Are you having trouble sleeping? Are you unable to relax? Do you feel like your mind is being hi-jacked by anxiety? Do you feel more tired than usual without a change in your level of activity? Do you find your heart racing for no obvious reason? If your answer to any of these questions is “Yes,” you may be experiencing an unmanaged fear-response.
Many of us know that fear has a physiological effect. When fear enters the mind, the body increases its production of adrenaline. This has been called the “fight or flight” response. The boost in adrenaline increases the heart rate and can make our hair follicles react. Have you ever said, “that makes the hair on my neck stand up”? In the short term, that physical response is a blessing, because it enables self-preservation. We have heard stories of the adrenaline boost that helped someone lift a heavy barrier to free a person who was trapped. Adrenaline helps us to be brave. Our bodies gear up and give us the strength to fight an adversary or protect a loved one. Adrenaline also gives a body the speed to flee when prudent.
In recent weeks we have been inundated with news that produces anxiety. Reports detailing earthquakes, floods, hurricanes, and unprecedented violence, overwhelm our brains. Sometimes, for our own good, we just need to take a vacation from anxiety producing stimuli. I assure you, it is okay to shut off the news and social media to help manage your fears. I am not recommending that we stick our heads in the sand or become ignorant of the troubles in the world. I am advocating balance! As many have said, “prepare for the worse, hope for the best!”
In this day and age, we are surrounded by negative words and images. Take some time each day to pay attention to the beauty and love that also surrounds us. Focus on everyday simple words and actions. “Please,” “thank you,” “excuse me,” “I’m sorry,” “forgive me,” are not just empty words. They are small phrases that require us to consider how we are interacting with another person. Many people have written about the benefits of a gratitude journal. From experience, I can tell you that my own fears are significantly decreased when I take time daily to count my blessings, reach out to help someone, and regularly express my appreciation.
However, for varying reasons, our minds and bodies may still get seized by fear which triggers a vicious cycle and keeps adrenaline pumping long after the danger has passed. Take heart! There are physical ways to stop that cycle! You have the power to manage fear!
The very first thing you can do is BREATHE! Be aware that adrenaline causes your body to shallow breathe and take too many breaths (called hyper-ventilating), which in turn, can cause numbness, tingling in your extremities, light-headedness, and greater anxiety. If this happens to you and needs immediate action. Find a paper bag and breath into that for several minutes, to prevent yourself from passing out.
If you are not hyper-ventilating, but feel anxious, take notice of where your breath is traveling. When you inhale does it feel like the air is going past your breast bone or does it feel like your breath is stopping just beyond your throat? If you are physically able, try to breathe in through your nose and think of the air going all the way down to your navel. Take a few of these deeper breaths. When you know you are able to breathe deeper and more slowly, proceed to the next exercise.
Breathe in deeply to a count of 5-7. After holding that breath for a short count of 3-7, exhale through your mouth by pulling in your tummy first for a another count of 5-7. If you can manage, take eight to ten of these long slow breaths. This breath-pattern signals your body to decrease its adrenaline production and allow you to become more calm. When facing stressful situations, practice this breathing often.
If your breathing is under control, but you find your mind is still racing, tell yourself, “STOP!” If you need, say the word out loud! Depending on the circumstances, you might even decide to clap your hands when you say the word. This alerts your mind and body that you are about to change your focus. Then immediately begin taking those long slow breaths, in through your nose and out through your mouth, concentrating on pulling the air past your heart down into your belly.
Another practice to help manage fear and anxiety is to focus on a pleasant visual image. Ask yourself, “where do I feel most safe, happy, or comfortable?” If you are able, picture that place clearly in your mind. I must admit, I have never been very good at imagining vividly, so I have a packet of magazine and calendar images that I keep in a desk drawer for this purpose. When I’m having trouble clearing my head of anxiety, I take out those photos and focus on the image. Then I begin the deep breathing exercise.
One of the reasons fear can take over is that our minds begin repeating negative messages. The terrible “what ifs” get hold and we have a tough time shaking them. A simple technique to help manage that negativity is to occupy your mind with positive thoughts. When anxious, begin repeating a comforting phrase. For example, “I can do this! I will get through this! Peace!” I have several favorite phrases that have served me well, they are, “Fear not!” “This, too, shall pass!” “Jesus, I trust in You!” and “All will be well!” Repeat your favorite phrase over and over until you feel your body responding.
In the days and weeks ahead, no matter what challenges might come your way, I pray that these simple techniques will help to bring you peace, courage, and hope. I assure you, light casts out darkness and you can manage your fear.