Understanding and Embracing Fear

Fear - 2014 MHAMBC Day 10


Today’s blog prompt is a video, What Fear Has to Teach Us. As I watched the video, my mind kept wandering back to concepts I share with clients who experience irrational fear. This is what I teach them.

It helps to think of fear as a broad category, ranging from mild anticipation to sheer terror. The English language has provided us with words to describe nearly every intensity. Thesaurus.com lists 46 different synonyms for the word fear and 48 for anxiety. How many can you come up with?

The experience of fear is felt when chemicals are produced and released by the amygdala.  The amygdala is a tiny, pea-shaped organ deep in the center of the brain.  It is positioned near the top of the brain stem in the most primitive part of the brain.  When we experience fear, the amygdala releases chemicals that flood the prefrontal cortex and short-circuit it. This makes it nearly impossible to think rationally until the flood of chemical recedes and the feeling of fear abates.  If we are not exposed to any more fearful stimuli, this process can take up to 30 minutes.  This is the biological support for your mother’s encouragement to take a deep breath, relax, and take your time.

So fear stops us from thinking rationally.  Why in the world would our bodies prevent us from thinking rationally?  This process also releases cortisol & adrenaline, slows digestion, and speeds up blood flow to the extremities.  In essence, it triggers our natural “fight, flight, or freeze” instinct and prepares us to survive.  It is essentially an alarm system that warns us of danger.

Click here for a handout that helps visualize this process: Emotional Hijacking. You will need Adobe Reader to view this file.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t always work as intended.  All of us have been in situations where this alarm system gets triggered when there is, in fact, no danger at all.  How many times has your body alarm sounded when you were just thinking about the possibility of getting a migraine?  What about going to the ER?  Our body alarm starts triggering in anticipation of problems, doesn’t it?

It also gets triggered when we think about social events.  When was the last day you planned to be away from the house for more than an hour due to fear of a migraine attack? What about asking your best friend to please not wear the perfume that makes you sick? Oh, here’s one — have you held off asking about using FMLA benefits when you must take time off from work due to migraine out of fear of reprisal?  Do you avoid asking your doctor about the latest treatment  (Botox, for example) because you are afraid of the side effects?

Fear prepares us to fight, flee, or freeze. Everyone generally has a default response. However, every circumstance requires a different approach.  If we are not prepared in advance, our default response will take over, helpful or not.

There is a way to overcome this default response and reduce the intensity of our body’s alarm system. It’s called exposure.  It works by gradually and intentionally exposing yourself to the feared situation.  The more you experience that which you fear, the less fearful it becomes.

Watch the video, then compare both views of fear. How might you use this information to reduce the fear & anxiety associated with migraine? Post your responses below.

The 2014 Migraine and Headache Awareness Month, is dedicated to Dreaming of a World without Migraine and Headache Disorders. The 2014 Migraine and Headache Awareness Month Blog Challenge is a project of American Headache & Migraine Association.

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