For most of my life, I would have described myself as an anxious, fearful person. It was who I thought I was, whether it was part of my personality, or perhaps my gene pool - like blonde hair or small hands.
The sense of being anxious and fearful didn’t fill me with love and confidence in myself, as I am sure you can imagine. Instead, it seemed to throw up deep feelings of disgust, sadness, despair, shame and many other emotions that can make us feel like we live with a scolding, angry person inside of us - always ready to point out our flaws in clear, shouty ways.
It felt exhausting to have so much fear and anxiety, so limiting to how I wanted to live my life. At many points, it was intensely scary to feel like the fear was boiling over and creating panic and overwhelm in my life.
It wasn’t until I started working with a coach and learning how most of us have brains that respond to emotions as though they are physical threats or emergencies that I realized that what was happening to me wasn’t just an abundance of fear.
It was something else entirely.
That realization opened an incredible opportunity to totally change my relationship with what I thought of as fear.
Something we just need to feel and get past. A small inconvenient sensation that we can easily overcome.
But what happens when even the prospect of fear appearing on your horizon is so overwhelming that just the idea of experiencing a little fear sends you into a panic or a sensation of overwhelm?
Perhaps, when you imagine situations that you fear - like flying, or talking to your boss, or discussing an issue about your child with another parent – it does not just bring up some fear, but also sends your whole body into a physical and emotional experience of overwhelm and panic.
It could be difficulty talking, deep feelings of nausea, tension in the body, a feeling of danger, a sense of impending doom, a sense of chemical release in your body, a need to get through it no matter what, a desire to run away, to seek safety, or to just survive!
This is not fear.
This is a clear signal from your body that you have moved out of fear and into your survival brain response. You are no longer in the emotion of fear because your mind has decided that you are in imminent danger.
And you can’t just feel this and move through it. You can’t push your body through this state. Your body, and mind, require something else completely.
When your mind and body feel like they are in an emergency, what you need is safety.
There have been many nights in my life when panic raged through my body because a fearful thought entered my head like - maybe the sound my beating heart is making is actually a sinister health emergency just about to happen.
Maybe my son not calling me means he’s trapped and in danger.
Maybe the fact that the door was jammed on the aircraft means…
Without totally realizing it, my life became controlled by what I feared.
And it made me feel like I was a pretty pathetic human.
Why couldn’t I just push through the fear, like so many books, quotes on memes, articles, gurus say?
Why couldn’t I just feel the fear and do it anyway?
What was wrong with me?
What my body was experiencing when I started to feel like fear had bloomed out of control was that I had been pushed into my survival brain, and it was communicating to my body that I was facing an EMERGENCY.
Here’s a simplified version of how it might play out:
A thought would come - oh, my heart sounds a bit funny, does it always sound like this?
Then the fear would arise – because, for me, health and fear have been interwoven in my mind for most of my life. We all have stock issues that regularly activate emotions.
My thoughts would respond to that feeling of fear in my body.
Oh, I feel different, something is obviously happening, I think something is going wrong!
And then bam! My brain is interpreting this rise in fear as an actual emergency.
My survival system stops doing its normal job of keeping the functions of the body going. It’s preparing for a physical emergency and so it starts pumping cortisol and adrenaline into my systems,and it disconnects my awareness from my body so that I could, if needed, perform superhuman acts.
And then, this whole situation becomes a bad feedback loop. You have these stress chemicals pumping around your body making you feel like…emergency! Emergency!
Our minds check in with our bodies, and the rush of chemicals confirms that yes, we are in an emergency. And so the feedback loop keeps going, and going, and going.
What is really hard about this situation is that survival brain reactions are not meant to be used for emotional discharge, and they are not a place where we are meant to spend huge amounts of time. Survival reactivity is energy intensive; it’s exhausting. Survival reactions are meant for short term threats to ourselves, and then we are meant to regulate.
Because of how our culture, parents, and caregivers have been wired to deal with emotion, most of us use the wrong part of our brain to discharge intense, big emotions.
