The world around us appears to be moving through some kind of transformation. Change abounds. And wherever there is change, there is usually fear. And wherever there is fear, there is usually an effort to suppress it. Or, often, to make it go away altogether.
But that is not how fear works; we cannot make it go away. It is not designed to be wired out of our neurophysiology—that would be disastrous, as fear is a wise, discerning, and often lifesaving emotion. It is an emotion that can offer us the guidance we need to live in alignment with the truest, most authentic parts of who we are. But sometimes it is the case, like right now, that the conditions of the external environment feel so threatening and uncertain that our fear overwhelms us, and we lose our ability to use the wisdom it offers to inform our choices and light our way.
Our struggle to experience fear as guidance comes, in part, from our childhood where we are often not taught to understand and have compassion for our fear. Rather, we are told to “get over it,” or we are advised to ignore it, override it, and sometimes even, “transcend it.” Often, as children, we sit alone in our fear, with no one to comfort us and reassure us that everything will be okay. In such cases, we are left to our own devices to figure out what to do with our fear so we can successfully adapt to our environment, and feel safe and secure in our attachments to those we love and who are responsible for keeping us alive.
Lost in this approach to fear is the opportunity to learn the valuable role fear can play in our choices. Also lost is the opportunity to become skilled at regulating our fear so that it does not overwhelm us and cloud our perception. Moreover, when fear is deemed negative, feelings of shame for the fear we are experiencing arise and become associated with the fear we are feeling. Shame and fear then become linked up and are carried into our adulthood where we often feel painfully bad about ourselves if we are feeling afraid, worried, anxious, or overwhelmed. “What’s wrong with me? Other people don’t feel anxious about these things.” This, or some version of this, is a common refrain I hear in my practice. And it is simply not true.
With the pandemic, I have, naturally, seen a heightened fear response in my patients and in my unscientific observations of the people around me; responses that often appear to be just as much about their past as they are about present reality. Even I have experienced old fear response patterns lately, reminding me of old experiences when I felt powerlessness in the face of threat; past experiences that tried to convince me that what I see happening in the present is exactly what happened in the past, so it’s time to panic because things are not going to end well. Thankfully, the insight I have gleaned from my own therapy has helped me to see that my initial reaction to the pandemic was informed by my trauma, not by the reality of what is happening in the here-and-now. This is the work I have been doing with my patients as well—honoring the natural fear reaction to the pandemic, while also helping them to see how their present fear response is also informed by their past trauma or past fear-based experiences wherein they felt powerless in the face of threat or overwhelming situations or circumstances.
The importance of acknowledging and validating your fear response and other elevated emotion states is vital. For example, the coronavirus is a very real thing; it is invisible, potentially omnipresent, and life-threatening. Fear is a natural and normal response to such a phenomenon and should be validated and held with compassion. However, at the very same time, it is important to keep in mind that your present perception is always being informed by your past experiences—old experiences of fear, uncertainty, and powerlessness that also need to be understood, validated, and held with compassion.
To know what experiences are informing your perception of present reality and influencing your emotional reactions, including your fear, can help you regulate your nervous system response to the changeability and uncertainty in the world around you. It also helps you discern the difference between present fear and past fear. But how do you do this? How do acquaint yourself with the emotional history that lives in your body and learn the ways in which it is informing your perception and, therefore, your reaction to the present moment, including your response to the pandemic?
Access to the emotional memories that carry old fear can be gained through mindful somatic awareness (MSA), a meditative practice designed to help facilitate connection to your mind-body consciousness, the place where your emotional memories are archived. To help facilitate MSA, it is helpful to use the acronym SOAR, which stands for Sense, Observe, Articulate, and Reflect. For example, to sense is to turn your attention to your somatic self and become aware of the sensations vibrating in your body. To observe is to sit in awareness of your body sensations without judging them or pushing them away. To articulate means to describe the sensations you observe. And to reflect is to sit in contemplation of your felt sense experience and explore with curiosity the messages embedded in your sensations, so you can begin to cultivate a deeper understanding of your felt sense experience.
When you SOAR in MSA, you can connect to the deeper, dynamic layers of your fear and anxiety—layers that carry the emotional resonance of your past. SOAR-ing will also help down-regulate your nervous system, mitigating any anxiety or heightened emotion you may be experiencing.
What follows is a simple exercise to get you started in the practice of MSA:
Find a quiet place where you will not be disturbed. Then, close your eyes and bring your attention to your breath, gradually expanding your attention to the rest of your body. Once you feel more body-aware, ask yourself the following questions while pausing to SOAR after each question.
- What emotion am I feeling right now?
- Why might I be feeling this way?
- How was my fear responded to when I was a child?
- When I think of feeling powerless, what is the first memory that comes to mind?
- When I think of feeling strong and in command, what is the first memory that comes to mind?
- What do I need in this moment and what can I do to meet that need?
As you answer each of these questions, you may feel frustrated with the process or overwhelmed by the surge of emotion that comes up. These are normal reactions when you first engage this exercise. Should this happen, simply be patient and allow what is to come through. Believe it or not, honoring and validating your emotional experience facilitates a mysterious alchemy that transmutes fear and anxiety into deeper understanding of what you are feeling and why. It also invites a quiet acceptance of your emotional response and a felt sense knowing of what your mind-body needs to help reassure your heart.
Michele L. Blume, PsyD, SEP, is a licensed clinical psychologist, somatic experiencing practitioner (SEP), and certified Reiki practitioner. Her work focuses on mind-body integration to heal developmental trauma, and to restore and deepen one’s sense of self.