The worst thing about fear is that when we are experiencing it, the effects of it can paralyze and destroy our ability to rationally process our experience in the moment. What if there was a system that could be easily memorized to reduce the impact of fear every time it appears?
Mnemonics, or memory aids, often serve as useful tools to help us in moments where memory might fail. In the case of fear, a popular acronym is False Evidence Appearing Real. While this acronym is useful in reminding us that fear is often based upon a misperception, it unfortunately doesn’t teach us how to reduce fear.
What about employing new acronyms which incorporate researched tools for fear reduction? The FEAR System and the LMONP Cycle are two examples that you can put to the test.
The F-E-A-R System
The system I use with my clients is my own acronym for F-E-A-R for Focus, Expose, Approach, Rehearse.
F = Focus instead of freaking out
E = Expose instead of escape
A = Approach instead of avoid
R = Rehearse a lot
- F – Focus: Researchers have found that Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) can help us reduce our fear and anxiety through re-directing our focus. Rather than focusing upon the fear, which is often a future-focus, focusing on the present can help you relax.
Practicing skills such as body scanning, mindful movement, sitting meditation practices, and breathing will help you reduce anxiety and become more present-focused. McManus et al. (2011) published a study in Healthcare, Counseling, and Psychotherapy Journal (11:1, pp 19-23) which indicated that experimenting with the purposeful focus on the here-and-now helped people to reduce health anxiety.
- E - Expose: Expose instead of escape. One of the hallmarks of anxiety is the tendency to avoid what Dr. Albert Ellis called Discomfort Anxiety and Ego Anxiety. Rather than facing their fears of being uncomfortable by tolerating discomfort, or facing their fears of social disapproval or rejection by tolerating situations in which this might occur, people with anxiety tend to escape such anxiety-provocation.
In contrast, what behaviorists refer to as "exposure hierarchies" provide an opportunity to break down a feared task into smaller, more achievable steps. For example, if you have a fear of public speaking, you could start small, by rehearsing your speech to yourself. The next step might be rehearsing it in front of one person. Gradually, you could increase the number of people you speak to, until you are speaking to a group of people without anxiety.
Psychological treatment using exposure hierarchies often encourages people to remain on the lowest hierarchy step until completion of the step leads to minimal or no anxiety. When completion of the lowest step becomes easy, the individual completing the hierarchy can then move to the next step, like advancing to the next level in a computer game once mastery of the lower level is achieved.
- A - Approach: Approach tasks instead of avoiding them. Another hallmark of anxiety is the tendency to avoid tasks which are seen as difficult or challenging. In Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT), Dr. Ellis talked about striving for high frustration tolerance (doing that which leads to longer term satisfaction) over low frustration tolerance (doing that which is expeditious in creating comfort, but ultimately sacrifices longer term satisfaction).
Approaching a task doesn’t have to be done in a large-scale fashion. For example, if you were initially scared to climb a mountain, your first approach in this direction might simply be to learn more about the skills that are required to be successful.
In addition, you can take an even smaller step—approach the situation mentally. Researchers have shown that process-simulation, the act of mentally imagining taking steps to complete a goal, can also effectively reduce your anxiety (Armitage et al., 2012, Anxiety, Stress, & Coping, 25:2, 155).
- R - Rehearse: Rehearsal involves practicing a behavioral skill in a repeated fashion until mastery is attained. Actors, speakers, athletes, musicians, singers, dancers, skaters, and other performers understand that practicing frequently, often, and well is essential to a great performance.
If you have a performance related fear, experiment with practicing to the point of greater skill. Because practice is active and allows you to achieve greater mastery, it may serve to reduce fear and increases the likelihood of a successful performance outcome.
In addition, practice may lead to disconfirmation of the feared consequence—for example, you may think that you cannot do something, but practice teaches you otherwise. Behaviorists refer to "overcorrection," which is when a new skill is practiced repeatedly until it becomes facile.
The LMNOP Cycle
I also interviewed a first-hand specialist in managing fear, Akshay Nanavati. Nanavati is an infantry Marine veteran who served as a team leader during the war in Iraq and had other lives in his hands on a regular basis. He often had to face his own fear, as well as the fears of those who turned to him.
Nanavati currently uses these lessons in his work as a certified life-coach and a professional explorer. Nanavati has practiced the mastery of his own fear through cave diving, climbing mountains in the Himalayas, jumping out of airplanes, dragging a 190 pound sled 350 miles across the second largest icecap in the world, and more.
