Fear

The Three Things You Must Disconnect to Be Free of Anxiety

Pounding heart? Breathing fast? Tense? Is this fear? Does it mean danger?

Posted May 26, 2020

A client told me he loved his father. He said his father was a great guy when he was sober. But when his father started to drink, he knew he was going to be hit. Thus, as a child, when his father started drinking, my client started releasing stress hormones. The hormones caused physical sensations of arousal (increased heart rate, increased breathing rate, sweatiness, tension, and hyper-alertness). Since arousal was followed by being hit, it made perfect sense for my client to connect the physical sensations of arousal with fear and danger.

When a house is built, plumbing and wiring are installed early in the process. Once installed, the pipes and wires are likely to remain unchanged for the life of the house. The same is true of the brain’s wiring. Early relationships literally wire up a child’s emotional-control circuitry.

An experience that linked arousal to fear and linked fear to danger may have taken place long ago. It may have taken place even before memory was mature enough to remember what happened. So as an adult, though arousal, fear, and danger no longer need to be linked, they may be.

We have all heard “seeing is believing.” If personal history has caused arousal and fear and danger to be connected, “feeling is believing.” The feeling of arousal automatically causes a person to believe there is danger. If arousal is allowed to continue to mean danger, it is easy for psychic equivalence to hijack the mind and make the danger seem real, even when safe. In other words, a great deal of completely unnecessary anxiety results from regarding arousal as fear, and believing fear proves there is danger.

Clients have said that this realization, that fear and danger are two different things, has changed their life. So we need to do what we can to separate these three experiences. We need arousal to be arousal and nothing more.

The automatic sequence of arousal to fear to danger is like three dominos in a row. When the arousal domino tips over, it unbalances the fear domino, and as it topples, it causes the danger domino to fall. We can stop this short domino effect the same way we stop a longer domino effect. Each of the three elements needs to be neutralized.

Imagine a cartoon character who is feeling aroused.

  1. Pretend your friend is holding the arousal cartoon touching their face. This connects the calming quality of your friend’s face to the feeling of arousal.
  2. Pretend you are looking at the arousal cartoon with your friend and are having a conversation about it. This connects the calming quality of your friend’s voice to the feeling of arousal.
  3. As you talk about the arousal cartoon, imagine your friend is giving you a reassuring or an affectionate hug. This links your friend’s calming touch to the feeling of arousal.

Imagine a cartoon character who is feeling fear.

  1. Pretend your friend is holding the fear cartoon touching their cheek. Doing so connects the calming signals from your friend’s face to the feeling of fear.
  2. Pretend you are looking at the fear cartoon with your friend and are having a conversation about it. This connects the calming quality of your friend’s voice to the feeling of fear.
  3. As you talk about the fear cartoon, imagine your friend giving you a reassuring or affectionate hug. This links your friend’s calming touch to the feeling of fear.

Imagine a cartoon character who believes there is danger.

  1. Pretend your friend is holding the danger cartoon touching their cheek. Doing this connects the calming signals from your friend’s face to danger.
  2. Pretend you are looking at the danger cartoon with your friend and are having a conversation about it. This connects the calming quality of your friend’s voice to danger.
  3. As you talk about the danger cartoon, imagine your friend giving you a reassuring or an affectionate hug. This links your friend’s calming touch to danger.

This post has been excerpted from my book Panic Free Pandemic Workbook: Exercises To Calm Pandemic-Related Fear, Anxiety, and Claustrophobia.