Although fear plays a very important role in our survival, it can also stop us from experiencing or achieving many beautiful things in our lives that we might wish to have. You might dream of making a career out of your passion but fear that it will never provide you with enough income to live a decent life. Or perhaps you desire being in a loving relationship but fear the pain of heartbreak. In other instances you may not feel so clear on what exactly you desire nor what exactly it is that you fear, but your body gives you all kinds of signals that danger is near.
When what you want feels unsafe to have, it can cause a great deal of suffering and require courage and perhaps a variety of tools to help you break through to the other side. If you’ve been letting fear run the show and are ready to rise above it, here are 5 ways to tackle your inner demon.
Reframe the Root Cause
Most often the real root of your fear is buried under many layers of beliefs. Let’s take the example of turning your passion into a career. On the surface you may fear that you will not earn a sufficient living if you follow your heart, but a few layers in what could be holding this fear in place are deep-seated feelings of not being good enough or deserving of what you want. When you probe a little deeper you may discover that those feelings come from something you were told as a child. Perhaps that you should not draw attention to yourself. Or that other people’s needs should come before your own. Therefore you carry a feeling that it isn’t safe to follow your heart. When you identify the root cause of that unsafe feeling you can begin to reframe the perspective that’s been protecting you all this time. Take a moment to validate its purpose in your life. It has served you. Now, it’s time to invalidate it. It doesn’t make sense anymore. It’s time to update the system with a new perspective. Just because you were told as a child not to do something or be something doesn’t mean that’s the truth. Choose a new truth. As an adult, what do you believe? Does every child deserve to follow their dream? Why shouldn’t that apply to you?
Heal Your Inner Child
As demonstrated by the example above, a lot of our fears are rooted in experiences we had as children. These experiences condition our response to fear, and while the experience itself may leave our memory as we grow up, the response remains in our nervous and endocrine systems. This is because as children, at least up until the age of 8, we perceive most of our reality through our emotional body. While the brain continues to develop cognitive function and logical reasoning as we become adults, our physiological response to emotional states isn’t always given a chance to develop along with it. This separation between our intellect and our body means that as adults we often search for the answer in the mind and overlook the fact that this fear never evolved beyond the emotional self. This is apparent when you understand intellectually that your fear is “irrational” and yet your body still feels a threat.
A very powerful way to work with fear from this angle, after you have intellectually understood where it comes from, is to travel back in time to meet your child self. This could be through meditation and visualization. When you go back to these memories the intention is to give your child self what it would have liked to feel in that moment.
For example in one of my personal memories I recall being left alone after my brothers and I had misbehaved and angered our father. At the time I was so nervous and scared that I vomited. I’m not entirely sure why I was alone for a long period of time during this but I know that my child-self would have wanted to be comforted. I visualized my adult self holding my child self and telling her that everything was going to be alright. Even telling her that everything really did turn out alright. I observed the change in my child-self body. The heart rate going down. The tension leaving my body. I tried to lock in this feeling in my body to take with me back to my adult life. In other words, allowing the body of my child self to complete its stress cycle, in order to release the fear that’s been frozen in time in the body memory.
This type of visualization can be done many times and for different memories if necessary to teach the body a new response. Disclaimer: If you are healing deep trauma I strongly recommend working with a trauma-informed professional who can safely guide you in and out of this type of visualization.
Reprogram Your Stress Response
When we feel fear, our sympathetic nervous system kicks into gear. Unlike its bedfellow, the parasympathetic nervous system, responsible for our rest and digest mode, the sympathetic nervous system is responsible for our fight or flight mode. To put it simply, when the sympathetic nervous system is stimulated, all functioning that isn’t relevant to immediate survival is shut down and our bodies ramp up in order to run or put up a fight. When the perceived threat is gone, the parasympathetic nervous system restores equilibrium in the body.
While this bodily function was useful for our ancestors to keep them from physical harm, today this system likely gets activated more often by threats to our emotional safety. When it comes to emotional safety vs. physical safety, the sympathetic nervous system often wants to overpower the parasympathetic, never really allowing the body to come back to homeostasis. It’s like living on guard all the time. Always tense, nervous, anxious.
You can teach your body to complete its stress response through conscious breathing. In fact this is why in yoga there is such a strong focus on the breath, resulting in relaxation and sometimes that “yoga high.” While your body is active in poses that may stimulate the sympathetic nervous system, you slow down the breath and regulate the fight or flight mode that is expressed through wanting to come out of a pose because it feels intense. Practicing this in a yoga class is essentially conditioning yourself to respond differently to situations of high stress in your life.
Release Tension in the Body
As I mentioned above, when your sympathetic nervous system is always active and you live in a state of perpetual fear, even if it is like a low-hum in the background, your body accumulates tension. In order to be on guard and ready to respond, your muscles need to contract. For some people, constantly being in this state can mean that you don’t even really know what it feels like to not be tense or what brings it on in the first place. For this reason a good practice to incorporate into your day is simply noticing the tension and taking a few breaths to soften the tone in your body, albeit by 10%. You might do this by taking a slow, full-body scan where you bring attention to various body parts one by one. You can also do this through the practice of yin yoga, where the entire intention behind this style of yoga is to practice softening the body. In yin yoga you hold passive poses such as a seated forward fold, supported by props to invite comfort into the body. While “marinating” in these shapes you bring awareness to the sensations in the body and you gradually release muscular effort, assisted by time and gravity. When the muscles are relieved of effort, the benefit is received by the fascia, connective tissues and joints. Recent studies on the fascia have shown that our emotional memory is often stored in the fascia, so by increasing its pliability we can actually experience emotional release.
Follow The Fear Sensation
One of my personal favorite ways of working with fear, and something that I think ties together the other methods that I’ve mentioned is to remain present with the sensations that are essentially telling your mind and body that you are experiencing fear. When we perceive a threat to our emotional safety, it is felt through a variety of sensations. Perhaps an increased heart rate, pressure in the chest, churning of the stomach, closing of the throat, muscle tension, etc. Our natural tendency is to respond to this discomfort by turning away. We try to ignore it, distract ourselves, or do anything we can to not feel what we are feeling.
Getting to know this fear sensation instead can make it a lot less scary and often even make it go away quicker. When you feel fear, identify where in your body you feel it and what are the sensations that accompany it. Now see if you can stay with those sensations. Turn towards them. As you remain present here do you notice it shifting? Perhaps it moves to another part of your body. Maybe a new sensation arises. As you follow this trail and the sensation mutates, does it give rise to a new feeling? Give that new feeling a name. Maybe it is no longer fear but nervousness. Now go back to following the sensations that accompany nervousness. Continue moving towards the sensations instead of away from them for as many cycles as it takes to arrive at a more neutral or positive feeling.
Often by not pushing away the feeling that comes up, we give ourselves what we didn’t get as children, permission to feel whatever we feel. Essentially this is permission to be ourselves. To be whole and worthy. As children when we are learning about the world we need to express our individuality in order to feel capable, powerful, recognized and deserving. Unfortunately that power is often shut down and we are taught to fear our own feelings. If we don’t learn that it’s safe to be our whole selves as children, we are given many opportunities in our adult lives to discover it. Those opportunities come in the form of experiences that trigger those childhood wounds, taking us back into that fear over and o