We all experience fear. Fear exists to help keep us safe. But often fear stops us... limits us... and we get stuck. Even immobilized.
When we feel fear, we have perceived (often on a level beneath our conscious awareness) some signal of danger or difficulty. Our nervous system shifts into sympathetic activation (flight/flight) and this radically changes our perceptions and the way our brain is operating.
If there is an emergency in the present moment, this works incredibly well. Our bodies surge with adrenaline, our muscles activate to take action, our senses focus in on the source of the danger and we can do things we can not normally do.
When the difficulty is more subtle or diffuse or goes on over a long period of time, we need a more whole brain approach.
Let’s say you are unhappy at your job and you want to find a different one… or maybe start your own business. Every time you have a negative interaction at work, or become aware of how stressed you are, your nervous system registers danger and likely goes into a fight/flight state. You want to take action but it isn’t immediately clear what action to take. You don’t want to just quit and not have an income. You’re too stressed from work to look for another job and your confidence is shaken. You may go on like this for a long time with no solution or movement. So you find yourself surging with anger and frustration and then shutting down because there’s no immediate solution. Your mind spins around and around with the same thoughts and feelings until you are so worn out that you just veg out and go numb for a while.
This is just an example. This kind of thing can happen for all kinds of reasons and in all kinds of different circumstances. It’s a basic pattern in your nervous system.
There’s danger of some sort and there isn’t some simple, single action to fix it. Your nervous system goes into a fight/flight state. Your mind goes around and around seeking a solution that doesn’t create more danger, often revisiting the same one or two possibilities over and over. You imagine they won’t work or you're too scared to act on them and your mind visits them over and over and over. After a while, your nervous system goes into shut down mode (dorsal vagal)... you go numb and try to just get by.
This pattern can go on for a long, long time. How can we get out of it?
Often we try to force our way out of it, shove the fear aside and take action anyway. Sometimes this works well. But if the action needed is complicated and needs to be sustained over time (like searching for and applying to and interviewing for multiple jobs), this strategy is hard to maintain and can leave us exhausted and shut down and right back in the same pattern of forcing action (fight/flight) and collapsing in a shut down (dorsal vagal).
I want to offer an practice that is designed to help you discover a different pattern in your nervous system than the cycle of fight/flight then collapse that so many of us experience when fear arises.
The idea is to see if you can access the most regulated part of our nervous system (called ventral vagal) and so access more options besides the one or two you’ve gone over again and again. When we have more access to ventral vagal, we have more access to our whole brain. One of the ways to access this part of our nervous system is to tap into the experience of spaciousness.
Check in with your body and your internal experience. If you are feeling a big emotion, or have thoughts that are spinning around and around, see if you can feel the sensations that are happening in your body. Is there an area of your body that feels tight? Do you feel like you are bracing yourself? You may notice many different feelings happening at once. It’s less important to name them and most important to feel them.
We’re not trying to stop the feeling or change it. We’re not trying to figure out how to act on it and fix our problem. We’re simply noticing and feeling it and letting it be here.
When you feel in touch with the big feeling and have some sense of how it is living in your body, see if you can make room for this feeling to fully be here. Allow the feeling to be as big as it is.
Sometimes the suggestion to allow the feeling to be as big as it is brings up fear. If so, see if you can make room for that fear to be here too. Any new feeling that arises, let's make room for that too.
Imagine there is space around what you are feeling. Imagine that space is getting bigger and bigger… as big as it needs to be to let this feeling be here and still have a sense of spaciousness around it.
One traditional image is of taking the raging bull of your mind and emotions and placing it in a huge open field. It can buck and snort and run around wildly and there’s no problem. There’s plenty of room.
Another traditional imagine is of a vast open sky. Whatever you are feeling, there is also the vast sky above and all around you.
Perhaps another image arises for you. If so, work with your own image. Or it may not be an image at all, but more of a felt sense of lots of space for your big feeling to be here. However you experience it, you are doing it right.
Stay with this, feeling what you feel within a vast space as long as feels right to you.
When you are ready, let it go and gradually come back into the room. Open your senses and hear what you hear, feel what you feel, see what you see. Notice anything that feels different in your body, your emotions, your thoughts.
Repeat this practice as often as you like when you feel fear or any other big emotion.
If we can have the experience of feeling some spaciousness while we are caught in fear, even if it's just a tiny bit of spaciousness, this helps us access the most regulated part of our nervous system, ventral vagal.
When we have access to this part of ourselves, we have access to much more of our brain... we can think more spaciously, we notice things we don't notice when we're in fight/flight, we are more able to see the whole picture and new thoughts have room to emerge instead of the same ones over and over.
If this practice resonates for you, try it... maybe more than once (It's not easy to do at first).
Sometimes it’s hard to do this alone. The feeling may be too overwhelming. If this happens for you, it's totally normal. Some feelings are so big and so old that we need to have the support of another person holding space for us.
If you have questions or want to share something about your experience, I'd love to hear from you.
Also, here is a link to an audio version of this practice. Please feel free to use it and share it with friends and family.