Fear feels thick in the air these days. If, like me, you’re watching the news or scrolling through your Facebook feed, you’re probably seeing and feeling a lot of fear. And seemingly, there are a lot of things to be afraid of. I mean, the world is a crazy place right now, right?
Well, here’s the thing about fear. Fear activates the brain’s amygdala, which is a sensor of sorts that’s there in our brains to help keep us safe. When the amygdala is activated, it gives us three response options: fight, flight, or freeze.
To make sure we have all of the brain power we need to carry out this instinctual response, the amygdala limits activity in the prefrontal cortex—which happens to be where logical thought, clear decisions, and rational choices are generated.
We simply can’t do our best thinking and best problem-solving when we’re in a state of fear.
Fear also turns on the sympathetic nervous system—the body’s project manager for the fight-or-flight response—which releases hormones to pump us up for battle such as adrenaline, noradrenaline, and cortisol.
The sympathetic nervous system accelerates our heart rate, increases blood pressure, slows digestion, constricts our blood vessels, dilates the pupils, and can cause tunnel vision, shaking, and a number of other physical symptoms.
Anyone else been feeling shaky, bloated, and anxious lately?
Our bodies are incredible mechanisms that have systems in place like this to help keep us safe, which is wonderful when we’re in danger. And I know that many of us feel like we’re in danger right now.
But here’s the catch. Our bodies are only designed to deal with short bursts of danger, and then we need to seriously rest and recover.
Prolonged activation of the amygdala and sympathetic nervous system takes a major toll on our health. We can’t sustain high levels of fear for too long before our adrenal glands become depleted, our cells deteriorate from an overabundance of cortisol, and we become exhausted and sick.
Fear is meant to motivate us into action. But it’s not supposed to be a perpetual state of being. And in times like these, we need our prefrontal cortexes fully available so we can do our very best thinking and problem-solving, and make clear, constructive choices. We need our energy reserves topped up for the long haul, not just a short burst.
So, how do we escape the grip of fear? Believe me, I am asking myself this question multiple times a day. Here are some easy actions:
1. Take deep breaths. Oxygen signals the amygdala that it’s safe to stop sounding the alarm. Even one minute of slow, deep breaths can calm an active amygdala and free up the prefrontal cortex. You can take deep breaths anywhere, anytime, all day long.
2. Get angry. This may seem like strange advice from a mindfulness teacher, but anger is more proactive than fear. Like fear, anger isn’t an ideal state to stay in perpetually, but at least there’s motivation in anger, whereas fear can often feel paralyzing. Anger can be a stepping stone out of helplessness.
3. Take action. Turn your fear into action (preferably one other than fight, flight, or freeze). That action might be helping others, donating money, making phone calls to voice your opinion, or simply taking a walk outside to cool down. Do your best to turn toward solutions rather than amplify problems.
4. Zoom out. Fear can really take over when we become so focused on what’s right in front of us that we forget the larger picture we’re all part of. Remember, humans haven’t been on the planet all that long in the grand scheme of things, and we still have a lot to learn. Adversity has always led to our growth and it will again and again.
5. Choose optimism. Optimism decreases the stress hormone cortisol and calms the amygdala. Studies show that optimists are faster at solving problems, as well as more creative with their solutions. Luckily, optimism is a habit that can be learned. It starts with catching yourself dwelling on the negative and choosing a positive thought or response instead.
6. Cultivate an attitude of gratitude. Even in the midst of fear, gratitude is always an option. And the brain cannot be in a state or fear and gratitude at the same time. What are you grateful for today? Make a list, over and over. Gratitude is a powerful antidote for fear.
7. Find joy. In times like these, joy is an act of resistance. Your joy shines the light for others to follow when they’ve lost their way. Joy is not the same thing as happiness. You don’t have to be happy with everything that’s happening around you right now. Joy isn’t dependent on outside circumstances, it wells up from within and sustains through changing conditions.
Listen, there have always been things to fear. We’ve had problems in our world, our government, and our communities since the beginning of civilization, but social media and instant access to news make those problems more apparent in real time than ever before.
And our brains have an inbuilt cognitive bias which predisposes us to remember negative information more readily than positive. This creates the perfect storm for fear and hopelessness. It’s easy to slip into feeling like the world is a dark and scary place, and nothing is safe or sacred anymore.
But we don’t see the world as it is, we see the world as we are. A shift in perspective can sometimes change everything.
These wise words from lawyer and Sikh activist Valarie Kaur help me to shift my perspective when I feel the grip of fear taking over, “What if this darkness is not the darkness of the tomb—but the darkness of the womb?”
When you’re in the middle of a dark tunnel, the best choice you can make is to find the light and run toward it! What are we giving birth to right now? Let’s make it love, not fear.