By Erika Fehrenbach Prell
Fear is way overused these days. Like many reactions in our bodies, fear was designed for a purpose. Back before we had houses and electricity and cars and grocery stores and all the other conveniences of life, fear was literally there to help us survive. You know that “run from the saber tooth tiger” analogy? That is what fear was designed for...to help you survive.
Fear ignites what is commonly referred to as the fight or flight response. This reaction floods your body with adrenaline, which causes a host of bodily responses like increased heart rate, release of fat and sugar stores to give you fuel, and increased brain alertness. What a powerful and useful tool when you are trying to get away from bodily harm and survive! Unfortunately, this response is all or nothing; there is no “it’s just a feral cat not a tiger” response. As we discussed with habits, the brain likes to be automatic. And, when you are dealing with a life or death situation, you can’t waste precious seconds evaluating if you should react.
Here’s the truth. Our lives today, thankfully, very rarely need this level of response. Unfortunately, we may trigger this mega-response to situations that don’t need it. I’ll be real; spiders used to trigger this response for me. I’m talking screaming and running away, definitely flight on that one. As a side note, I often regretted running away for assistance when the spider would be gone upon return; knowing there is a spider you can’t see is scarier than facing it. Did you catch that lesson? Fear of the unknown is scarier!
Here are 5 keys steps to reigning in the fear:
Did you know that all fears are learned? You were not born with fear. You were born with the ability to ignite the fight or flight response as that is part of your nervous system, but, what you attach that response to is up to you. This is the first key to overcoming your fear; you are in control of it. Like all habits, you learned it so you can unlearn or modify it. This is so powerful! This is the mindset shift that is key to flip the script from victim to victor.
Once you have recognized that a fear exists, the next key to reigning in fear is to understand where it started and what you are really afraid of. The fear response is just that, a response. It is not logical. Ask yourself self-discovery questions to get to the root of when the fear started and the real thing you are afraid of. If you really want to change your reaction from fear to calm, you need to understand the root of what scares you.
Pay attention to when the body signs of fight or flight start showing up. The sooner you recognize this response is triggered, the sooner you can start reigning it in. With time and practice, you can replace the unserving habit of fight or flight with a self-serving habit of calm.
With the exception of running from a tiger and other life-threatening situations, fear does not serve you. Reflecting on how fear is affecting your life in a negative way and how much improved you would feel without the fear is key to shifting your mindset to change the fear.
Choose on your reaction
The last step to reigning in fear is choice. You choose your new mindset and reactions to your fears. Once you understand where your fear comes from and what causes you to react, you can practice a new mindset and plan a new reaction.
There are different strategies that can be used depending on if this is an expected fear, like public speaking, versus an unexpected fear, like a spider. The best and easiest place to start? Take a calming deep breath to give yourself time to choose your reaction instead of going into automatic. Another idea is Mel Robbins’ 5 second rule where you count backwards from 5 and choose a different reaction. A final simple strategy is to flip the script or reframe the fear from “I am afraid of…” to “I don’t like…” or another more positive phrase.
My journey from fleeing spiders to squishing them
Let me walk you through how I went from seriously screaming and running away from spiders to usually taking a deep breath and squishing them myself. My son, Liam; he was my wake up call that I needed to stop being so ridiculous about spiders. He started reacting the same way I did to spiders, and, where did he learn that from? Me! Ouch!
When I looked back to the start of this fear, I realized the exact moment it started. I was a tomboy in dresses as a kid, meaning, I played in the dirt, captured bugs and frogs all the while wearing cute little dresses. I wasn’t afraid of spiders at all!
It all changed one day when I was playing with my dollhouse in the basement. I put my hand in to grab one of the dolls, and a largish, hairy, spider skittered away. In my mind it was the size of a tarantula but was probably more like a quarter in size. Upon reflection my fear stemmed from something unexpected happening. But, my brain associated this with spiders. So, whenever I would see a spider, it would trigger this ridiculous, over-the-top, fight or flight response.
After realizing that I was teaching Liam to react this way, I decided to overcome this fear. I anticipate situations where I might see a spider, like going into the storage room, and come prepared to squish with shoes on or a tissue in my pocket. When a spider unexpectedly appears, I take a deep breath then grab the nearest tissue or shoe to squish it. I tell myself frequently I am not afraid of spiders, I just don’t like them.
I get it; this is not a big fear. I use it for two points. One, we all have ridiculous fears like these in our lives that we react over-the-top to. These are actually the simplest fears to change; and, success in conquering a fear gives you confidence and practice to tackle harder fears. Second, when I got to the core of my fear, that it had little to do with spiders and more to do with the unexpected, I could recognize other areas in my life that this fear would start to creep in. This has allowed me to reign in the fear response in other areas of my life.
I would not be serving you all to my best ability by implying that all people should be able to deal with their fear alone. I am a nurse practitioner and completely am an advocate of times that require medications as well as therapy intervention. There is way too negative of a stigma when it comes to “getting help”, especially with therapy. Want to know a secret? A therapist will help you find the right strategy for you. They help you discover the root and triggers quicker than self-discovery, too. This is an awesome resource to getting on the right track.
Bottom line, all of us can work on controlling fear in our lives. While a little surge of adrenaline can help you when you are stretching your comfort zone, learning to bring that response into check will shift your health and wellness in a positive direction. Slow down, take a deep breath, and save the fight or flight for when the tiger is chasing you.
Erika Fehrenbach Prell is passionate about inspiring and educating, others on their path to complete wellness-mind,body, and soul. This desire led Erika to the helping profession of nursing, and she obtained her Master's Degree as a Nurse Practitioner in 2007. Erika specialized in cardiac surgery, largely influenced by her personal experience with heart disease. While she loved working with this population, her heart's desire has always been to impact lives on a larger scale and from a proactive, not reactive, place. The universe answered when her path crossed with Jackie and SoulShine was born. Erika finally feels she is walking in her purpose and is excited for this journey to unfold.