September 1, 2019
Fear isn’t the problem, but our belief that it is may be killing us.
We all have fears. We have fears of which we’re aware, and then we have fears that we are so afraid of feeling we don’t even allow them to surface and peek through.
I write from experience. I have recently been going through a really stressful time. And nothing is terribly wrong. It was my belief that something was wrong that was making me nuts. It was my belief that I might not be able to handle what life was handing me that was the problem.
I was also trying to handle everything on my own. In my head, I was recycling the same fearful thoughts, over and over, without any outside intervention from someone who might be a little more objective than me. Someone who wasn’t frantically spinning like a gerbil on a wheel with no brakes.
I’ve learned that the challenge isn’t to get rid of my fears. It is to understand and befriend them so I can use them, and the stress they create, to my benefit.
In her Ted Talk on Healthy Stress, Kelly McGonigal, a health psychologist, admits to being wrong. She has done a 180-degree turn-around on stress. She used to preach that stress was bad. Today she says, “People die from the belief that stress is bad, not from the stress itself.”
McGonigal presents a summary of a recent study that tracked 30,000 people in the United States for eight years. She says: “People who experienced a lot of stress but didn’t view stress as harmful … had the lowest risk of dying of anyone in the study, including people who had little stress.
That blew my mind! And changed my experience of one of my current stressors that have been fueled by fear. I was invited to do a presentation on mindfulness to a large audience. It’s an opportunity that I’m thrilled to have. Yet I was scaring the crap out of myself with thoughts and self-talk that reinforced a deep-seated belief that I suck at presenting and could potentially make a fool of myself. My conscious mind knew that the intensity of my fear was irrational, but my subconscious fears were running the show.
Antidotes to Fear-Based Stress
Because I was sick of keeping fear in charge I did three things.
First, I decided to try something different, hypnotherapy. I know a bit about it. I’ve taken weekend seminars and I know that it is simply self-hypnosis offered by someone with specific skills, set in a therapeutic environment that lends itself to creating deep relaxation so that the subconscious mind can absorb what is being offered by the hypnotherapist.
What I already knew, but was ignoring, was that my subconscious mind was sabotaging something I really wanted to do. In the hypnotherapy session, the therapist led me through a series of questions that helped me articulate what I wanted to feel, rather than what I had been feeling. She guided me into deep relaxation. I was completely conscious and aware throughout the session. She communicated back to me what I had told her I wanted to change, i.e. that I wanted to look forward to the presentation with excitement, and I wanted to show up feeling spontaneous, confident, comfortable, and excited to share what I know about the benefits of mindfulness.
The hypnotherapy turned out to be a liberating experience. I feel less anxious and more excited. Previously, even the thought of standing in front of that group freaked me out. At the moment, it doesn’t. I haven’t made the presentation yet, so we’ll have to wait and see. But just feeling more comfortable thinking about it is a win for me.
The second thing I did was reach out to people I trust for their support and encouragement. One of them was my son. He has done what looks to me to be pretty scary presentions to top brass in the Marine Corps. For me, he is a model of turning stress into something healthy and motivating. He reinforced what I was learning and gave me some tips.
An added benefit of reaching out for support is that it initiates the release of oxytocin, the neuro-hormone that fine-tunes our brain’s social instincts. Reaching out for support to people we trust creates not only a positive outcome from our stress experience for ourselves, but it also creates a positive experience for our support system. It’s a win-win for everyone involved.
Another antidote to fear-based stress that I’ve mentioned in previous Seedlings is to give the problem to your mind as you’re going to sleep. Put it into one sentence and ask your mind to solve it for you while you’re sleeping. I suspect that’s how the idea of hypnotherapy came to me. For a few nights in a row I had given my mind the problem: “Please help me figure out how to look forward to, and enjoy, presenting, no matter how large the audience.” When we hand the problem over to our mind to solve, it’s no longer our problem, so we sleep better after giving it away.
Overall, my takeaway is that I think we keep ourselves small because we fear that we can’t handle what life hands us. The truth that I know deep in my bones is that we are all so much more, so much larger, so much more capable, than we can even imagine.