Anxiety in response to feared situations or experiences plays a part in everyone’s lives, but for some, calming the anxiety requires a bit more help. Let’s take a look at a few ways to invite more calm into our daily lives.
Neuroscientists have identified what they call fear extinguishing circuits in the brain (Herry et al., 2008). These circuits interrupt the basic fear response, so that previously feared stimuli do not activate the physiological and behavioral sequence that you feel as fear or anxiety. In other words, activating the fear extinguishing brain in response to fears keeps you feeling calm and engaged with life. Because anxiety is a response to a perceived threat, anxiety can be calmed if the threat is addressed.
So, what experiences can activate the fear extinguishing circuits? Glenn Veenstra (2013) succinctly cites four: security, safety, tolerance, and mastery.
1. Security is our most basic, inherited form of achieving calm after encountering a fear-inducing threat. We obtain a feeling of security through connection and proximity to other people who can protect us. Sometimes, just knowing we are not alone in a trial changes how we feel about it.
2. Safety is achieved when the probability of danger is low. If I am afraid of lightning, safety is attained when I see a blue sky and my brain senses the threat of being struck by lightning is minimal to none. Oftentimes, much of our anxiety is needlessly produced by an overestimation of the probability of danger. Furthermore, this overestimation continues because of anxiety’s chief accomplice, avoidance. As long as the feared situation is avoided, a true evaluation of the danger cannot be made. Having someone help us along (#1, security) in facing our fears can make a big difference in discovering our overestimated threats and attaining a sense of safety.
3. Tolerance of the feared outcome can activate fear extinguishing circuits because the evaluation of “threat” is changed. If I can tolerate the pain of a paper cut and know that I can take care of it properly until it heals, then my mind isn’t threatened by the outcome and will not feel anxiety about reading the newspaper. That’s fine for a paper cut, but what about really big threats, like death? When death itself is a feared outcome that can be tolerated (or accepted!), then its power over us can be transformed into calm purpose in living; we can then live life without anxiously running from an inevitable transition.
For many who carry burdens from trauma, the continual pain caused by that danger in previous experiences remains clear evidence that the danger is not tolerable. The damage, much more than a paper cut, remains a wound that warns them to avoid certain threats because the cost of the danger is too high. Extinguishing this fear through tolerance will not happen until we experience healing and know that we can handle the pain and are stronger than the injury. After healing, the danger is tolerable. That is the earned peace of many people who have reached out to qualified help and received treatment for emotional and spiritual wounds.
4. Mastery is achieved through knowing we have the skill to master the danger. For example, anxiety about meeting new people because of feared negative social outcomes may be extinguished by mastering the skills of social interaction in such situations. A man, we’ll call Jim, avoided social situations with new people because they provoked intense anxiety. His perceived threat was that everyone (#2 overestimation of danger) would think he was strange or awkward and reject or not like him. Jim combined #3 (tolerance) with #4 (mastery) to find calm in this once feared situation. After feeling that he would be okay if some (#2, not everyone) people did think those things about him (#3), he reversed his pattern of avoidance and set the goal of meeting someone new every day. Instead of focusing on his defects or anxiety, he began observing and experimenting in these daily experiences, noticing what he and other people did and tried out different ways of interacting. I caught up with him after he had met over 1,000 new people. With time and practice, and certainly some tolerably awkward introductions, he developed the skills needed to master the danger inherent in social introductions and ultimately became very skilled and comfortable talking with people from all walks of life about everything!
When the bottom line answer to our questions is “I’ll be okay because I am resilient and connected with others who can help me when needed,” then calm can quiet our fears and we can enjoy the energy of being fully present in our lives (Siegel, 2012). If you wonder about this possibility in your life, I invite you to hope and choose the path of courage, because greater peace is awaiting you.
Herry, C., et al. (2008). Switching on and off fear by distinct neuronal circuits. Nature, 454, 600-606.
Siegel, D. J. (2012). The developing mind: Toward a neurobiology of interpersonal experience. New York: Guilford Press.
Veenstra, G. J. (2013). Neuroscience advances for improving anxiety therapies. Anxiety disorders and Depression Conference, La Jolla, CA.
About the Author: Garret Roundy is a licensed Associate Marriage and Family Therapist in the state of Utah. He earned an M.S. from Brigham Young University and is currently completing his PhD in Marriage and Family Therapy. Garret has developed a specialization in the treatment of anxiety and trauma-related disorders through studying scientific research and completing advanced clinical trainings. He has also presented on these topics in professional and community settings. Garret is a therapist at the Provo Center for Couples and Families.