We don't heal fear, we go beyond it.
I was musing the other day as I entered the airport that I should check my emotional baggage before boarding my flight. My debilitating fear of flying sprouted up in my teens. I bowed out of travel opportunities, missed my grandfather’s funeral and when I wasn’t making excuses for why I couldn’t go anywhere, I was sitting at the bar in JFK at 6:00 a.m. trying to get a grip on my panic.
Anxiety was my life and it sucked. Fear sucks. Coping with it is not living. Chronic is a life sentence. Remission is a permanent state of waiting for the fear to return. Flying was just one of many manifestations of my anxiety. With panic attacks dating back to age seven, and getting a Ph.D at the age of 40, I have spent my life dealing with anxiety.
The game changer for me was when I began to watch my brain as a processor, rather than focus on the content of my thoughts. I began to see my brain as a fear re-producing machine. I wondered why, in new situations that I had never been in before, was I conjuring an old familiar fearful response? The obvious answer was that my original fear was linked to ‘new’ and ‘’unknown’ long before it was ever linked to planes, spiders, or health issues.
Over the course of my life this fear of the ‘unknown’ propelled me to focus on the ‘known’. The brain, as a data processor, does this through assimilation whereby new information is reinterpreted so that it fits into old ideas. It takes what should be new and makes it old, so cognitively speaking our perspective never changes. Accommodation is the cognitive counter-balance to assimilation. With accommodation, we take in new information and use it to update our schemas.
From my experience, those of us with anxiety have a cognitive skew - our brains are overly assimilating and under accommodating. By relying on assimilation to the exclusion of accommodation, thought patterns remain stuck in a closed loop. Not surprisingly, we experience fear as an automatic response that is seemingly out of our control, ever expanding to new situations and experiences with no relief in sight.
But the brain is not rogue, nor is it a sabateur. It is a fabulous, neutral processor which we control. I like to say the brain is a butler not a boss. We decide whether to assimilate or accommodate. When we watch our brain habits more carefully we start to understand that fear is not something to be feared. It is simply a thought, we keep on having, a schema, on rerun perpetually assimilating new into old without accommodating for updates. Why? Because we did not know we could stop it.
Rather than fear our fears they can be fertile ground for catching the old programs and practicing accommodation. My latest foray into fear landed me in a helicopter. My schema for fear in the form helicopters hovering at a steady DEFCON 10.
My pre-flight prep started two weeks out and entailed paying close attention to my brain processor. Each time I caught it cueing up the old schema, I’d smile, almost amused and say, “Ahhh the brain…” I got very adept at catching the replay at the beginning of my horror show prior to the part where I plunge to my death.
On the day of the flight I strapped in harness and all, closed my eyes and focussed on accommodating. No assimilating for me. I reminded myself that this was all new and that I had no context for anything that I was hearing, seeing or feeling. Rather than trying to draw conclusions, I directed my brain to get very stupid. (Not easy for someone who has to know and be right about everything). It took about 35 minutes to get myself to a point where I was amazingly calm. This was new. To test my zen, I purposely tried to think about crashing. I was ok. I was beyond fear.
Suddenly, as if on cue, the helicopter dipped sharply on its side. (Evasive maneuver to avoid large birds, but I did not know that at the time.) I did yell, ‘sh*t’, but my heartbeat remained normal, I had no panic symptoms, no physical reaction of any kind. In that moment I knew that we can stop thought, we can direct our brain, we hold the remote control, and that felt pretty great.
For Fear: Watch your brain, not your thoughts
Assimilation without accommodation is like continually watching the same episode of I Love Lucy not realizing there have been ten other seasons.
1) Choose one thing that you fear of or avoid? It can be flying or any other recurring fear you may have.
2) Cue up the rerun that plays each time you think about or encounter this experience. Call it what it is, a process of assimilation.
3) Each time you encounter this situation watch your brain reach for that rerun. With practice it will stop reaching.
4) Tell your brain that you are onto it, and have a little fun with it. Give yourself a mantra or use mine: Ahh the brain….. It just works.
5) Notice the changes you experience as you interrupt your normal fear template.
I’d love to hear how this lands with all of you!!!