how fear affects your mind + body

Updated: Feb 25, 2020

by Kristin Bentley, founder of NWMW

Fear is one of the most powerful emotions and can be absolutely debilitating. It controls our heart, mind + life once it becomes the prevalent voice in our head, telling us not to take that leap of faith. Not to trust that we are not in danger and that things will work out okay.

And as a military spouse, this is how we get stuck. Because so much of our life is unknown.

Fear has the ability to paralyze you. It causes anxiety and indecisiveness. It keeps us trapped inside our head, unable to make a decision... because we literally cannot think clearly.

When you're in a stressful situation, your brain begins to log details, adding warning labels to things. You may not notice this at the time—because you're too busy dealing with the situation—but later, whenever you encounter one similar detail to that threatening situation, you'll find yourself with sweaty palms and a racing heart.

Once triggered, fear manifests in one of two primary ways... as a continual low-level fear or as a high-level intense fear.

Anxiety is a reaction to everyday fear. It's an alertness to potential danger rather than a response to present danger. When you're anxious, your brain releases stress hormones and shuffles your priorities. Instead of focusing on one thing, your brain goes into a hyperactive observation mode.

Which is useful if, say, you're driving to work and have to make a sudden jerk of the steering wheel to avoid a head-on collision. But it's not useful if your anxiety is triggered by an argument with your spouse, work deadlines, or a toddler temper tantrum. In these situations, this hyper-alert mode keeps you from being able to think clearly so you're able to respond productively.

The full fear response is intense, luckily short-lived, and has profound effects on your body + mind. When fear kicks in, your body kicks into survival mode, which can have long-term detrimental effects on your body. When this happens, your brain reroutes energy to necessary survival skills, and other functions, such as your digestive system, get put on hold.

We all face fear, and as hard as we may try we'll never completely eliminate all of our fears. But we can CHOOSE to not let them control us. We DO have that choice.

And yes, it IS a choice.

Becoming a successful woman happens the moment you face fear and still choose to step out into the great unknown.

We did it when we said "yes" to the man of our dreams—a man who wears an American flag on his uniform and vowed to give his life to protect our country's freedom—as he got down on his knee, took our hand, and asked us to spend the rest of our life at his side. And as much as we thought we knew what we were getting into... we had NO idea.

Truly none.

And every day, we continue to jump out into the unknown. Every time we PCS to a new corner of the world, accept a new job offer, attend a military ball in a new unit where we have yet to meet another spouse.

Being afraid does not define your character, but what you do in the face of fear does. And fortunately, there are three steps we can take to stay in control of our fears...

1. Recognize fear with body check-ins. Perform a simple body check-in when you begin to feel anxious by asking yourself, What am I feeling right now? Then ask, Why am I feeling this right now? If you can identify the source of the fear, you can then face it consciously and determine if it is a real threat. This feels really unnatural at first, especially for those of us who are not in touch with our emotions, but over time becomes second nature. And is a brilliant tool in teaching our children—and husbands!—emotional intelligence.

2. Reduce fear with buffers. Everyday situations can cause anxiety that disables your brain from doing concentrated, creative work. Ease your anxiety by building buffers into your day. Set up soft deadlines a few days before the real deadlines. Schedule extra commute time. As much as you can, space out your obligations and projects so your brain can relax and do its work well. Running a PR + marketing business from home with two toddlers, I have found this practice to be absolutely essential to maintaining my sanity.

3. Face fear with controlled experiences. For defined triggers, the fears you know you have, you can slowly train yourself to handle them better. Nothing extreme... just decide on a simple action you'll take instead of freezing the next time you encounter the trigger. Freezing is the body's initial, automatic response. When you force yourself to take a different action instead, you can slowly retrain your brain to respond in a more productive way. Over time your brain learns that this trigger is not an unpredictable danger, but a manageable situation that you can handle. As a domestic violence survivor, I had to learn my triggers... which didn't manifest until I married—another soldier. But once I became aware of myself, and began to check into my emotions—which for me, was the HARDEST part—I was able to change my self-talk. Which ultimately removed the triggers.

Being unaware of fear can keep us locked into it. But when you know what fear feels like, looks like and does to your brain, you can take back control.

We will never attain the level of happiness and success we desire if we allow fear to control us. But through taking action, even if it means we DO fail, is the only way we can grow. In fact, it's through failing that we learn some of life's most valuable lessons. The lessons we need to learn before we're able to fully succeed.

So, go ahead... take that leap, and jump into your life with full intention + presence. Take that vacation to Venice, launch your own business, have faith that your next duty station will be as amazing as today's. Maybe even better.

You've SO got this, sister!


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