Fear is a bit of a professional obsession for me, and there are some personal reasons for that. I grew up a sensitive and anxious kid, and knew viscerally from a young age the gnawing-in-the gut, the ice water-to-the-limbs, and the overall shakiness and impulsivity that can accompany an episode of deep fear or worry. I also have many years of experience navigating how fear can block adaptive social behavior and interpersonal connection.
When I was 13, for example, Adam Duritz of The Counting Crows sang, “She has trouble acting normal when she’s nervous” and my heart sank knowing this could have been written about me. I assumed at that point that this was a rare, if unfortunate, condition that I would surely grow out of once I was no longer an awkward middle schooler.
By the time I got my Ph.D. almost 15 years ago I had just turned 30, and I knew myself to be a pretty centered and sometimes even hyper-functional adult. That was until I moved from a well-established friendship community in Brooklyn to being the new kid in rural Vermont, started a surprisingly complicated school psych gig, and faced up to the fact that my long-term romantic partnership was galloping toward disaster in the saddlebags of all four of the Gottmans’ famous horsemen. I realized I was, once again, having trouble “acting normal” due to feeling (very, very) nervous. I couldn’t help but notice that the students, as well as the teachers I was supporting at the time, also seemed to be acting quite differently when in stressful versus calming and connected environments. At that point I began studying and presenting on fear to figure out what this phenomenon was all about, and why it was in fact so difficult to grow out of.
I must interject that I no longer believe in the myth of normal, however I certainly can behave outside of my wisest relational skill set when strong anxiety is on board. As it turns out, we all do!
Feeling fear is human. We all experience fear at different times in our lives.
Paula Tursi, my first and most beloved meditation teacher, was speaking even 20 years ago about two “choices” our nervous system might make in any given moment to move from fear or from love. Yoga and meditation are both powerful fear reducers. These practices frankly and boldly welcome, as well as, universalize fear as a natural part of the human, or even the mammalian experience.
The key, we are taught in contemplative or mindfulness-based practices, is to learn how fear moves and operates in our nervous system in order to see it for what it is. Our nervous system is primarily trying to keep us alive and will sound the alarm if our physical, emotional or interpersonal safety or even comfort is threatened.
Fear is often a helpful, if simplistic, first response from our human bodies. But it doesn’t have to be the whole story. When we know the message fear is carrying, we can make specific choices around our interactions with it.
So what about the other choice? That of moving from love?
The fear versus love contemplative dilemma maps onto the sympathetic versus the parasympathetic nervous system. It is difficult, though not impossible, for the nervous system to be both modes simultaneously. Similarly, if we can cultivate a stance of love, it can be more difficult for fear to get a foothold.
When in a sympathetic mode, the nervous system is fired up. We are ready for action; “hitting on all cylinders” and experiencing something akin to excitement, elation or stress.
When in parasympathetic mode, the nervous system is receptive and at rest. This mode is sometimes called “the rest and digest” state.
To move out of fear, it’s important to activate an emotional and philosophical stance of love with a corresponding increase in parasympathetic activity. Immersing oneself in an internal context of love, trust, and receptivity is difficult to do when our nervous systems are constantly scanning for threat.
Understanding your response to fear is part of the key to lessening its effect on your life
Some threats may be in your individual life stemming from worries about health or safety, relationship conflict or any of the many ways our personal lives might feel at risk. Some threats are also collective and held by all of us as a human family in the world we currently inhabit which can be incredibly frightening and unjust.
Shifting to a stance of love can be possible, however, if we address things at the level of “basic safety.” Some of this is revolutionary, collective work. There are good reasons to be scared in our current society, especially for folks in bodies our culture marginalizes and dis-empowers. Courage is required of all of us right now as we care for and advocate for one another. Developing the internal capacity to work with fear rather than collapsing under the weight of it, or allowing it to turn us against one another, is a necessary personal and systemic practice. Why a systemic practice? Well, on the systemic level, we need real community, co-regulation, and shared power and purpose in caring for ourselves, each other and the world.
On the individual level, which is the somewhat limited realm of talk therapy at times, I turn to tools like mindfulness and breath-work to get the parasympathetic nervous system online, and self compassion and Internal Family Systems Therapy (IFS) to build a sense of internal relational safety. These are tools by which we can, in fairly tangible ways, create enough acceptance and kindness in our relationship to ourselves, and to the many different parts of ourselves (even those weird, nervous 13 year old parts of ourselves) to keep us grounded. This means we feel less “nervous” and have a better shot at “acting normal” even when outside circumstances are challenging. What I really mean by my somewhat facetious use of “acting normal” is that we are staying in alignment with what’s most important to us, remaining open to connection, and making decisions that serve us well in the short and long term.
Counseling for anxiety is helpful when…
Fear is getting in the way of your ability to sleep, laugh, think clearly, and/or relate to your close people the way that you most want to. Because talk therapy does focus on the individual it can also be a helpful way for those already working for a more just and supportive world to maintain the strength and bandwidth to continue.
IFS, self compassion and mindfulness all give you the tools to sit next to your fears, hear them out and work with them rather than being driven or taken over by them. This re-establishes basic safety while honoring and sharpening your self-protective responses to being even more useful when you really need them, without corroding your nervous system by demanding energy when you are actually safe.
Do you offer in-person and virtual counseling?
I offer primarily virtual counseling, with limited availability for in-person sessions for clients based on Portland, Oregon. My virtual license extends to Oregon, New York, and Vermont. If you are in any of those states and interested in working together, please reach out.
How can I get started?
If you would like to have a chat to explore working together, please reach out by email at email@example.com, or by phone at 802-671-4037.
You can also find answers to common questions about my practice here.