I work with many people who struggle with a sense of being uneasy, fearful, nervous, anxious, restless, on edge, tense, etc. Essentially these are all fear in some form or another. Relaxation exercises do not help because while they may give temporary relief, the fear comes right back.
This is caused by feedback among several brain areas. I will give a simple explanation of that here, as well as a simple and effective solution. An podcast version of this is available on Soundcloud.
When the brain feels fear it looks for danger. If the danger is obvious, then we act to deal with it. When there is no obvious danger, then the brain may assume that the danger is simply invisible. This is even more unsettling and leads to more fear. The feedback loop looks like:
Fear -> Danger -> Fear -> Danger -> FEAR -> Danger -> MORE FEAR
If the person tries to relax, but the brain is still assuming there is danger then we get:
Fear -> Relax -> Danger -> Fear -> Relax -> Danger -> FEAR -> Relax -> Danger -> MORE FEAR
The problem is the brain’s assumption that fear = danger. That assumption causes the brain to respond to fear as dangerous, which causes the feedback loop. Fear of fear causes more fear.
So, does fear = danger. Fortunately it does not. Most of the time we are feeling fear we are not in any immediate danger. If we are not in danger then we are safe. So that means that it can be safe to feel fear. In fact, if we are not in immediate danger, which is the vast majority of the time we feel fear, then we are safe. It is uncomfortable to feel fear, but safe. We just need to remind our brain of this over and over and over. We can do this by repeating a simple affirmation:
“Its safe to feel fear.”
Note that we cannot use this to try to make the fear go away because then our brain will assume that there is something dangerous about the fear and we will be back in the loop. Instead we simply repeat the affirmation feeling the discomfort of the fear and going about our business. With the feedback loop broken the brain will find other things to occupy it and the fear will fade.
FEAR -> Safe -> Fear -> Safe -> Fear -> Safe -> fear -> Safe -> Calm
Some people like a longer, more poetic version which can go something like
“I am feeling fear.
It’s safe to feel fear.
The fear will pass.
I will remain.”
It doesn’t matter whether you use the short version, the long version, or a version you make up for yourself. You can also use a different word for fear, such as anxiety. As long as you accept the discomfort and remind yourself that you are safe.
I will be putting together a more detailed explanation of the feedback loops involved for a course I am teaching and will post that when it is completed.
Note: This can also be applied to chronic pain at that is also uncomfortable but not dangerous. Simply substitute the word “pain” for the word “fear.”