When fear and anxiety kidnap the system

Anyone who has ever experienced a Vipassana retreat has learned to sit and observe; every niggle, every ache, every panicked thought and every upwelling emotion. You sit, you observe and you let it pass through. When you pay something too much attention, it is said, it will grow, take over your mind and take you away from present moment, out of your state of conscious awareness.

Which is true. But when it comes to stress, fear and anxiety, you have to give it your attention, because by pushing it away, the monster you’re avoiding will only grow bigger. And by adding layers of additional adaptation and neurosis to the original wounding you’re well on the way to having your fear sensors take over and start running the show. And these survival stressors have no brain, your amygdala, the alarm buttons in your paleomammalian cortex, do not rationalize. They stem from our animal existence when, just like a deer in the woods, we sensed danger and immediately acted on it; running away if that was possible, fighting if we were able, or freezing and playing dead.

When we ignore the initial niggles, stress, fear, anxiety for too long, without addressing them with the correct kind of mental attention, the system will go into alarm overdrive. And you literally won’t be able to think straight anymore. Before you know it you’ve got a whole season of Eastenders or Game of Thrones running through your head. One scenario after the other flashes through our brains, in a kind of pseudo attempt to take control of the uncontrollable. But we never test our fears, or our ‘solutions’ it out in real life, because we’re too scared of the consequences and we’ve lost the overall perspective. That’s when you’ve disappeared down the anxiety rabbit hole.

What you need to know is that this perfect but dated survival mechanism does not know the difference between real danger  and thinking obsessively about a perceived danger, such as your unkind boss who reminds you of your violent uncle. And when stress threatens the health of the whole system, it turns into a generalized state of anxiety, a focussed fear, a phobia, sleeping and eating disorders. It starts with niggles, we ignore it, the niggles grow, we ignore it some more, and finally the sirens go off and the connection to your prefrontal cortex, your reflective brain, is severed. After all, if you’re being chased by a lion you don’t stop and have a therapy session about it, right?

And that is entirely true, therapy is not useful when you are in real acute danger. But… it is incredibly useful when you’ve ignored your beautiful survival system to such an extent that it has taken over because it thinks you are in danger!!!!

You might say, therapy is about attending correctly to the things that stop us from living our lives freely and fully as authentic beings. By applying your attention correctly, through your heart as well as the higher mental mind, you can begin to still the wild horses of fear that are running wild. Which is a world away from pushing your fears away, telling yourself not to be so silly, or mentally trying to control the situation by catastrophe thinking.

The attention has to come from the heart rather than the mind. Just like you can’t tell a frightened child to calm down, you need to hold it and let it feel the safety. Accepting, embracing, rather than explaining, strategizing, controlling. And yes, if no one has ever held you through your fear when you were young, this may be a skill you now need to learn. Because once you stop mentally running away and start emotionally accepting, your body will relax and the connection to your natural, day-to-day reflective brain is restored.

That is where you begin when you find yourself in a tunnel of mental ‘black and whites’ that has you freaking out. You breathe deeply and rather than thinking how to ‘solve’ or ‘avoid’ the pain, you accept it, allow it, and go inside, to the roots of the fear, rather than outside to how you can solve the situation. This heartfelt process helps re-establish the loving compassionate control of your higher mind, and restores you to your inner compass. If you have the courage, your demons can turn into superpowers and your inner compass will know when to attend and when to say no!

More blogs about fear by Lysanne