August 2, 2023 - Written by Maggie Osinski, LCSW
Our thoughts can feel like animals running wild through the jungle that is our mind.
Much like wild animals, thoughts are spontaneous and predictably unpredictable. The spontaneous and unpredictable part can feel inherently unsettling, thus giving rise to the perception that danger is upon us.
FEAR is Our Brain and Body's Natural Response to Danger
Fear is a psychological and physiological response that is hardwired into our system to protect us from harm. But here's the catch: chronic activation of one's fear response actually impairs health and wellbeing. When our built in survival response is over-activating, we feel constantly dysregulated, unsettled, and therefore unsafe.
Understanding Your Fear Response
Here's the thing about stress and fear - repeated exposure to psychological and physiological stressors throws off our internal messaging system. Based on our unique life experiences, our body and mind create a blueprint for survival - similar to an algorithm. When the body and mind are constantly dysregulated, it generates an over-active and ineffective Fear Response Algorithm.
One distinctive feature of an over-active Fear Response Algorithm is hypervigilance. Hypervigilance refers to a state of mind and bodily presence where one lives in a constant state of anticipation that danger - both real and imagined - can present itself at any moment.
While hypervigilance can be understood as a mechanism for protection and self preservation, ultimately it leads to more distress and dysregulation as it keeps us sequestered in a constant state of anxiety, fear, and the anticipation of danger. Hypervigilance causes us to misinterpret situations and creates a feedback loop that reinforces an attentional bias toward anxiety-producing stimuli, further exacerbating unhelpful narratives that evoke faulty fear responses.
In other words, hypervigilance causes us to experience feelings of fear and unsafety, even in moments we are actually safe. Ultimately, this impacts our relationship with our Self, Others, and the World around us.
Keep in mind - dysfunctional patterns evolve through symbiotic relations with one's environment and life experiences. Ultimately, this means that while you are not responsible for creating your over-activated Fear Response Algorithm, you are responsible for your healing.
Taming Your Fear Response Algorithm
The first step toward making changes to your algorithm is acknowledging that you hold the power to change your thoughts and feelings at any moment. This concept can be difficult to grasp - and rightfully so - since most fear responses feel instantaneous and automatic.
In order to change your Fear Response Algorithm and develop a new, more effective blueprint for survival, you must first acknowledge that your blueprint is malleable. Leaning into evidence provided by decades of research on neurobiology can help to reframe unhelpful narratives about your capacity to make positive changes for yourself.
Change is Possible: Neurobiology Proves This to be True!
Through the study of neurobiology, humans have discovered the magnificence of neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity is essentially the brain's ability to change and adapt itself through restructuring, reorganizing, and the development of new neuropathways. Embracing neuroplasticity as evidence that change is possible fosters hope, faith, and trust that one's Fear Response Algorithm can be altered. Once you acknowledge that change is possible, you can start to make effective and lasting changes to your blueprint.
Healing Starts and Ends with You
Healing starts and ends with you, but you don't have to go at it alone. Working with a trained therapist will help you to understand your Fear Response Algorithm, learn about your triggers, and develop a new relationship with your thoughts and feelings that will allow you to navigate stress more effectively. Connecting with a therapist is a valuable step, but ultimately it is up to you to make changes for yourself.
Developing a Therapeutic Action Plan
A Therapeutic Action Plan is essentially a framework for promoting effective and lasting change. Since every human has a unique blueprint for survival, it is important to develop a plan that is specific to your needs. Enlisting the support of a therapist will be an important part of your Action Plan.
Your strategic Action Plan for healing should include evidence-based skills, intention and commitment to practicing these skills, and a whole lot of self-compassion. Your therapist will serve as a supportive guide, information-base, and teacher as you develop insight into your Fear Response Algorithm and learn new therapeutic skills to evoke change.
Therapeutic Skills for Healing
Healing requires attention, intention, and the integration of new skills that foster more adaptive ways of thinking, feeling, and behaving. Some evidence-based techniques proven to reduce hypervigilance and improve the Fear Response Algorithm are Mindfulness, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), and Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT).
Mindfulness involves being present with thoughts, emotions, sensations, and experiences as they arise: holding space to observe them, without attaching any meaning or judgment. Practicing non-judgment is perhaps the most challenging, as it is in our nature to attach narratives and meaning to the thoughts and feelings we experience.
For those who experience hypervigilance, it may be difficult to connect to the circumstances and dynamics occurring in the present moment, because the mind and body are reacting to past experiences. Mindfulness is a valuable skill that fosters self awareness and enhances one's capacity to be grounded and present in the moment. Once you are able to be fully present with your thoughts, you can use CBT to call out faulty and/or unhelpful narratives within your thinking that are contributing to your distress.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)
CBT examines the interconnectedness between thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, and seeks to restructure unhelpful and problematic narratives that include Cognitive Distortions that contribute to emotional distress. Cognitive distortions are essentially exaggerated, biased, and irrational beliefs that influence the way you view your Self, Others, Experiences, and the World around you.
