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When Calmness is a Trigger for Fear and How to Change it

Bob Livingstone is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCS 11087) in private practice for 22 years in San Francisco, California. He holds a Masters Degree ...Read More

Many of us are anxious and looking for ways to become more relaxed. We are asked to meditate, breathe deeply or create a calming visual picture in your mind. We attempt these activities over and over again with no positive results. You may be able to relax when you are really not focusing on doing so.

Activities such as reading, watching TV or lying out on a beach may feel calming and rejuvenating. But this is different from moving from a state of panic to a place of relaxation. There are many of us who cannot seem to accomplish this. Then we feel frustrated and later, ashamed at not being able to do something as fundamental as moving into a relaxed state.

Why is this so difficult to master? There are a number of reasons for this. You are not crazy, weak minded or bad. You have probably internalized that you possess one or all of these characteristics. The shame that you carry makes it difficult to think about or process. You certainly are reluctant to discuss this with others for fear of being seen as a freak or mentally unstable. I hope that you can learn from this article that your feelings are not unusual and it will be very helpful to talk about this problem with others.

Reasons why it is difficult to move from a state of fear to calmness:

1. You may have experienced extreme trauma that has led you to be on guard all the time.

You may have been brutally beaten as a child and never knowing when the attacks were going to happen. Although your present living situation is secure, your past was chaotic and unpredictable. The past has led you to feel that you cannot let your guard down. If you did so back then, you would not be prepared for the beating. Preparation helps you get into a dissociative state where you can mentally go somewhere outside your body. Preparation may also help you plan an exit route to escape the attack. You learn to be hypervigilant; that is constantly scanning your environment for danger. The confusion of currently living a safe and productive life contrasts with the upheaval of the past; therefore making you wonder if you are crazy and indeed you are not. You are being triggered by your past and understanding this will help you work through this.

2. You may have one or more experiences where you were in a happy, calm and confident state and the next minute, disaster struck.

A fifteen year old boy was feeling as happy and secure as he ever felt his whole life in the fall of his sophomore year. He was ecstatic that he had a new girl friend who was thought to be the prettiest girl in high school. He was popular and he started the school year out well. It was fall and he was certain of making the basketball team. Then suddenly, his mother came to school to tell him that his father was in the hospital with a stroke. He died two days later.

He learned from this experience that calmness will lead to extreme crisis. Sometimes he looks for danger when he notices that his guard is down and relaxed. He feels this sense of impending doom and a need to build the barricades; which kick in an overwhelming sense of fear. He then looks for ways to calm myself, but the calmness itself is a trigger for fear.

Your history of being physically, emotionally and perhaps sexually abused leads to a hyperactive part of the brain called the amygdala. One primary role of the amygdala is to protect us from danger. It interprets stimuli to determine if they are dangerous. If so, it sends a message to the hypothalamus, another brain structure, which turns on the Fight or Flight Response.

The amygdala’s function of protecting us from danger is appropriate if we are living in the wilderness and the possibility of being attacked by wild animals is high. But, it is not so helpful in contemporary society.

The amygdala keeps us safe, but those of us who have been traumatized have an overactive one that some researchers feel can become less active with training.

Ways to Change Calmness from being a Fear Trigger

1. Practice deep breathing when you are in a state of panic. You should ask yourself to breathe deeply for a short amount of time-five inhales and exhales. Then gradually over time, increase the amount of inhales and exhales.

2. Practice healthy distractions when you find yourself overwhelmed by fear. Examples of healthy distractions are: Focusing on conversing with your friend; Thinking about a productive project or Fantasizing about the Caribbean vacation you desire.

3. Be in touch with the younger parts of yourself that have been hurt when you were a child. Practice locating and soothing them.

4. Practice meditation for a short period of time and gradually increase it.

5. Exercise regularly and choose to focus on working through a troubling memory or concentrate on something joyful.

6. Formulate questions are about why calmness is a fear trigger for you and then answer those questions.

7. Don’t beat up on yourself for not being immediately successful here. Being patient with yourself is key here. Calmness has triggered fear for you for a long period of your life. It will take time for these techniques to work.

8. Practice deep breathing, meditation, healthy distractions when you are not in a panic state. This will help you grow accustomed to calmness and not be frightened by it.

9. Consider individual psychotherapy to heal the wounds that created the anguish.

Keep Reading By Author Bob Livingstone, LCSW
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