Not that I wish to shed doubt on Tolstoy or anything, but the real opposite of peace is not war. It’s fear.
In a previous blog I talked about what inner peace really is (read it here). So, today I’m gonna look a little more closely at fear.
The nature of fear
We’ve all heard of the reptilian brain, yes? That deep part of our brain that is all about survival instinct. It’s whole job is to keep us alive and its attention is drawn to anything that looks like it might threaten our ability to survive or thrive.
Basically, this part of our brain is there purely to be afraid. That’s what keeps us alive.
But, unlike animals, who all have this same instinct-based threat detector in their brains, humans have the unique ability to think ourselves into a perceived threat.
We only have to think about something threatening that happened once, or that might happen in the future, and we trigger this deep part of our brain, alerting it that there’s a threat present.
And when that part of the brain triggers, it sends a whole barrage of messages to the body, preparing you to deal with the threat. These are the famous flight, fright or freeze responses.
For our animal selves, a “threat” is something that is probably wanting to kill you. So a body that is primed to fight back, run fast or stay so still it may go unnoticed are the primary ways to avoid death.
When we trigger our threat detector with thoughts of scary things from the past or potentially in the future, we set of the same range of responses in our body. Only, there is no actual, present danger – there’s nothing to fight, run from or stay undetected by.
Thus, all that physical change that readies us for flight, fight or freeze becomes more commonly known as our stress response. I’ve talked about the damage that a constantly triggered stress response can do to the body in a previous blog (read it here). Suffice to say, this is likely the cause of most of your pain, sickness and unhappiness.
The body in fear is not in peace
When we’re in fear (or stress), and our body is getting all kinds of flight, fight or freeze messages, our internal environment is not one of peace.
When our brain’s threat detector is triggered it releases hormones that (among other things):
- increase our alertness, which means we are more likely to be skittish and anxious, not sleep so well, be easily distracted.
- tense our muscles, preparing us to fight, which, over time, means they can develop tension issues, cramps and freeze up.
- stop digestion and reproduction processes, meaning that we get less nutrients, retain and gain weight, experience fertility and monthly cycle disruption and crave fats and sugars.
As we keep thinking about these scary things from the past or that may happen in the future, we re-ignite the threat detector, which reinforces our sense that there’s a threat imminent. This can become habitual, meaning we can’t stop the worry and fear (there’s a complex neurological cycle here, which I wont go into, but I suggest reading The Fear Cure, by Lissa Rankin, for a more in-depth look at the issue of fear).
When stress or fear hormones are constantly pulsing through the body, overtime the body gets weary and wears out, repair and healing don’t happen, tension takes over – things get bad for the body.
And the psyche is no different. Whirring thoughts, anxiety, depression, attention issues, inability to just “be present”, always fidgeting, never relaxing, always needing distraction – these are all psychological responses to over-stimulated threat detectors!
Peace is the antithesis of fear.
When we start to seek inner peace, what we’re really doing is removing the fear and all these associated repercussions.
Learning to sit still, slow the mind, be present, rest the body, exist without distraction for a while – these all turn off the threat detector and turn on the peace builder (parasympathetic nervous system). This peace builder system restores balance, healing, digestion, reproduction and relaxation to the body.
This is why I go on and on about meditation and resting practices. Everything hangs on them!
If we don’t engage in peace-inducing practices, we are essentially allowing fear to have free reign over our lives. And that will not go anywhere good.
Deep, unconscious fear – the real threat to inner peace
If we want to live in more peace and less fear, we need to deal with the internal thinking that triggers the threat detector. And that boils down to dealing with fear.
What are you really afraid of?
Just asking the question is a good start, but usually it doesn’t quite get to the root of our fears. That’s because we’re often not aware of the things we really fear.
We may easily identify a few key fears – I’m scared of spiders, flying, walking under ladders. If these fears plague you when you’re not in a plane, staring at a spider or near a ladder, then you may need to deal with them more seriously….they probably more closely align to phobias at that stage.
But for most of us, our deepest fears are not these easily identifiable things.
The real peace-ruiners are the more unconscious, social fears that dictate our inner lists of “shoulds” and “should nots”. These are ideas we hold but don’t question, of how things ought to be, what good people do, things I must do.
As a coach, I see these everywhere and they make a lot of people very unhappy.
Here are some real life examples:
1. This week I discussed with a friend the fact that, in her family, there was no room for anyone to really care about their own health and well being. Everyone was expected to smile and enjoy being with the family, even if it meant she didn’t get any time alone with her husband for weeks on end, even if she desperately needed to sleep after a busy week, even if she couldn’t stand some of the members of her family.
These are all social expectations that are driven by fear – if she chose her husband, sleep or authentic relationships over those on offer in her family, the fear of what would be said about her, to her and the rejection she risked were all setting off her threat detector. Therefore, she smiled and attended, as expected.
She justified it to herself as an “I have to” belief. It was “just the way it is with my family.”
2. I am a great lover of the long, slow meal. When time allows it, I love sitting down at a really comfortable table about 4pm, with a cool drink and some snacks, and taking the next 4-5 hours to work through a slow, relaxed meal with good conversation. But I have a friend (well, several actually), who seems unable to do this. She can’t sit down and relax at her table for more that about 15 mins tops (I’ve kinda timed it….).
