A few weeks ago, I was driving home from my daughter’s school and enjoying the last remnants of summer when a car full of teenagers slammed into my vehicle from behind, ramming me into the middle of a roundabout. At the time, I was shocked, and then angry, and then upset that they had rammed my car and then sped off without a thought for the damage they might have done to myself, my car, or (more importantly) my four-year-old son in the backseat. I was further shocked that the undercover policeman who had been driving behind them was not also shocked. I know this because he said as much. My son was not so much shocked as interested (and not injured, thankfully).
“The car got an owwie,” he said seriously as I tried to gather my wits along the side of the road five minutes later. I didn’t realize until a few hours later that I had sustained some injuries as well. Having never experienced whiplash before, I wasn’t aware that it doesn’t necessarily manifest itself immediately, or that it could take weeks or even months to recover from completely. As of this writing, healing is still a work in progress. Neck-, back-, and headaches aside, I’ve noticed a more recurring symptom rearing its ugly head. It’s one that isn’t often admitted in public circles because it’s usually perceived as a weakness instead of an internal warning that something isn’t quite right. Sometimes the warning is best heeded, as when a strange dog approaches in an unfriendly manner. Sometimes the warning is best set aside, as when the mere sight of a roundabout makes your stomach do cartwheels and your heart beat a little faster. Fear can be friend or foe. When friendly, it can save your life. When it is a foe, however, fear can keep you from living the life you’re meant to live.
Once an unhealthy fear is identified, it can be dealt with. But how? To answer this question, I turned to a few of the leading experts on overcoming fear. During training, prospective Navy SEALs are constantly bombarded by fear-producing stimuli, allowing them to learn to control their anxiety in situations where fear (and even terror) is a natural response. According to the theory of appraisal and stress, a person’s reaction in threatening situations results from an interaction of one’s perception of the situation and the perceived ability to cope with it. During SEAL training, coping mechanisms are established to overcome the body’s instinctive fear reaction when presented with a potentially dangerous stimulus. This overrides the fear response in the amygdala and encourages active problem-solving and mental adaptation to conquer both the fear and the situation. We can train our own perceptions and build coping mechanisms using the following techniques that SEALS learn to use to overcome instinctive anxiety and fear.
- Goal-Setting. This is also known as “chunking.” During a stressful situation, the activity or situation is broken down into small, manageable chunks. The person may decide to keep running until the next mile marker or remain calm for the next 30 seconds. Extremely stressful situations require more chunking than less stressful ones. Goal-setting allows the frontal lobes to override the fear response created in the amygdala, calming the fight or flight response.
- Mental Rehearsal. Similar to visualization, pro athletes use this technique to perfect their games. To tame panic or anxiety before a potentially stressful situation, the person facing it mentally engages in the activity repeatedly. I might picture myself smoothly and calmly sailing through a roundabout with no incident, or I may picture myself yielding for an oncoming vehicle, slowing for a less attentive or cautious driver, or missing a turn and making a second pass. The mental rehearsal of potentially stressful scenarios allows the mind to find solutions and devise plans ahead of time. This creates a perception of control over the situation, reducing fear accordingly.
- Self-talk. The average person has an ongoing soliloquy in his or her own mind, most of it unconscious and all of it relevant. Prior to or during a stressful situation, it is especially important to monitor thoughts. Bombarding ourselves with thoughts that we can’t do something, that it’s too hard, or that something bad is going to happen is a sure-fire way to ensure that we handle the situation poorly–if we decide to handle it at all. Any negative outcome is then considered proof that we were right in thinking ourselves incapable, and the next time the situation presents itself, it becomes even more stressful. Instead, we can choose to consciously say, “I can handle this” or “This, too, shall pass.” Success then reinforces a positive outcome in similar situations in the future.
- Arousal Control. This technique provides temporary relief, allowing the person to calm his or her emotions enough to deal with the situation. When the amygdala is sending “danger” signals, fear or anxiety may become overwhelming. To calm these emotions, take slow, deep breaths from your belly. Making the exhale longer than the inhale is particularly efficient at reducing anxiety and taking things down a notch emotionally. Once the immediate intensity has passed, self-talk, chunking, and mental rehearsal techniques can be used to regain a sense of control over the situation.
Keep in mind, too, that fear is an opportunity. It pinpoints where we limit ourselves and how, by moving past it, we might go further. Happy journeys!
(For further information on the brain, stress response, and cognitive functioning, please see the History Channel program, The Brain.)