There is a factor in your health which is often left out of the healthcare picture: your mind. Once you realize that your thoughts cause biochemical shifts in your brain, which in turn cause reactions throughout your entire physiology, your mind becomes a health practice.
There is nothing new in this fact. What is new is the greater degree to which we understand the thought-brain-body interaction. The most significant interaction is around fearful thoughts which lead to a fearful body.
Fearful thoughts cause your body to go into the instinctual fight/flight/freeze reaction. Depending upon your emotional style, you react to fear by becoming angry and aggressive (fight), trying to avoid and escape (flight) or by disconnecting and going numb (freeze). Typically, we go in and out of these reactions several times a day, with their negative effects on our heart, blood pressure, gut, hormones, and neck and back muscles. If fight/flight/freeze reactivity becomes an unchecked pattern, we show up one day at our doctor’s office with what’s been euphemistically called a stress-related disorder. In truth, we are showing up with a fear-related disorder.
What’s the answer to fearful thoughts? Learning how to become skillful with them.
The skill has two aspects. The first is to cultivate a new attitude toward fear itself.
Fear is natural and normal. It is a hard-wired warning system in your brain ready to signal you that danger is present. Brain imaging researchers locate this fear center in the amygdala region of the brain. The problem is that the warning system is acutely sensitive and most of the time tells you (in the form of fearful thoughts) about dangers that in fact aren’t real. The pain in my shoulder turns out not to be bone cancer. My heaviness and mental fog turns out not to be early Alzheimer’s but instead sadness over a 9/11 anniversary.
You can’t prevent such fearful thoughts. They come on their own. They are generated by the plain fact that we are all vulnerable beings in this world. Our vulnerability is easily stimulated, our warning system is easily triggered, and fearful thoughts come easily into our mind. With this information, you can cultivate a new attitude toward your fearful thoughts – you can turn toward them with understanding and empathy.
At first, that may sound odd. Empathy toward your fears? Wouldn’t you prefer that they just go away and never come back? Yes, of course, and the quickest way to make them calm down and go away is to treat them with empathy. Think about a frightened child. Yelling at the child or ignoring him or her only makes things worse. Turn toward the child with empathy, and everything is better.
What is the realistic basis for this attitude of empathy toward your own fears? Your brain is working so hard to protect you, it wants you to survive and thrive, and it’s only sending you fearful thoughts as part of its hard-wired survival job. In an odd twist, your fearful thoughts actually show how much you love life and how much you want to protect it from harm.
The second aspect of your new skill is the empathic response itself. What does that actually look like in your inner experience? You become aware that your mind is filled with a worry which leads to a greater fear, and you realize that your warning system has been triggered. In that moment of awareness, you literally speak in your mind (self-talk) to the fears, kindly thanking them for trying to help you and empathizing with the tough job they have of trying to protect you from the dangers in life.
This isn’t just a quick self-help technique. The latest brain research tells us that the executive center of the brain – responsible for calming down the amygdala (the fear center) – is the region of awareness and empathy. By turning toward your fearful thoughts with awareness and empathy, you are actually activating and strengthening the executive center of your brain. And every time you do this, you literally, physiologically grow new neurons in the executive center, making it even stronger in its abilities to calm down the triggered fears.
In other words, you will now be noticing and responding to your fearful thoughts without being dragged into them. You probably already do this naturally, to some degree, but go the next step and make it a deliberate health practice. Your body will reward you by feeling calmer and balanced more often, and your intelligence will be better able to focus on your positive purpose in this life.