Something in her mind has triggered her threat response – maybe she thinks if she doesn’t clear, someone else will, and that would make her a bad person, lazy or uncaring; maybe she’s afraid of a lull in motion, because she’ll be naturally drawn to what is deeper within her, and there are uncomfortable emotions that scare her there; maybe she’s been raised with a belief that eating shouldn’t be deeply time consuming, as if something productive will not get done if we spend too much time just enjoying ourselves. So meals with her never feel relaxed and easy.
She justifies this to herself as “I’m busy, I have to do it, it’s the way my mother taught me and it’s right”
3. An older woman I know can never relax, always worrying about her children, grandchildren, brothers and sisters and their kids. And there are a lot of people in that circle – there will always be someone or something that seems worth worrying about to her. The trouble is, none of it really needs her to worry. None of that worry changes her actions or the outcomes for those involved. But something within her seems to “need” something to worry about. Her mind filters through all the news she hears on the grapevine and she focuses on the negatives, setting off her threat detector (on behalf of everyone else).
She has a belief that a good mother/grandmother must always be worried about her children/grandchildren. She has a belief that the worst outcome in any situation is automatically so bad, it will be intolerable and therefore must be worried about. Underneath this, I strongly suspect she fears being without worry, because then she’d have to find something else in life from which she could derive meaning and purpose. And that can be very scary.
She justifies this to herself as “I’d be uncaring, unfeeling and cruel if I didn’t worry – worrying is a sign I love people“.
In all three scenarios, the habits and “normal behaviour” for these three women are simply the outworking of an unconscious, deep chronic fear of social shame, rejection and unloveability. If they chose authenticity and peace instead, they’d risk being seen as selfish, lazy, cruel, unloving, rude, a failure of a woman/mother/daughter/friend/host.
Consequently, they believe their fears and none of these three women experience real peace.
As a side note, all of these women have some kind of chronic pain, depression or anxiety issues.
Stopping fear and growing peace
Here are the main tips I have for turning off your triggered threat detector and finding peace.
Start with reason
I don’t usually start with combatting the mind by using the mind, but if you’re living with threat detectors that guide behaviour (like the three women in the examples above) it can be a great first step.
Start writing down when you notice yourself using “should”, “have to” or “can’t not” type language.
Write down what you’re choosing to do at these times, and why. Try to be honest about what you really want to do or not do in these situations. Go deep and ask “What would happen if I did what I really wanted?”. Access the social fear – the repercussions that seem so scary.
In the examples above, the women would ask:
- “What would happen if I said no to family and chose time with my husband instead?” (example 1);
- “What would happen if I sat at the table enjoying wine and friends, with the dishes still on the table, for a whole hour after the meal finished?” (example 2);
- “What would happen if I assumed everyone could handle their own lives and just enjoyed something pleasurable for myself for an afternoon?” (example 3).
Let your fearful self go crazy with the answer, turn the fear up to 10, as in:
“OMG, I would totally die, my family would completely freak out, they’d be at my door with torches and pitchforks, they’d gossip about me the whole afternoon, I’d get dirty looks and snide remarks for the rest of my life and they’d call me selfish, evil, hateful, cruel, superior and very, very bad. I’d die. My family would hate me. I’d melt into a ball of crap and cease to exist.”.
The crazier you let yourself get, the more satisfying it will be because you’ll realise that what you fear isn’t really likely. Most of it is in your head, out of proportion and way melodramatic. Yeah, your family might be shocked and gossip a bit – but can you really not cope with that?
Question your thinking
The above process will help you identify all the beliefs that are leading you to stress (like “I wont cope if my family gossip about me when I choose not to join them”). Some will clearly be silly, and you’ll have the ability to drop them.
But there will always be some that actually feel true. It may seem very true that your family will gossip about you if you’re not there! Highlight these ones and take them through the Byron Katie Inquiry processes. You can read more about that on her website, thework.com . Start with the Judge Your Neighbor Worksheet, to really nut out the belief you’re holding (ie that your family shouldn’t gossip about you). And then, you take your thoughts through her inquiry process, which is basically asking the following questions:
a) is the thought true?
b) is it really true? (ie have you got proof?)
c) who are you when you believe this thought?
d) who would you be if you could not believe this thought?
She’ll then get you to determine a few opposite thoughts, such as “my family should gossip about me” and ask you to find evidence that this may be true too (for example: They should gossip about me because that’s who they are. I’m wanting to be who I am when I choose not to go to the family event, so I can’t really expect them not to be who they are).
It can be a long process but SO worthwhile. And it is a true fear-buster.
Next, meditate and rest
Calming the body, mind and spirit is essential for peace. I talk a lot about these (read just about any blog I’ve ever written) because they are the keys to the kingdom. They’ll turn off your threat detector, turn on your peace hormones, restore your body’s healing and restoration systems, make you happier, give you more enjoyment in life and help you find purpose, meaning and depth.
What’s not to love there??
Luckily, I have tools to help you!
For meditation, a great place to start is with Dan Howard’s Intentional Resting recording, available here.
Ready for a daily meditation practice? I have a new series of meditations with an associated workbook, coming out in a few weeks, you can pre-purchase for a reduced price here.
Want to take your resting and meditation to a whole different place? Sign up for notification of my Bali Resting Retreats for 2018, and you’ll be notified when they are scheduled.
If you’re still struggling with fear, tension and a lack of inner peace, I’d love to help you one-on-one. We can find the path that works for you, to give you a life where inner peace is normal and life feels beautiful to live. Book a complimentary Starting Whole session here and start the journey today.