Dealing with Fear: Staking Out Your Square Foot of Sanity

DSCF5507In the heated debates of the current political arena I find myself both incredulous and frustrated, sometimes hysterical with laughter and other times quaking in my boots. People are pairing off, dueling with harsh words of opposition or reciting endless lists of factual and imagined grievances of the opposing position. Sometimes it reminds me of the riot scene from the movie Young Frankenstein*.
Casual friends, social media acquaintances and even family members can barely stand to be at the same table with each other. High level discussions are carried on as if it were a life or death matter, and sadly, some of it is just that. I’ve found myself after one or more similar discussions, silently wondering (or aloud to others) about these frustrating on often unproductive conversations:
What could I possibly do to connect with this person? They seem so set in their beliefs and so vehemently opposed to any position except their own. Can’t they see the clear danger their cherished candidate/position is promoting? How can they not see what is going on?
I see by the numerous posts on social media and in discussions over coffee with friends and family that I’m not alone. Many conclude they may simply be light years apart from others in their core beliefs, that the chasm is just too vast.
But, the dynamics that underlay these often polarizing conversations may go much deeper than simply having differing views and core beliefs. The influences that support the divisive contention and resulting backlash is more complex than we might imagine: it may have to do with a biochemical response to fear that is produced by the body and the brain.
Fear-mongering, whether through the dispensing of it or hearing of it, has been used as a successful tactic in motivation and manipulation since the beginning of time and, it can be quite addictive. Fear creates a biochemical reaction in the brain that releases adrenaline and other stress hormones. These biochemicals are then released into the bloodstream resulting in a sort of hormone-induced high that gets us all jacked up and ready to take on any obstacle in our way. Once this “high” wears off we feel flat, spent. We may even feel melancholy or with a lingering irritation.  Some of the side effects of spent adrenaline include exhaustion, depression and anger, we may find ourselves unconsciously reaching for another adrenaline “fix”. It’s like watching a train wreck–we want to turn away but somehow we cannot avert our attention from the awesome and terrible gore.
Unchecked fear has some very curious effects and may leave people open to being easily manipulated.When we’re over-stimulated by fear, whether it’s a short-term intense reaction or more subtle but constant exposure over time, the brain begins to shut down the prefrontal cortex to conserve energy as mind and body enter survival mode. Logic and reasoning go out the window as the brain focuses on what it believes is the most immediate threat and what it can reasonably manage in the present. The greater the threat, the need for more singular focus. Everything else is put on the back burner. The mind perceives danger and reacts: it believes it is the time to set our defenses, not for waxing philosophical. It’s the mind and body’s very effective and essential way of keeping us alive when we perceive a threat.
In this ongoing state of threat, whether real or imagined, the individual is immersed in survival mode thinking and tends to grasp at any “fact” to support their position. If there is no voice of calm reason (internal or external) or time taken away from the steady diet of trauma-drama the ability to take in new information is curtailed. Everything looks dark, darker, and black. If we get caught up in the fear cycle we’ll engage exclusively with like-minded people, seeking out data and media resources that support our position and mirror our inner state of alarm. We’ll have little interest in the truth of the matter. In fact, those who oppose our beliefs may create more fear or even activate our rage.
So…what to do if we find ourselves stuck in this merry-go-round of fear? It’s hard to have reasonable discussions on highly-charged subjects when we’re not grounded, when our own fears have become imbalanced. Here are a few steps to help you stay grounded and open during fearful times.
Take care of yourself! This is the first rule in survival training: You can’t be of any use to others if you don’t take of yourself first. Go on a media fast. Put away all electronic devices, printed or other media sources. One 24-hour period a week would be optimal or, at the very least, create a media-free zone every day. The dinner hour is a great place to start. Taking a media break is not a denial of what’s happening in the world but more akin to a mini reboot of mind and spirit. This allows for a renewed perspective so we might more clearly see the greater forces at work.
Second, don’t forget to laugh, play, and have fun. Give your heart and mind a rest from the turmoil. Hug a friend. Have a long soak in the tub. Play with your dog. Have a water balloon fight! Do anything but engage in more  of what triggers your fear cycle. Having a few heart-felt moments can reconnect us with a sense of community and remind us of what’s really important in life.
In Five Element medicine Fear is the emotion that is associated with the element of Water. Being in, near or around water may help to sooth and calm your spirit and allow pent up emotions to flow more easily.
DSCF4206Find some areas of commonality. Believe it or not, most people’s core concerns, even those on wildly opposing sides, are often quite similar. If opposing parties can find even one shared common interest, the door may open to more expansive conversation. In doing so you just might see that even though you may vigorously disagree as to the possible solution to a particular problem, you are united in your concerns and aspirations. Talk about your fears and hopes, your dreams for the future. Sometimes just speaking about these things out loud and being truly heard by another can reset our fear cycle.
The true purpose of fear is to keep us alert to danger, assess the risks and take appropriate action. If we notice our fears are overwhelming us, simply talking about them with a compassionate listener can reduce our fear and the effects it has on our body, mind and spirit. By expressing our fears in a balanced way we can stay open to clear-minded thinking. In taking a moment to get quiet, we can more easily access our inner wisdom.
Be the calm voice of reason. People who are fearful often respond positively to reassurance or a kind word directed toward something that is uplifting to both parties. Remember there’s a lot more to this world than the horror show that is the political arena right now or the dire state of the world as reflected in the mass media. at the very least we can reassure each other that we all care about family, safety, and a better future for our children.
Fight Fair. If you must argue, to stand up for what you believe to be right from the very core your being, do it with someone you can trust not to throw you under the bus emotionally or intellectually. Frustration and anger are natural responses to unaddressed fear and arguing may be a way that some choose to express that emotional charge. Some (like me) thoroughly enjoy a good verbal sparring match if both parties can come out shaking hands and retain their respect for each other. Resist name-calling and inferences that the other party is ignorant or in denial or both. Don’t use shame to manipulate others or to denigrate their beliefs. Avoid trying to dominate another with your position or your righteousness, it will only create more resistance. Here’s a good rule to follow.: If you wouldn’t want it done to you, don’t do it!
IMG_2815Lastly, try to remember that we’re all struggling to find our way. In order to respond effectively in times of fear it’s important to stay grounded yet flexible, to stand clearly on what you know in your heart to be true yet remain open to seeing the world through another’s eyes. It’s important to hear others and to be heard. If you are truly grounded in your convictions, temporarily looking at the world through the eyes of another will not weaken your position but may just open your heart. Examine your core beliefs and don’t be afraid to have them challenged. If you cannot stand for your beliefs to be challenged perhaps they are not serving you as well as you thought. Try to find compassion for those that scare you the most. Honor and respect your fear, not to let it overwhelm you or render you immobile, but to alert you to what really matters in the present moment.
With Blessings and Grace to All,
*I highly recommend watching the movie Young Frankenstein starring Gene Wilder and Terry Garr.

