The Question That Transcends Stress

By Don Goewey

Fear is the trigger for a stress reaction. If you are stressed, biologically you are in some form of fear.

So, whenever you feel stressed on the inside:

The relevant question to ask yourself is:

What am I afraid of? 

Ask what am I afraid of five or six times and let the answers come straight from the brain’s primitive fear center, called the amygdala. The amygdala is in charge of fight or flight. It is a highly paranoid feature, designed to see potential calamities but often it mistakes sticks for snakes. Its language is raw, edgy and negative. During the exercise, don’t edit or sugar-coat what it tells you. Allow the amygdala to forecast all the fearful things it tends to predict. Exposing these illusions to the light of day nullifies its power to torment you.

For example, your credit card bill is larger than you expected and the fact scares you. The amygdala is likely to start predicting outcomes that gradually paint the mental picture of you being thrown into poverty. Of course, it’s not true. However, this thought, when operating unconsciously, can form an emotional cloud that darkens your mood and makes you vulnerable to misperceiving events and overreacting.

Once I conducted the What Am I Afraid Of? exercise, one on one, with a prominent corporate lawyer. The lawyer was in litigation, about to go to court, and he was immobilized by stress. So, I asked him, in this legal situation, what are you afraid of?

Losing the case, was his answer.

What are you afraid of if you lose the case? I asked. I will lose my reputation, he answered.

And what are you afraid of if you lose your reputation? Losing my clients.

What’s the fear in losing your clients? Being asked to leave the firm.

And what’s the fear under this? With eyes wide, he answered. I’ll end up pushing a shopping cart down Main Street 

Afterwards, I asked him if there was a chance he could still win the case. He answered yes. I asked if he would lose his reputation if he lost. No, not really, he said. Everyone knows you win some, you lose some. I then asked if it was realistic that he could lose all his clients. He answered, no, saying his clients were loyal because he had served them well for many years.

At this point the lawyer saw through his anxious thought process and the disaster it was fabricating. It’s all in my head, isn’t it, he said and he began to laugh.  Fear’s illusions are comic, but they can become tragic if they go unchecked.

During the holidays, there are family members who can also send our mind into a tail spin, through a condescending remark about our weight or some such thing. If we let it insult us, our primitive brain is going to dig into its emotional memory bank and flash back to all the times family and others hurt us in some way. When that happens, fight or flight is sure to follow.

On the other hand, if we can intercede by investigating the fear behind the reaction, we might find a voice at the bottom that says: I am worthless. Of course, it is not true. We can refute it, simply by not believing it. We can ask ourselves, who would I be without that thought? Invariably, the answer is we would be larger than the box fear was about to squeeze us into.

Whenever we exercise the power of not believing fearful thoughts, a spaciousness of mind opens up inside of us. We become larger than a challenging situation. The self-confidence fear erodes is suddenly restored.

The spaciousness that leads to this larger sense of self is peace.

Letting go of fear by not believing what it says provides a dependable entry way to peace. Finding peace can be that simple. Try it. When you are in the throes of a burgeoning stress reaction, take a time-out and ask yourself what am I afraid of. Bring into the light of day all the terrible calamities the amygdala predicts. In the clear light, these brain-made calamities are exposed for what they are: ridiculous.

Laugh at them instead of believing them, and your life will move forward again into being happy and at peace, empowered to create a great day in which you achieve something amazing with your stress-free brain.


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