Working With Your Fear: Taming the Lizard

This morning, a beautiful Sunday sleep-in morning, I woke with a busy mind.  I started to worry about money. I started to worry about the people I needed to email and send notes to. I remembered that we never sent out thank you notes for my son's birthday gifts. I started to criticize myself for not being better at following through with things.  What in the world is going on with ISIS? Or is it ISIL? I felt scared and anxious, so then I started to beat myself up for feeling fear. Happy Sunday morning. It was 5:45am.

Fear is a natural and normal part of the human experience. As a coach, it is the number ONE issue that I work with my clients on.  You never "get over" fear.  Despite all the wonderful, uplifting Pinterest pictures and internet memes, you are never truly FEARLESS.  Rather, you learn to work with your fear. 

Our brains are wired for fear. Our primitive brain, which my teacher Martha Beck calls the Lizard Brain, has a key job, which is to make sure that in danger, we can fight, run far away, or freeze ourselves to hide. This is a critical part of our survival as a species. 

However, it is not necessary for those survival hormones and neural firings to happen when there is no real threat. When the threat in question is but a thought, a STORY that we have made up, the need to go into fight, flight, and freeze is unwarranted. 

Yet, this is where most of us live a great deal of the time. 

So, how do you cope when you wake up with fear? How do you work with your Lizard brain so that you can manage your fear in an appropriate way?

1. Name your lizard. 
My lizard's name is Bartholomew, or Bart.  For some reason, he's a he, not a she.  I am very vocal about Bart, so much that my husband knows about Bart and will often ask if it's me talking or if it's Bart. It helps to know that you are not your fear. You are not the stories you make up. When you separate yourself from your lizard (or your ego) you can see that you can make the choice to lean into your fear or lean away from it. 

2. Recognize your lizard's presence. 
When you feel your lizard, say hello.  Notice that you are feeling fear, that it is not YOU, but rather your lizard brain trying to protect you.  This stops you being on automatic pilot and being wildly reactive to your fear and anxiety. Often our fear directly changes our behavior.  We text people messages that could ignite world wars, we hide from our feelings by ingesting pints of Funky Monkey, we curl in a ball under the covers, we lash out at our friends and family with sharp tongues.  When you get good at recognizing when your lizard pops his or her head out, you can stop, become aware of your fear, and then move on to step 3. 

3. Calm your lizard. 
Once you've noticed the presence of your lizard, and you know that there is no real danger (this is key!) then it's time to calm your lizard the hell down. Here is the most important part of this whole article. No matter how hard you try to calm your lizard with your mind, you will not be able to.

You can't calm your brain with your brain.  You have to use your BODY.  

To calm yourself, you need to tell your brain that you are no longer in danger.  You do this by taking 3 deep breaths. These breaths consist of taking a longer exhale than inhale. So, for example, you would inhale for 7 counts, and exhale for 11 counts. Do this 3 times. 

The reason this works is that our primitive brain takes a cue from our body that if we are able to take deep breaths we are not in danger. We can't take deep inhales and long exhales if we are running from a predator or needing to get away from a dangerous threat. The body relaxes immediately and your system starts to reset.  

Your lizard calms down. He goes back to sleep. It's a miracle of epic proportions. 

4. Consider an alternative story. 
When you are calm, consider how you are in the current moment.  Most of our fears are stories from the past that are already experiences that are long gone, or projections to the future that has not happened yet and that is but a dream. What is going on in the current moment? Are you safe?  What do you need right now to feel better? For me on this early Sunday morning it was a warm cup of coffee, a laptop to write, and an orange cat snuggled up at my side. 

Now, in this moment, everything is better. The thoughts of my mind are no longer jangled, and I can calmly sort our what needs to take place.  I feel happy, content, and warm.  I can thank Bart for helping me write this blog. I know that I'll see him again, and when he rears his ugly head, I can send him back to the hammock in my mind, where he can rock himself to sleep.