Finding Joy In Times of Profound Trouble

In Five Element medicine, Summer is the season for growth, maturing, heart-centered connection, intimacy, joy, communication and happiness. Fire is the element associated with the season of Summer.Fire.jpg
The tragic events this summer (and sadly, nearly every day since) represent the very antithesis of the balanced attributes of Summer Fire. Violence, unrest, miscommunication, greed, rampant fear, and bigotry seem to be present everywhere we turn. These tragedies seem too much to take in, too much for our hearts to process.
Discouragement, apathy, sadness, bitterness, lack of warmth (both physical and emotional), lack of passion, and profound loneliness are all natural responses to experiencing or witnessing trauma. Prolonged exposure to trauma, cruelty, intolerance, bigotry, loss, and indifference  can lead to an imbalance in the season of Summer. Our fire has run low.
Our hearts may literally ache with the pain and suffering that surrounds us, permeating us to our very core. But, how do we reconnect with our joy in times of great distress? We may even wonder…Should we?

We were created to life a joy-filled life. Joy is the emotion essential in keeping the heart healthy and balanced.  Joy comes in many forms from a subtle smile to high-intensity ecstasy. But without regular engagement with joy, a key emotion that supports our health and happiness, the heart grows heavy.

But, what if the burdens of the world seem too much? How do we counter the pain and suffering we experience? When sadness and loneliness start to feel overwhelming  consider engaging in some of the following heart-centered activities to lift your heart:

DSCF7718 Good conversation with a good listener– Never underestimate the power of open and honest communication. Everyone needs a sacred witness. Let it all out. Don’t try to sanitize or “spiritualize” or explain your feelings away. The burdens if the world weigh heavily upon all our hearts and those burdens are not meant to be borne alone. In turn, learn to be a good listener for others. Caution: Be sure to engage with someone who is trustworthy, someone you can trust to handle your heart with gentleness, love, and respect. Someone who can really hear you without a need to offer unsolicited advice or try to “fix” you.

AnoleEncounter Beauty–  Beauty soothes, moves and heals the heart like nothing else. Whether you find beauty in art, music, a sunset, your lover’s touch, a child’s smile, or a beloved pet, take the time to  encounter something beautiful every day. I never fail to find beauty in the plant world. I’m fascinated by their limitless variety of colors, shapes, and growth patterns, and those mysterious flowers! Each bloom is unique and sometimes even to the individual plant itself. Taking a short walk in nature to commune with plants always lifts my spirits.

July 2013 069.jpgLaughter and Play– Though troubling times may seem like the last place for laughter and play these powerful (and highly underrated) expressions  of Joy can literally transform our spirits. Laughter and play (unstructured time for fun) are some of the most healing things we can do for our battered hearts. If you observe the actions of children you will notice that they can, in an instant, drop their hurt, tears, anger–what have you– with an offer to play. While you’re at it don’t forget to laugh. Hang around with people who know how to have a good time, watch a funny movie, take note of the playful antics of your pet. Remember what makes you smile and go find someone to share it with.

Loving Touch– Everyone needs touch. Gentle, soothing touch can go a long way in healing a troubled heart. It can be sexual or not, but it should always be respectful and clearly invited. Hugs, kisses, a hand on the arm, gentle tender caresses have profound healing power. Don’t be afraid to ask for touch when you need it.

Honor Your Heartache– Though sometimes painful beyond words, wounds of the heart can both soften and strengthen us. They can teach us to respect and revere the frailty and sanctity of life. The can teach us to find preciousness in the present moment. Give your heartache the honor and space it needs. Allow it to teach you to become vulnerable to love. Gently soothe and tend to your suffering and, to the suffering of others.

IMG_0245Take a Break– Watching trauma and drama can be addictive. Turn off the radio and TV. Put away the paper and all electronic devices. Give your heart and mind a much needed rest. Instead, take a nap, go dancing, enjoy your favorite hobby, go for a walk or drive or go do one of the above activities. Take a weekly media fast; go at least 24 hours without picking up your phone or computer. Let your calls go to voicemail. I promise you that you will survive. Rest is essential in restoring balance and sanity.

Having a healthy balanced heart ensures that we will have the strength to move through difficult times with grace, courage, and clarity. A balanced heart doesn’t deny our pain and suffering but finds a place of joy in the midst of it.

Sending You Much Joy and Laughter,