From his life experience and research in neuroscience and psychology, Nanavati created the LMNOP Cycle to help you overcome fear:
L - Label and Language
M - the Meaning that led to the emotion
N - It's NOT you, it's your brain
O - Opt for a new meaning
P - choose an action in line with your higher Purpose and circle back with Pre-emptive strikes
- L - Label and Language: To change a bad habit and reduce the impact of fear or any disempowering emotion, start by labeling the emotion you are experiencing. Dr. Matthew Lieberman, a psychology professor at UCLA, has shown that the simple act of labeling an emotion reduces activity in the Amygdala, the part of the brain associated with fear, and the Limbic System, the part of your brain that controls emotions, and increases activity in an area in the Prefrontal cortex associated with processing emotions. This part of the brain essentially has us step outside of the impact of our emotions to consciously process it and in turn choose where we direct our actions.
The next step is to immediately change your language and adopt what social psychologist Amy Cuddy, refers to as the "Power Pose." Stand tall, open your body into an expensive position and act as if you are the most confident person in the world. Changing your body language into this powerful position reduces the stress hormone, Cortisol and increases testosterone in your body. Just as our minds control our bodies, the system works the other way as well.
- M - What is the Meaning that led to the emotion? The next step is ask yourself what meaning you’ve assigned to the experience that led to your emotion. The work of Dr. Michael Gazzaniga, a psychology professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, has demonstrated our natural tendency to search for meanings to attach to events. Even when there is no inherent meaning in an event, our brains will create one.
As Dr. Albert Ellis taught so early in his career, it is the belief we attach to our experience, not the experience itself, that determines how we feel and act. Because experiences of life don’t always have inherent meaning, cognitive psychologists teach that we assign meaning to our experiences.
Our assigned meanings shape our experience of life. Psychiatrist Victor Frankl’s book Man’s Search For Meaning tells the story of how he was able to survive the torture of life in a concentration camp through holding onto an empowering meaning which helped him persevere.
- N - It's Not you, it's your brain: Neuroscientist Dr. Benjamin Libet has discovered that we do not control what first shows up in our minds. Based upon conditioning and implicit memory, our brains control the initial direction of our attention, usually without our conscious approval.
The key in this step is to remind yourself that what you are experiencing is not you. This is not who you are, it is just your brain stuck in an old pattern. By doing this, you further separate yourself from the impact of the emotion that is not serving you and allow yourself to not be defined by it.
- O - Opt for a new meaning: Deep down, your subconscious brain will not believe the new meaning you choose for the experience. It initially won't because it is still stuck in its old patterns. Nonetheless, choose a new meaning anyway. Dr. Ellis talked about creating a cognitive coping self-statement, which is a phrase that summarizes this new meaning for you. This, combined with the next step, creates new neurological pathways in your brain.
- P - Purpose and Preemptive Strikes: Choose something else in line with your higher Purpose and circle back with Preemptive Strikes. In Dr. Jeffrey Schwartz's book, You are not your Brain, he references two principles based on neuroscience that allow us to literally alter our brain's hard-wiring: The Quantum Zeno Effect and Hebb's Law.
The Quantum Zeno Effect states that consciously focused attention activates, stabilizes and holds together brain circuits in order for Hebb's Law to take effect. Hebb's Law states that neurons that fire together, wire together. What this means is that by directing your attention to something other than the old pattern you are stuck in, either in the form of action or focused thought, you create new neural pathways in your brain.
The work of psychologists Peter Gollwitzer and Veronika Brand-Statter, suggests that by noting down ahead of time a detailed plan for when and where you will engage in a very specific action, you can as much as triple your chance for success in actually accomplishing that action.
To prevent yourself from getting stuck in a pattern that you know is common for you or even to ensure that you take a desired action, use preemptive strikes. Write down exactly what you will do and how you will do it when a potential obstacle presents itself. This preemptively prepares you for this obstacle that you know will occur and prepares you for the next time you might need to use the LMNOP cycle.
Deeply ingrained neurological pathways will not change overnight, but by using the LMNOP cycle regularly, in time you will be able to create new pathways that better serve you in your everyday life.
You can learn more about Akshay Nanavati through his site http://www.existing2living.com/
You can acquire more strategies for increasing self-direction and fearlessness through Dr. Pam Garcy’s e-zine http://www.myinsourcing.com