continue and makes it a simple choice of whether to making life easier or harder.
Clarifying what you were feeling when your thinking shifted to fear allows you to experience that emotion and resolve some emotional tension while forming and strengthening pathways that make it easier to separate thought from emotion.
Creating a ‘Y’ in Unhealthy and Unhelpful Pathways (Coming soon)
Examples of Dealing with Fear from Thoughts from Personal and Clinical Experience (coming soon)
Fear from Tension and Trauma
Fear from tension and trauma comes up in two ways. It either breaks through or is released gently. Fear breaks through when tension has been building or is triggered by memories of trauma. We become more sensitive to triggers when there is a build-up of tension.
Fear often break through in stressful and uncomfortable situations. The physical and emotional tension that builds-up at these times usually exceeds what is released. Increased tension then leads to additional outbreaks.
When tension gradually decreases as balance is restored and maintained, fear held back by tension can be experienced. If it is not resisted through tension or breath holding, it can be easily released without building additional tension. The experience of fear is no less uncomfortable but only lasts a short while and tends to comes up at times and in situations where it can be fully experienced and easily managed. This process eventually leads to full resolution of emotional tension over time.
Stimulating the parasympathetic nervous system is critical to effectively managing both the break through and the gradual release of fear. Using Natural Rhythmic Breathing and Grounding allows the full experience of emotion and efficiently reduces the build-up of emotional tension.
Restoring balance stops the build-up of tension and prevents fear from breaking through. Natural Rhythmic Breathing needs to be practiced often and long enough for the liver to clear stress hormones out of the blood stream – six to ten times per day for three to five minutes over a period of two to four weeks is usually sufficient. Maintaining this balance makes it significantly less likely that fear will be break through as a result of increasing tension and events that trigger emotion from past trauma become easier to anticipate and manage. Regular practice that maintains balance facilitates the process of dealing with the emergence of fear and shortens the time needed to deal with it.
Establishing mental balance through the use of a Rhythm Phrase makes it much easier to separate thought from emotion to keep from stimulating more fear by dwelling on worries or past events.
Accepting emotion allows you to fully experience it. This is necessary in order to resolve emotional tension. These emotions can be very uncomfortable but only lasts a short while when the (1) the parasympathetic is active; (2) there is no resistance through tensing or breath holding; and, (3) thoughts that create additional fear are redirected.
Blame, guilt, and resentment tend to build tension. They also block our ability to find solutions to problem situations. Accepting past events allows us to get past mental emotional recycling and move toward finding lasting solutions.
Clarifying that the emergence from fear is a normal reaction to past trauma and/or a build up of tension make it easier to accept uncomfortable emotion and helps keep it from escalating.
When fear breaks through due to the build-up of tension, it often results in panic. Even though there may be a strong sense that you are going to die, panic attacks very rarely, if ever result in death. Having a sense of control makes outbreaks of fear much easier to manage. Reviewing where and when fear tends to break through allows you to think through ways to respond that remove the trigger and allow you to restore balance.
Examples of Dealing with Fear from Tension and Trauma from Personal and Clinical Experience (coming soon)