If we let fear in it will consume us, control our thoughts, actions and reactions. Fear that’s fed will grow big in our stomaches and strengthen in our minds, until it has won over our very being, and turned into a phobia that haunts us daily.
This week I’ll share a my own (brief) story of anxiety that led to a fear and panic, a little bit about the science of what happens to us physically and mentally, and give you some practical techniques you can try.
I think it’s important to share a bit of my own story here, because I’m not just writing this from research or training, I’m writing it from my own experience and that which I have witnessed in those closest to me. 15 years ago I was burnt out at work, stressed with family illness, and just separated from my then husband. With a 5 year old daughter trying to understand why her mum and dad had separated, life was pretty hard. Albeit a naturally positive and optimistic person, the next 7 years turned out to be equally challenging and without really knowing it, my mental health plummeted to rock bottom. At this time, I let the darkness in, and it wrapped its self around me like a cloak, blocking out the light. The pain wasn’t just mental it was physical, a deep hurt that stuck in my solar plexus and went down to the pit of my stomach. I felt panic, loneliness, and an intense anxiety whenever I was in crowds of people. My head would go light and I’d feel faint, my heart would race, and I’d feel physically sick. I desperately wanted to run, hide, be as far away as possible from all of those people. I can still feel it as I write this blog, or at least the memory of how it felt.
So what happens when we get fearful or panic?
Why do we want to run or hide from the situation?
Why do our legs wobble, our mouths go dry and palms start sweating?
If you’ve ever suffered from what might be termed irrational fear or panic or indeed intense anxiety, you’ll know how deliberating it can be. At the root cause of many of our decisions is whether or not to move away from pain or towards pleasure. When we perceive something or someone as potentially threatening (or a potential cause of pain), we want to get away as quickly as possible, and that’s where our old friend cortisol comes in. Known as our ‘stress’ hormone this response is a kick back from our oldest ancestors, and it did a good job (in the main) of keeping them safe. We still need cortisol to stay alert and give us that boost of adrenalin, should we ever need to fight or run, but in the modern day it is often an unwelcome response. The good news is that once we calm down, our cortisol levels return to normal and the side affects (wobbly legs etc.), will subside. The troublesome part of that, however, is calming down when your cortisol levels have kicked in. Our minds are already fogged with this hormone so we’re not thinking straight and trying to ‘calm down’ in this state, without some strategies up our sleeve, is unlikely to happen, at least not until some time later.
In a previous blog ‘Stress: the facts & fixes‘, I give a whole host of tips, tools and techniques that are helpful in times of stress, and they work equally well with panic, anxiety and fear, given it’s root cause is down to the same thing in an otherwise healthy person. In this blog I want to introduce three techniques that work particularly well with fear and phobias (phobias, by the way, start out as fear). Finally, always stay hydrated during any of these techniques. Sipping water slowly will naturally lower your blood pressure.
Techniques for fighting your fear
This is a common treatment for phobias, which as I said are rooted in fear. If you can’t access a therapist to help you cure this, and all phobias are curable, you can try a home exposure treatment. Paul Salkovskis (Professor of clinical psychology and applied science at Kings College Hospital), states that exposure therapy cures the phobia quickly and is highly successful.
Now this depends very much how deep rooted and severe your phobia is so you’re going to want to start somewhere on the list below that’s comfortable for you, and work through the activities at your own pace and comfort, naturally you are going to go outside of your comfort zone here, but not so we scare the cahooties out of you. This whole process might take hours, or it could take days or weeks. If you think you may get overwhelmed and need some support, make sure someone is around who you trust. If in any doubt at all, or you’re struggling with the activity or reflection work, seek out a therapist.
- With your eyes closed visualise yourself in the act that you are adverse to. Really get into that place until you feel it.
Stay there for as long as your comfortable. Notice how you feel in your body. What’s going through your mind? What is your reaction?
When you’re ready, open your eyes and write down everything you felt. You may want to talk this through with someone.
- Look at photos of the thing you have the phobia of (it might be other people doing a that thing, follow the instructions above.
- Go and observe or get close to (in real life) this thing or activity, follow the instructions above.
- Take a tiny step and do this thing you have a phobia of, just a little bit. So if you’re afraid of flying, and you’ve got to this stage and think you’re ready. Book a really short flight, or see if you can go on a flight simulator first.
- Keep increasing this exposure until it’s not a phobia anymore.
If at any point it feels too much, go back to the previous step until you’re ready to move on. Don’t forget, you do need to move out of your comfort zone here.
Change the fear
This is a neuro linguistic programming technique, and one I’ve used very successfully with many clients.
- Start out by visualising yourself in that very situation that brings about that associated panic, anxiety or fear. Really get into that situation. When you feel it, move onto the next step
- Now, note where in your body you feel this fear/panic/anxiety
- If it had a shape what would it be?
- If it had a colour what would it be?
- Does it have a sound attached to it?
- Does it have a smell attached to it?
- Get a strong identity with it and hold that in your mind
- Imagine now that this thing is lost, and scared. Not evil. Not something to be annoyed or frustrated with. Like a child it needs love and support. It needs you.
- Close your eyes and reach out to this thing. Imagine yourself feeling compassion and hold it close so it’s not scared anymore.
- As you do this, it starts to change. Soften.
- Imagine it changing to a colour that you like; a smell that lifts your spirits; a sound that brings you peace.
- Imprint onto it someone or something you love dearly, who is an intergral part of your life.
- Now all you have to do is wait….
Tapping – otherwise known as EFT (Emotional Freedom Technique)
This technique uses very gentle tapping on specific meridian points (acupressure points) across the body. Fear is stored as a negative emotion in our minds and our body and this technique addresses both. The tapping is balancing the energy that everyone has in their bodies, dispersing blockages of negative energy. The set up statement and affirmations that you use whilst focusing on fear is working at rewiring your brain (enter NLP again). This works better when you’re specific so rather than focusing on ‘this fear’ or ‘this phobia’ you want to be focusing on something like ‘this fear I have of flying’.
Want something a bit quicker and more discreet?
Try the ‘Fear Tap’ – this calms the Triple Warmer meridian which governs our fight or flight response, reduces irrational fear, soothes the body and mind.
Starting with your left hand, tap the point between your little finger and ring finger (see photo), using 2 or 3 fingers, do this for around 30 to 60 seconds (or 4 deep in and out breaths). Make sure you are breathing in a conscious, slow and controlled manner, in through your nose and out through your mouth. Switch hands and do the same again.
Another highly effective method for phobias is CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy), and this is even more powerful when used with a talking therapy such as coaching, as opposed to simply using the tools in isolation. For some people the tools will be enough and I give links to some of these in the blog mentioned above. Some clients have come to me after having CBT, claiming it hasn’t worked for them. Sometimes it’s the relationship with the therapist, sometimes it’s just not the right thing at that time for that person, nonetheless it is highly effective and used in both NHS and private mental health services. So this is another technique you could try.
Share your experience
Please leave a comment, I would love to hear from anyone who tries these techniques, what was it like? How did it work (or not)?
In crisis or know someone who is? There’s lots of information and charities that can help, here are a few:
Mind: www.mind.org.uk – there are local mind charities across the country
Work with Alison, Nicky & the team
Healthy Human programmes
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