We could all benefit from some more peace and calm in our lives. Most of us have experienced how stressful situations can make our hearts pound through our chest, our faces grow red, and to top if off, make our palms sweaty right before we have to shake hands with someone important.
These are natural reactions to situations where we feel out of control or anxious. It is the fight or flight response we got for Christmas some time ago from the ever so funny Evolutionary Santa. Our bodies are pumped up and ready to either fight or run for our lives, with the help of some powerful stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol. Sadly, neither fighting nor fleeing is a viable option when you’re holding your speech at your wedding.
Luckily there are some tools you can use to reduce the severity of your fear response. You won’t be able to short-circuit your entire biology, however. Some fear will always be your companion. You can reduce it. And the first method is…
Accept Your Fear
What?! I want to get rid of it. But, acceptance is the first step to change. It sounds like a paradox, but when it comes to fear your resistance is only fueling it. Fear can be understood from a perspective of neural pathways linking some situation or thing to danger or bad feelings.
When you try resisting fear you are effectively firing those neural pathways over and over, making them stronger. In addition to that, your resistance is creating strong feelings, which further strengthens these neurotic feelings.
Accepting the fear and letting it just be, is to stop fretting over it. A neural pathway that is not continually activated dissipates. The next step follows naturally from acceptance.
Exposure therapy is a powerful way to reprogram your responses by giving your brain evidence that the feared situation is actually quite safe. If you’re about to faint every time you see a spider, meaning you’ve gone from fight or flight into freeze mode, you can reprogram your fear response by exposing yourself to spiders in safe circumstances.
Every time you hold a tarantula for 10 seconds, your neural pathways change in response to evidence that you survived, even though you might have peed a drop or two. Make sure the tarantula has no poison – actually dying from exposure therapy works against its purpose.
Breathe and Let Nitric Oxide Do the Rest
The last step can be used together with exposure therapy. There is a growing body of evidence for how meditation is reducing our fear response. Benefits include physical shrinkage of the fear center in your brain, the amygdala, and increased self-compassion. What is a little less known, is a benefit you can get from the breathing itself – increased levels of nitric oxide.
Deep diaphragmatic breathing through the nose has been shown to increase levels of nitric oxide in your body. Nitric oxide is a signaling molecule with a large range of bodily tasks and functions.
It has a whole range of health benefits, but the most important in this context is that it blocks release of stress hormones, like adrenaline. It also triggers release of serotonin, which is a powerful feel-good neurotransmitter with a soothing effect. Anti-anxiety medicines are usually based on increasing your levels of serotonin.
You can do all these steps in succession or you can experiment with all of them. But, remember that there is nothing wrong with you. Fear is part of the human experience and it would be a shame never to experience it.