The Perception of Fear
Are you 100% safe right now in this moment?
Most of us will respond with, yes, right now in this moment I am safe. Anyone who has experienced a significant amount of trauma will look around and list all of the things that could go wrong at any time. This is because once the mind experiences something fearful it does everything in its power to stop us from feeling that way again. It is like a built-in protective system. There are however a few problems with this system. The first is that the mind will perceive danger when none actually exists. Unfortunately, the mind does not fully know the difference between thinking about a negative event and living it. This means real or imagined, the autonomic nervous system engages in a fight or flight response, even when it might not need to. Secondly, the more time we spend in fight or flight the more we develop a fearful or traumatic response to the world around us.
For many of us this fight or flight system has been on overdrive for the past 19 months. This increases our levels of cortisol in our bodies, may impact our sleep, can decrease our ability to rationally think and problem solve, and may greatly impact the quality of our lives. When considering threat, we often think only of physical danger, like a bear running at us. In reality the threat of physical violence for many of us is actually quite low. Perceived threat also shows up in thoughts such as I am not good enough, I am not likeable, I am going to get in trouble. When we think these thoughts about ourselves our nervous system kicks into the same fight or flight as when in physical danger. In reality, we are actually better equipped to deal with physical threats than we are these thoughts. Mostly because physical threat is often short lived, thoughts can linger with us for hours or days at a time.
According to Dr. Eric Gentry, a traumatologist, we do have the ability to engage our parasympathetic nervous system in order to end the flight/flight response. Start by paying attention to your thoughts, do you notice when you perceive a threat and feel unsafe? We can interrupt the threat response, which typically looks like anger or avoidance by paying attention and reminding ourselves that we are in fact safe in the moment. We have to tell our minds that while yes what we are imagining happening is possible, it is not happening right this moment. Once we tell our minds that we are safe we also need to tell our muscles. We cannot be angry or anxious in a relaxed body. We can do this by taking a deep breath, doing a head to toe body scan and releasing any tension we feel as we go through squeezing and releasing. We can also do a little wiggle of the shoulders or allow all of our muscles to be like wet noodles and shake it out. It is possible that you may need to go through this a few times to interrupt the threat response. It is also helpful to try this out in the least emotionally engaging moments in your life and build up to the bigger ones. If someone cuts you off and you feel angry try it there first, then build up the most challenging interactions such as conflict with others or challenging intrusive negative thoughts about yourself.
The content provided in this article is for information purposes only. It is not meant as a substitute for professional medical or psychological advice, diagnosis, or treatment. If you find yourself in distress, please reach out to your local physician who can provide mental health resources in your community.
Photo by Vanessa Croome