Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Radical Ways to Renovate a House of Fear

Movement, breath, & wonder help you convert reactivity into creativity.

Fear and doubt can take over our bodies like obnoxious house guests whom, after a few years, we've unintentionally allowed to move in for the long haul.

You can take a quick survey, sort of like a house carbon test, to see if you're living in a house of fear: Erratic or shallow breathing? Physical agitation and trembling? A little irritable and excitable? Making sluggish progress on your projects?

These are the questions I'm sitting in: What do fear and doubt do to our creative lives? What are some radical ways to shift those emotions, ways that surpass psychoanalysis?

I'm sitting in these questions because I'm preparing to lead a group of people through a five-day experience at Massachusetts' Kripalu Center. We'll discover ways to convert reactivity into creativity. In attendance will be people whose career, relationships, identities, creative projects - all of the above - are in flux. We are, as a people and as a nation, frequently floating in confusion - and I'm most interested in how we can navigate that confusion to make it fertile for a creative life.

I'm also preparing to lead a select group of people through a special training that contends with fear on several levels. This training - that applies the latest science of yoga with that of creativity - will help this tribe overcome their own fears about facilitating so they, in turn, can compose safe experiences for writers, artists, and others to delve more deeply into their creative process - a process often blocked by deeply embedded patterns of fear.

Granted, there's good fear and good stress that propel us to and through our creative edge. But I've accumulated a wealth of anecdotal evidence - and reviewed the latest science - to know that positive emotions also correlate with increased and more effective creative productivity. Simply put, when we're feeling better, we think more flexibly and originally and we can produce more consistently.

More than likely, when fear and doubt rule, we don't progress on our projects. We get delusional about analyzing the causes of doubt rather than taking creative action. We feel sluggish one moment and excitable the next.

Before we know it, a veritable clan of emotional cousins whose names we barely know has taken over the living room.

One of my friends, who writes features for a major newspaper and who has published six novels, says (despite his frequent influenza and colds) he likes his body-mind the way it is: crowded, loud, and broken down.

The same writer friend also has told me that he often thinks he'd rather write a different kind of novel than the modern Western mysteries for which he duly has earned a reputation. Yet, whenever he starts one of his fantasy short stories, what does he hear? "If you're going to write fantasy, you'd better change your name, or else your fans and friends are going to laugh at you. Don't you think you should focus more on your feature or your novel that's a sure sell?" Ah, the Inner Heckler.

Success as a writer won't necessarily clean your house of the Heckler and its clan. In fact, success can breed more attachment to the fruits of our writing--the praise, the money, the recognition.

Years of ignoring fear and doubt can wreak havoc. We can unconsciously live in a fight-or-flight response. Our brain might sense danger, which triggers our heart to beat more quickly, and the endocrine system starts releasing excess amounts of adrenaline (the adrenaline rush) and cortisol. Although healthy in moderate amounts, too much cortisol can weaken the immune system and exacerbate a cycle of stress. Our breath quickens, and our digestive system virtually stops functioning. If our fears escalate to anxiety or panic, our abdomen can become distressed. Troubled breathing and shallow breathing, not surprisingly, correlate with coronary complications.

Few of us may have panic attacks when we create, but the point is that these strong emotions can override our desire to create and after several years break down our bodies and embodied minds. We don't have to create this way.

Here are five ways to start rebuilding your creative house from the foundation:

1. Get moving. Heart-pumping exercise generates more brain cells in an emotional region of the brain that governs fear. And yoga - yes, my practice of choice - can help us shape fear and doubt. Not just face them and definitely not suppress them. But transform them. Fear is not something to be "overcome," nor is fear a "moral blemish" as some classical Yoga texts suggest. Yoga can reduce the body's chemistry of fear. One yoga class significantly dropped levels of cortisol in students with mixed backgrounds in practicing Yoga, according to one recent study. Yoga asana, breath work, and meditation also slow down the frontal cortex's brain wave rhythms to the alpha wave frequency - a pattern correlated with relaxed focus instead of erratic fret.

2. Pay attention to your breath when you create. Pause after the exhalation. Sound hokey? Fine, but doing so calms the sympathetic nervous system (the fight-or-flight response). It also quiets brain activity. And I need all the help I can get. Even just lengthening the exhalation to twice as long as your inhalation can quiet the Heckler. I don't know how else to say it, but harnessing the out-breath with care and over extended periods of time can change the composition of your house.

The nerve network along your lower back's spine and the pit of your gut is often called your abdominal brain. Why? A lot happens here. The psoas meets the diaphragm, which moderates our respiration, and here much of our digestion occurs. Two thirds of our body's blood flows here.