Survival brain is an often maligned part of the brain, so much so that it is called the “reptilian part” of the brain in pop culture. But it’s a very important part of our brain networks. Survival brain runs so many of our bodily systems, and it will give us the chemical tools and energy to get out of an emergency situation.
When fear pushes us beyond our capacity to hold it - or any emotion - our bodies will signal to our nervous system that we are in danger and survival will kick in.
We all have emotions that trigger a survival response more than others.
There are only four possible survival responses - and they all bring different reactions to our bodies.:
● Fight - we fight our way out of the situation - either verbally, energetically, or physically.
● Flight - we escape the situation physically by leaving or by mentally switching off by watching TV, diverting conflict, or diving into work.
● Freeze - we shut down and feel unable to take any action. We put off dealing with issues.
● Appease - we try to fix by meeting the perceived needs of those around us. We bend over backwards trying to fix other people's issues.
That survival response feels like things are out of control. You can feel trapped, hemmed in, that there is only one possible solution, only one way out of this situation, things need to be fixed NOW, something needs to change NOW.
If you have an outsized reaction to an emotion - like anger, fear, despair, isolation - chances are that this was not an acceptable emotion to express in your childhood. Which means you never learned how to be with that emotion.
What emotions want more than anything is to be SEEN, to be FELT, to be HEARD. If you weren’t given the space to do that as a child - as most of us aren't - emotions like fear become a threat.
Your survival brain needs to be brought out of an emergency response, and shown that you are indeed safe. You are not in an emergency. There is no threat on the horizon.
In my practice, I work with clients to do this survival response - soothing the nervous system and bringing the body back into a place of regulation - so that when fear arises, it can be felt, seen, and heard without pushing the body into an emergency response.
There is nothing wrong with you
Survival brain reactions are normal. You are normal. You have just been wired to respond to emotion as though it were a threat.
And, because our brains are immensely pliable, it is possible to rewire how we respond to emotions like fear.
The first step is to give yourself a tremendous amount of tenderness, compassion, and understanding. So many of us judge our responses and reactions to life in harsh and outsized ways.
But the reactions are simply a neurochemical response that we learned, often as young children, and embedded as adults. Trauma also plays a huge part in rewiring our system to be always on the lookout for danger.
If you sense that the responses you are having to situations that activate fear (or any other intense emotion) are pushing you into survival, first know this: they are a normal response to emotions we haven’t (yet) learned how to cope with.
Just as we were wired to leap into survival reactivity, we can rewire ourselves out of this.
First and foremost, we need to make the body feel safe.
When our survival responses are on high alert from a lack of emotional safety, it’s worthwhile to seek out a somatic-based practitioner who can help you gently guide your nervous system towards a feeling of safety.
You can also use safety-building exercises yourself. A very effective breathing exercise to use when you feel overwhelmed is to take a big deep quick inhale, and then a long slow exhale, and repeat several times. This will help signal to your brain that there is no danger or threat, and can start to bring you back into a more regulated state. The exercise is aimed at bringing your parasympathetic nervous system (our rest and digest function) into play.
When you use this breathing exercise you are signaling to your brain that there is no emergency because you are turning on the brain’s rest and digest functionality.
My hope with this article is to show you that if you are having responses like this, the pathway to healing is not to push through the fear, but to create safety in your nervous system instead.
I am among many practitioners who recognise that creating safety around survival brain reactivity is key to healing and bringing your system back into a more calm, safe, and regulated state. And the end result is knowing how to deal with emotions and what to do to bring yourself out of that survival response.
Now, when fear arises, I know what to do. I know that I need to turn my attention away from my thoughts and to my body.
When I get the sense that fear has become too much, I start to work on bringing myself back to a place of safety.
When we learn how to be with our emotions, and how to build safety in our bodies so we are not always falling into this survival reactivity, we build emotional resilience for ourselves. When we learn that emotions are not threats, we can be with fear and anger, rage, and grief. We can learn how to not always operate from a place of survival.
It was from this experience with Neuro Emotional Coaching, of working with this brain state-focused modality, that I no longer think of myself as an anxious, fearful person anymore.
It’s not who I am, it’s not how I respond to the world. That is the most incredibly empowering gift I could have possibly received.