Cognitive distortions aren't actually based in evidence and lead to a biased interpretation of reality. For those who have experienced persistent psychological and/or physiological stressors, it is likely that various cognitive distortions developed subsequent to these pervasive experiences. Hypervigilance is often a result of distorted patterns in thinking that cause the individual to perceive danger in situations where they are actually safe.
Challenging your cognitive distortions and unhelpful narratives will ultimately change the way you interact with your thoughts, feelings, environment, and other humans. Over time your thoughts will feel less dangerous, and more manageable. On a neurobiological level, implementing CBT techniques consistently will help to rewire neuropathways in your brain that are contributing to your faulty Fear Response Algorithm and hypervigilant state. Put simply: the more you think new adaptive thoughts, the more you will believe them to be true.
Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT)
Incorporating DBT skills in your Action Plan will help you tolerate difficult emotions that arise when implementing Mindfulness and CBT techniques. DBT is a highly effective skills-based therapeutic technique designed to support individuals who experience intense emotional reactions to external and internal stimuli - also known as triggers.
DBT focuses on 4 specific areas - Mindfulness, Emotion Regulation, Distress Tolerance, and Interpersonal Effectiveness - with a particular emphasis on self-compassion, validation, and acceptance.
Mindfulness: As previously mentioned, mindfulness practices will help you to build awareness of the present moment, so you can identify and understand your thoughts, emotions, bodily sensations, and behaviors. The key is to observe the elements within your self and your surroundings without attaching meaning or judgment.
Mindfulness Skills for your Action Plan include: Observing, Describing, and Participating in the moment (the What), Non-judgmentally, One-Mindfully, and Effectively (the How)
Emotion Regulation: Since emotions drive behavior, it is important to enhance your understanding of your own emotions in order to change how you respond to them. Emotion regulation skills reduce emotional vulnerability to internal and external triggers in the moment, while strengthening resilience and capacity for coping with difficult emotions and situations overall.
Emotion Regulation skills for your Action Plan might include: Opposite Action, Accumulating Positives, ABC PLEASE, Checking the Facts
Distress Tolerance: These skills are designed to help you tolerate difficult emotions and situations effectively, so you don't increase your suffering by making stressful situations worse. Distress Tolerance skills help you cope with difficult emotions caused by internal or external triggers without resorting to ineffective or maladaptive behaviors. Skills are action-oriented and require intention, commitment, and practice.
Distress Tolerance skills for your Action Plan might include: Self-soothing with the Five Senses, STOP, Pros and Cons List, TIP Skills, Distracting with ACCEPTS, Improving the Moment, Radical Acceptance
Interpersonal Effectiveness: When your Fear Response System is dysregulated, it is likely to impact your relationships with others. DBT interpersonal skills are designed to help you improve your communication with others, and navigate social interactions more effectively. Someone who lives in a constant state of hypervigilance might actively seek out signs of danger in others; this becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy where the attention bias seeks to reinforce the initial belief that someone is dangerous when in fact they are actually quite safe. Integrating mindfulness, emotion regulation, and distress tolerance skills will help you to express your thoughts, feelings, needs, and boundaries more effectively and reduce interpersonal confusion and conflict.
Interpersonal Effectiveness skills for your Action Plan might include: DEAR MAN, GIVE, Validation, Mindfulness of Others, Dialectical Thinking
Self Compassion, Validation, and Acceptance: Navigating cognitive distortions and intense emotional experiences can foster self judgment and feelings of shame. You can't shame yourself into behavior change! In fact, shame is likely to serve as a barrier to making positive changes for yourself. Pervasive feelings of shame can lead to avoidance, denial, and suppression of thoughts and feelings. The antidote for shame is self compassion, validation, and acceptance.
Self Compassion, Validation, and Acceptance skills for your Action Plan might include: Mindfulness, Daily Affirmations, Positive Self Talk, Radical Acceptance, Journaling Self Compassionate Statements
Intention and Commitment to your Action Plan
Taming your Fear Response Algorithm will require intention and commitment to your Therapeutic Action Plan, to your Self, and to your healing. You can accumulate an entire emotional toolbox of new skills, but without consistent integration and implementation of these skills in your daily life, old patterns of thinking, feeling, and behaving will continue, and your Fear Response Algorithm will remain the same.
Facing Your Fears
As Rafiki from the Lion King says:
“Ah yes, the past can hurt, but from the way I see it, you can either run from it or learn from it."
You can't change your past, but you can take steps in the present to influence how your future unfolds. Facing your fears involves feeling your feelings, learning from them, and changing how you interact with them. Emotions aren't meant to be avoided, they are meant to be embraced. You need to feel in order to heal! You can do it. You are worth it. I believe in you.
Want to improve your Fear Response Algorithm?
Book a Therapy Session with Maggie to get started on your healing path!