Beyond survival, fear lurks not only in the dark corners, but also in the joyful moments, waiting for an invitation to withdraw serenity and instill anger and sadness. Fear often wears a disguise of concern, uses ego as a henchman, and usually surfaces as “what if?”. What if I express an idea and people reject it/me? What if I look stupid? What if I fail or make a mistake (and look stupid)? What if an accident or an illness takes away someone I love? What if my health declines? Thoughts run in gangs and possess a mob mentality. I desire an upbeat, kind, and intelligent gang of thoughts to hang out with, but how do I control non-essential fear, the bully of my gang?
Fear lives in the amygdala, our base emotional center, where fear conditioning occurs and unconscious evolutionary memories are stored apart from complex reasoning in the cortex and higher learning in the hippocampus, . The amygdala soaks up sensory input from our experiences and assigns emotional tags. In similar situations we may feel threatened, fear triggered by a smell, a room, a voice, or an action. Wired to react quickly to fear, I can easily damage relationships or sabotage my work by overreacting or withdrawing, two perfectly reasonable fear responses.
The amount of fear hiding out in my amygdala is understandable, thousands if not millions of memory bits collected long-ago during times of abuse and rejection. Understanding fear is a biological process, evolving with our experience, re-frames unreasonable fear responses as manageable. Desensitization can minimize or even destroy unreasonable fears using exposure and relaxation exercises. A rise in blood pressure and cortisol dumps dictate a two-pronged approach with relaxation at the center. I am not addressing a phobia, but an imaginary fear, so I begin by imagining my worst fear. Creating a list of fears aids in choosing the biggest, baddest and most destructive fear bully.
I can pick apart my fear of rejection, imagining a rejection letter, a negative blog comment, or an in-person query regarding what I do all day. I can imagine “what if?” and write the story to its end, even if only in my thoughts. Imploding from shame does not happen in real life, so I survive to write, live, and love another day. Using diaphragmatic breathing and a memory of Lake Huron’s waves lapping the shore helps me release anxiety induced by my imaginings. I also use exercise to reset my brain and confirm I am alive and safe, even if I do look stupid. I’ll repeat my exposure and relaxation exercises until looking stupid or being rejected is unimportant and what may happen holds no power.
“Don’t give in to your fears. If you do, you won’t be able to talk to your heart.”
― Paulo Coelho,