Here we have guts or have a weak stomach for confrontation; we "have a spine" and stand up to fear and doubt, or we get nauseous and bend over. It's what the Japanese call the hara, their center, literally "gut." Zen master Daiun Sogaku Harada said, "You have to realize that the center of the universe is your belly-cave."

Granted, a few simple breaths and stretches alone will not renovate your house, but begin somewhere. Whether you seek inspiration, perspiration, or aspiration - they each come from the same root as respiration: spirare, the Latin meaning to breathe. And to harness your breath, I suggest in a recent interview and elsewhere, is one intentional way to influence some factors that shape the adaptive unconscious.

3. Untangle the psoas constrictor. A sixteen-inch serpent called the psoas muscle potentially constricts our courage and contains much of our body's and imagination's fear. Imagine a long, snakelike muscle attached near the middle of your spine (at the thoracic vertebra T12, to be exact) that connects to each of the five lower lumbar vertebrae (the lower back), through the pelvis, over the hip's ball and socket, and tails off at the thighbone's (femur's) lesser trochanter, not far from where your leg joins your hip.

Physiologically, the psoas supports the internal organs and helps secure the pelvis. Its sleek body resting at our own body's central core, this muscle also literally connects our upper and lower halves. The psoas's head at the midspinal area resides near the central diaphragm-a muscular structure that moderates our breathing. Embedded in the psoas's "body" along the lower (lumbar) spine are several nerves that work with the diaphragm.

With practice we can uncoil the psoas and change a potential psoas constrictor into a psoas elixir, a muscle that can work with us to release or at least re-direct our fears of creating and of exposing ourselves into giving ourselves the freedom to create and of mustering what existential psychologist Rollo May called "the courage to create."

Poses such as WARRIOR II (viribrid¯asana II), SIDE-ANGLE POSE (parsvakon¯asana), and some forward bends such as EXTENDED EAST-STRETCH POSE (paschim¯attan¯asana) help lengthen the psoas and give us room to breathe and move. We literally can create space in our bodies to breathe and for our cells to live so they don't, in a sense, suffer claustrophobia from living in a cramped, balled-up house.

4. Track wonder. Wonder is the emotional experience that delightfully surprises and puzzles us into recognizing the beauty and possibility of an idea, person, product, object, or ourselves. Wonder is not an escape from but a direct experience of reality. Wonder is at the heart of memorable art and of memorable business. A stealthy emotion, wonder has more obvious cousins - joy, delight, surprise, curiosity, admiration, gratitude. Practice paying attention to these emotions at least once a day - or put yourself in situations in which you will likely experience one of these emotions - and you'll be on wonder's path. Even playing 3 Highlights - reflecting upon each day's best three moments you want to remember - is a way to re-frame the seemingly most terrifying of days.

5. Replace fret with creative action. We can spend a lot of money and time trying to get to the bottom of why we're full of fear and doubt. There can be value in that analysis. But sometimes you're only left with a narrative explanation for your inertia but are still full of paralyzing fear.

I spend minimal time with clients or in Yoga as Muse or Tracking Wonder workshops analyzing possible causes of their fear and instead discuss how to replace the inaction with creative action. If you fear you're going to fail at writing a screenplay, start learning how to write a screenplay. If you fear you'll fall on your face if you try to develop yourself as a keynote speaker, start learning how to become a more confident, skilled speaker. If you doubt your abilities as an exquisite graphic artist, start learning from an exquisite graphic artist.

Good ol' Aristotle - one of my favorite thinkers who thought a lot about living a good life - said that "character is action." He meant "character" in terms of plays, and he meant "character" in terms of who we are. Actions, not emotions, define who we are, he suggested. When we create from a centered place and approach these feelings as something to be acknowledged, expressed, and tempered, maybe we can convert doubt and fear's fire one brush stroke or key stroke or pen stroke at a time.

Maybe, just maybe, you'll find yourself building a new house. Make room for fear. Just be sure it's not the living room or hearth.

What do you think? Am I oversimplifying matters here? How do you work with instead of against fear? I know there are a lot of creatives and some physically oriented people in our community here, so I'd love for you to add to the conversation.

See you in the woods,

A Journey from the Center to the Page: Yoga Philosophies and Practices as Muse for Authentic Writing

A Hut of Questions Blog: a meeting place to find delight, flourish in uncertainty, and craft a life that matters Consulting & Programs

More from Jeffrey Davis M.A.
More from Psychology Today