December 21, 2016

Four Strategies for moving through Fear.

Do you have a ton to say, but feel paralyzed by fear and anxiety?

The same fear state we generate in the brain and body by spelunking in a dark cave can also arise when we have something to say in class—and might just say it.

The heart starts to pound, and the cold, smelly stress sweats start.

I went to graduate school at Naropa University and spent much of my time there struggling through fear and anxiety. Participation was a requirement for completing the program. My career depended on this.

And it wasn’t that I didn’t want to participate; it turns out I have a lot to say and I am a super powerful person! It’s just that my physiology was working against me in the worst of ways.

The result was feeling trapped and paralyzed by a wall of fear that kept me separate from and unable to connect with others. My rational decision making mind would go right out the window, and my reptile mind was in charge of keeping me safe from all the Buddhist predators sitting on their meditation cushions looking at me and wondering, “Why is that girl crying again?”

When I learned the simplest of strategies for changing my state, I felt a mix of gratitude, relief and anger that I had not been taught these regulating techniques in elementary school. If you are struggling with anxiety, please know it is a state of mind and body, and there is something you can do to help yourself so you can truly express what is alive inside of you—dying to get out!

Here are four simple-to-implement strategies to try:

1. Set a simple goal that challenges you to grow.

I set a bar for myself that I would raise my hand and speak up once in every single class. It turns out there is evidence-based research that supports this practice.

It’s called exposure therapy and was first developed by James G. Taylor in the 1950s. When we are subjected to a stimuli that we think is dangerous but is not, with over repeated exposure our brains can learn that we are in fact safe.

Set an achievable target, and you’ll be more likely to get the repeated exposure you need to break through.

2. Describe five objects in your head.

When you are speaking the room might start to swim, grow and shrink. Your heart rate will increase and you will likely lose your bearings.

Grounding yourself in the present moment with anchors in the room can signal to your nervous system that you are actually looking at a glowing yellow lamp and not a tiger who wants to eat you.

The resulting thought?

“I am safe.”

3. Feel the living sensations of your body.

Along with using your mind to come back to the room, you can use your mind to come back to your body.

Can you still feel the neutral sensations in your hands? Look for heat or cold on the backs of your hands, in between your fingers or under your palms, feel any zingy shots of energy or pulsation.

These are called living sensations. I learned this simple technique in the Gem tradition of Tibetan Buddhism and have used it to great effect.

When you come back to the present moment and notice the living sensations of your hands as you experience anxiety, you begin to separate yourself from being identified with it.

As a result, creative power returns to be used. There is a great reward here.

It’s called feeling good.

I have become so habituated to feeling the living sensations of my hands that now, when I notice the pangs of anxiety running around my body, I habitually think “hands.”

Anxiety is now a tag for presence. I never would have imagined such a miracle! I have gone from being tortured  by anxiety to grateful  for anxiety because of this mindfulness practice.

4. Love yourself.

The culture we live in, several of my ex-boyfriends and many of my relatives would have you believe that experiencing emotions in public is shameful and you should go hide in a closet.

I am here to tell you, in the infamous words of Donald Trump, “wrong!

If you are pushing yourself to the point of expressing the side effects of anxiety, you are a badass, my dear.

Actually, I believe that if you are willing to take the risk of sharing yourself, you are a true leader of the heart. You’re doing the work to change your physiology so you can share who you are on the inside, and that is nothing short of heroic.

Apply a little maitri (loving kindness) to that wounded ego, acknowledge and let go of any lingering self criticism, and get out there and do it again.

I’m rooting for you.


Author: Ellen Sevigny

Image: lookcatalog/Flickr

Volunteer Editor: Tess Estandarte; Editor: Toby Israel


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