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That feeling of dread, darkness and weight. A pounding of the heart, tension in the gut or tightness in the breathing.

It’s horrible , so why do we have it?

It’s normal

The first point is that it’s a normal reaction to perceived threat that has kept us safe throughout our evolution.

If you are walking down a dark alleyway and hear footsteps behind you it’s appropriate to increase your alertness and readiness.

This system was evolved to be active for a short duration to deploy all our available resources towards staying alive.

However, if we have habitual thoughts of things going wrong then we constantly trigger our defences.

Our very own smoke alarm

Think of your threat sensor (the Amygdala in the brain) like a smoke alarm, any indication of danger (even a passing thought) will set it off.

You can’t say to a smoke alarm “I’m about to make toast, please don’t go off”. The smoke alarm has no choice, it must go off.

So with our Amygdala continually being triggered we gradually become accustomed to living on alert. We may not even realise that our anxiety level is elevated, but there are some clues if this is the case.

What are the clues?

Some people find it impossible to completely relax, some find it hard to sleep, some get regular colds or other illnesses, some feel irritable or intolerant, some find it hard to concentrate. Most feel somehow uncomfortable in their own skin, made worse because there is often no obvious cause.

So what can we do?

Well if you consider that your own imagination is triggering your alert system, it’s rather like your own thoughts are hacking your amygdala.

One option is to hack your amygdala back by using breathing exercises, posture shifts, deliberate positive thoughts, good diet and deliberate self care.

All of these are like an “All Clear” signal to your amygdala.

Another approach is to examine why you might be habitually imagining negative thoughts.

This would be a good project to work on with your psychotherapist.

by Tom Corbishley, Psychotherapist


It’s time to talk. But what is so important about talk?

We, particularly in the West, pride ourselves on our rugged individualism like our ability to cope and push through difficulties. There is no doubt that this spirit has led to wonderful achievements, but at what cost?

We forget that we are social creatures that have evolved over millennia with deeply ingrained social structures.

We benefit from conversation and company.
We are sustained by social interaction and the sharing of our struggles.

Our tears need to be witnessed with compassion.

If you don’t believe me, consider why our highest form of legal torture is solitary confinement.

It’s time to talk, because talk works.

by Tom Corbishley, Psychotherapist


Franklin D. Roosevelt famously said: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself”.Is this just appealing wordplay or a stunning insight into the human condition? Let’s look a little deeper.

Firstly, what is fear?

  • Response to dange

At its most basic, fear is a feeling state in response to danger. It is part of our evolved way to survive and comes baked in to our nature. Have you ever jumped at a sudden loud bang? Suddenly inhaled a sharp breath at nearly falling? Felt your heart start to pound at some perceived threat or danger? This is all perfectly normal and such responses are part of what is often called the stress response. We are unlikely to have survived as a species if we didn’t have these fast acting responses, which happen well before we have time to think about what we are doing.

  • Fight/Flight

The stress response has also been called our Fight/Flight response as our body prepares to respond to danger by running away or defending ourselves. It’s actually slightly more complicated than Fight/Flight as there are also the lesser known responses of Freeze and Fold. These actions are alternative evolved survival strategies that may relate to becoming invisible (freeze and the movement sensitive eye of a predator might not see you) and pacify (submit and the predator might not kill you straight away, leaving a later chance of an escape).
It’s important to note that these are automatic responses generated by fast
acting deep brain systems that override our immediate ability to think. We can’t know which way we will respond to real danger. This is one of the reasons why people who are expected to perform under stress undergo extensive training and drills so that they have accessible appropriate responses available when their bodies go into the stress response.
Something we can take from this is to be careful not to be critical of the way we have responded to unexpected danger in the past. It’s rarely an issue of choice.
Just our bodies doing what they have done for millennia to survive.
Our bodies also have an inbuilt soothing system designed to bring us back from the stress response when the danger has passed. What could possibly go wrong?

OK. So far so good. Fear seems to be an indispensable part of survival and one we share with most other living animals.
What could possibly go wrong? Why might we need to fear fear? Well, one of things we humans have, perhaps uniquely, is consciousness of self.
It’s rather hard to define consciousness of self but it’s something around
knowing, and also knowing that we know. This great gift, which is perhaps the source of all the great achievements of our species, brings with it side effects.

  • Imagination

One side effect is imagination. Using imagination we can plan, design, estimate, communicate and create. But what happens when we imagine danger?
It turns out that our bodies have great difficulty distinguishing a real event from an imagined one. Imagine holding a fresh, chilled segment of tangy lemon above your outstretched tongue and then squeezing a shimmering drop of the juice onto your tongue. Anything happen?
Many people find their mouth beginning to moisten ready to receive the lemon juice, or maybe a tingling on the end of their tongue. All you did was imagine the lemon!
In a similar way, our stress response can be activated by imagining danger.
Someone once defined a fear (F.E.A.R) as a False Event Appearing Real.

  • Crossing the Road

Let’s be clear, there are many times when imagining danger is a really good thing. For example, it’s good to be appropriately cautious when crossing the road or alert when walking along a dark alleyway but there are also ways that imagined danger can affect us in a less helpful way. We sometimes call this “worry” or “anxiety” and these neat labels can mask some of the constricting effects, so I am going to call it what it is: fear.
Fear can alter our perception of the world and trick us into being less than we truly are. We put off decisions, don’t ask for help, miss opportunities and
undervalue our gifts. It can be quite hard to spot that this is happening to us because our minds are great at devising plausible reasons why we don’t do things. I remember climbing up to the high diving board at the swimming pool and taking a look over the edge. I thought that I would like to be able to dive in, but maybe not today, the water is a little cool, my parents are not here to witness it and anyway, who cares about jumping in this way. I didn’t really want to admit to myself that I was frightened.

When Fear slows us down This is where fear becomes unhelpful, like an invisible lead weight on our boots, slowing us down and making us tired.
This unconscious pattern can lead to unhealthy habits and behaviours which can block our attempts to grow. Many of us have experienced exhilaration and relief when we have pushed through our fears, recognising that what had been holding us back was not our failings but our fears. So, yes, perhaps we do have to fear, fear itself, Franklin D. Roosevelt was right.
Good news
The good news is that we have all the internal resources and capabilities to turn this situation around. We can invoke our self soothing mechanism and retrain our imaginations to visualise success and confidence.
Why not start now!

by Tom Corbishley

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