Are you someone who tends to worry? Or do you often feel tense without any specific reason?
This is a very common feeling. Many people experience a continuous underlying sense of fear, due to the evolution of our nervous system.
As neuropsychologist and best selling author Rick Hanson puts it, there were two mistakes humans could make when we were living in the wild:
- We fear the tiger, but there is none.
- We don't fear the tiger, and there is one.
The second mistake is the one you'd rather not make, because it could be deadly. In order to survive, we make the first mistake a thousand times to avoid the second one. This is why we experience so much needless anxiety. We tend to overestimate threats and underestimate opportunities and and our own resources.
Real threat or false alarm?
Did you notice that there is always this little caution or anxiety in the background which keeping you alert? Very often this is a false alarm. It makes us play safe and stay within our comfort zone. As a consequence, we avoid dreaming big dreams and living up to the life we really would like to live. Also, it can prevent us from relaxing or even from falling asleep and thus endangering our health and wellbeing.
Of course, fear has an important function when it is based on real threats. It helps us to react quickly and to trigger the fight-flight-freeze reaction which can help us to survive life threatening situations. However, most of the time this is not the case and yet we are flooded with false alarm fear or living with an underlying, continuous sense of anxiety.
It all comes down to finding a healthy balance between not underestimating real threats and not overreacting to small worries or problems. This is where mindfulness can play an important role. It can help us see clearly what's a real problem and what's not.
Research shows that regular meditation contributes to an increased grey matter density in areas of the prefrontal cortex which is primarily responsible for executive functioning such as planning, problem solving, and emotion regulation. Studies have also shown that the amygdala, known as our brain's "fight or flight" centre and the seat of our fearful and anxious emotions, decreases in brain cell volume after regular mindfulness practice.
Years ago, I have gone through a severe burnout with an anxiety disorder. I remember that I was always invaded by a sense of fear and dominated by worries - not major ones, but rather small or medium sized ones which were always on my mind.
At first, I was not aware of this, but then my worrying mind would not let me switch off during the night. Negative thoughts created tensions in my body which reinforced the feeling of worry and anxiety. This negative spiral kept me in an alarm state, preventing me from relaxing and sleeping. Ultimately, I woke up in the night with panic attacks. I even had some during the day. I could not sleep for months and even the doctors had no solution since the sleeping pills did not work.
It was only when I started to practice mindfulness that slowly the anxiety decreased, and I started to see more clearly and learned how to relax and let go.
Mindfulness strategies to deal better with unnecessary fear
So, what exactly can you do to let go of unnecessary fear? Here are a few insights from my own mindfulness practice:
- It is important to learn to distinguish false alarms from real threats. Mindfulness practice can help us to become less reactive. We learn to stop and become aware of what's really going on, take a few breaths and then move towards a more conscious choice rather than an automatic reaction.
- When you notice that it is a false alarm anxiety, you can learn to let go. Personally, it helps me to realize from time to time that thoughts are just thoughts and not necessarily reality. You don't always have to believe your own thoughts.
- Worrying is based on the mind's tendency to want to fix an emotional problem by thinking it through. However, worrying only makes it worse.
- It can help to ask yourself some questions to put things into perspective:
- How likely is this to happen?
- What would be the worst-case scenario?
- How could I cope? Which resources could I draw upon?
- Also, I have come to appreciate the body scan meditation which helps me to reconnect with my own body, listen to its signals and to relax. So, learning to calm your own body is an important skill that you can learn. Here is a link to a body scan meditation which you can try.
- In case of strong anxiety, it's important to reach out for professional help. You might want to look for a therapist or a counsellor who can support you for a longer period.
- You can also learn to take in and really absorb moments of peace and ease. These will then become resources in your brain structure on which you can depend in challenging moments. Rick Hanson has developed a method called "HEAL":
- H-Have a good experience- for example, feel that right now you are at ease, you breathe, you have a roof over your head, your body is all right, you are not facing any life-threatening situation.
- E-Enrich the sensation of this experience: how does it feel in your body (maybe you feel light or warm or relaxed), what emotion comes up and which thoughts can you notice? Can you extend and intensify this experience for a few more seconds?
- A -Absorb this experience: can you feel how this experience is relevant for you? Can you enjoy it and let it sink into you, like golden dust?
- L- Link difficult material with this positive experience: this is an optional step and should best be learnt with a professional trainer.
This process is based on the science of positive neuroplasticity - the process of shaping your brain towards the positive. As Hanson puts it, "neurons that fire together wire together". Therefore, if we repeatedly take in good experience of safety and relief we will be able to feel calmer and less anxious over time. Learning how to use your mind to shape the wiring of your brain is a profound way to enhance your wellbeing and resilience.