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How to Overcome Chronic Fear and Anxiety
Posted by Dr. Ben Kim
If you are finding it difficult to overcome tendencies to experience fear and anxiety about a health condition or any other aspect of your life, I hope that you realize that you are not alone. Fear and anxiety are emotions that are common to every person's life journey, but especially for those who are living with a long-standing health challenge.
A short while ago, a gentleman whom I have been working with shared the following thoughts with me:
"I have the hardest time not getting anxious or depressed about my health condition. I know that having so much anxiety about my situation is only worsening it, but I cannot seem to help this.
"If you were in my situation, what would you do? How would you think? How do I overcome the fear that I have that my situation will progress to the worst possible scenario?"
To this person and anyone else who feels this way, I hope that you are encouraged in knowing that you recognize that chronic anxiety and fear are hurting your health. I also hope that you understand how significant it is that you are earnestly looking to experience peace of mind; there are many folks in this world who are too deeply entrenched in chronic fear and anxiety to be able to recognize how harmful these emotions are to their health, and these folks simply may not have the wherewithal at the present time to search for a way out.
Overcoming chronic fear and anxiety requires an understanding of where these emotions come from. Ultimately, these emotions come from your head. Literally.
You see, fear and anxiety are memories that are storied in specific regions in your brain. The three most prominent such regions are:
- Your cerebellum
- Your basal ganglia
- Your amygdalae (bulbs that hang off the ends of your medial temporal lobes)
The fear and anxiety-related memories that you have stored in these regions of your brain can be triggered by any number of stimuli in your everyday life to produce your emotional experiences of fear and anxiety in the present.
Your body is designed to store and recall emotional memories in this fashion to keep you alive. For example, to have the stimulus of seeing a big fire in your home trigger your emotional memory of fear (stored in your amygdalae) is a good thing, as your fear prompts you to take quick action to preserve your life.
The problem with chronic fear and anxiety that are triggered by stimuli that do not present acute danger to your life is that these emotions sap your resources, causing your self healing and preserving mechanisms to dwindle in efficiency. So the longer you experience chronic fear and anxiety, the worse your overall health becomes.
My personal belief, established over the years through personal and professional experiences, is that overcoming chronic fear and anxiety requires that you create memories that can modify or simply overpower the memories in your head that are currently responsible for your chronic fear and anxiety. But this is no easy task, as your current memories are deeply established patterns of connections that exist between the trillions of interactive surfaces that exist between the billions of nerve cells that make up your brain.
To give you a clear idea of the depth of complexity we are talking about, please consider the following data:
- The average personal computer has approximately 100 billion bytes (100 GB)
- The print collection of the Library of Congress in the United States is composed of approximately 32 trillion bytes
- Your brain contains up to 1,000 trillion synapses
As an article on memory in the November 2007 issue of the National Geographic puts it:
"A memory is a stored pattern of connections formed by the brain's neurons, or nerve cells.
"A chemical neurotransmitter released by one neuron signals another.
"Each point of connection is called a synapse, and the average adult brain holds trillions."
To create health-promoting memories that are powerful enough to free you from a chronic state of fear and anxiety requires that you work hard at being mindful of the thoughts that you choose on a moment-to-moment basis. Because the thoughts that you choose are what ultimately shape your beliefs and the new memories that are being formed in the three emotional memory-related regions of your brain.
If you are skeptical of how much power you have to overcome chronic fear and anxiety via the thoughts that you choose and the beliefs that you adopt, please consider the remarkable story of Roger Bannister, the first man to run a mile in under 4 minutes.
Before Roger Bannister broke the 4-minute barrier, people felt that it was not physically possible for a human being to run a mile in under 4 minutes.
During his training sessions, Roger repeatedly visualized himself running a mile in under 4 minutes. He did this so often that he got to a point where there were moments when he felt that he had already done it – his imagination had crossed the border into his perception of reality. Put another way, he created enormously powerful emotional memories of his desired goal.
Ultimately, Roger Bannister broke the 4-minute mile barrier because he believed that it was possible.
The most fascinating part of Roger Bannister's story is that after he broke the 4-minute barrier, it was broken 26 times the following year. And as track and field enthusiasts know, it has been broken thousands of times since then.
In retrospect, we can see that when Roger Bannister broke the 4-minute barrier, he also broke the collective belief that human beings couldn’t run a mile in under 4 minutes. When others realized that it was possible, they too, began to believe they could do it, which led to them manifesting their beliefs.
When I first learned of Roger Bannister's story, I had just graduated from chiropractic school at 23 years of age and had moved out to the San Francisco bay area. While I had confidence in my abilities and hope for a meaningful future, I was extremely insecure about my ability to make a living and find someone to start a family with because of a skin condition called vitiligo that I developed when I was 19. At that time, I strongly felt that my unusual physical appearance would make it difficult for me to make a living and find a life partner.
Roger Bannister's story inspired me to begin the practice of spending quality time each day visualizing the life I envisioned, and imagining as vividly as I possibly could that my goals were already reality. I thought about these things throughout the day as I worked, and I made it a point to stop by a place called the Berkeley Marina each evening on my way home from work to sit by the San Francisco bay, look out at the Golden Gate bridge, and let the sunset and rolling waves be my companions while I taught my nervous system how I wanted to live my life.
During the six months that I devoted myself to the practice of mindfully choosing my thoughts, I developed a foundation of emotional strength and understanding that allowed me to make significant progress in overcoming the anxiety that I had about my physical appearance.
And to this day, I take every opportunity possible to go within and use my thoughts to remind my nervous system and spirit of the best intentions that I have for my existence and potential to serve my family and others. Even on days when I can only do this for a few minutes while I am falling asleep with our toddler son, I derive great peace of mind from this practice.
If you are interested in practicing visualization and the process of choosing mindful thoughts to overcome emotional obstacles that are hurting your quality of life, I encourage you to begin slowly, to do just a bit each day, and to remember that lasting results often don't come quickly. Remember: the goal is to create powerful memories within your nervous system that can overpower or perhaps replace existing memories that are the source of your current fears and anxiety. Based on my experiences, I strongly believe that creating such helpful memories takes much repetition and time. But each time you consciously visualize what you want, you are etching countless synaptic pathways in your emotional memory centers that can one day become prominent enough to allow you to experience peace of mind on a consistent basis.
Please note: if you find it difficult to maintain your focus on desirable thoughts as you practice visualizing your ideal life, you may find it helpful to use headphones to listen to peaceful and soothing music and/or sounds of nature while you visualize. I like and use a relaxation CD called Earth Rain.
For comprehensive help with using guided imagery and visualization to improve your health, I highly recommend that you take a look at Guided Imagery for Self-Healing - this is the book that introduced me to the power that our thoughts have to influence every aspect of our lives.
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