The following is an excerpt from my new book The Fear Cure, which comes out next week, on Tuesday, February 24! If you preorder today, you can still qualify for the gifts you’ll get if you buy the book before February 23. Preorder 1 copy and get free admission to a live or virtual workshop with me and Tosha Silver in the Bay area, or buy 3 copies and get workshop access plus free access to the 8 week The Fear Cure teleclass I’ll be teaching in May 2015!
When we’re willing to view life as the teacher, even in the midst of uncertainty, a journey begins. This journey—some might call it the spiritual path—challenges us to shift from fear of uncertainty to trusting life in the face of that which we can’t know and don’t understand. After interviewing many people about what they’d learned on their own spiritual journeys, I discovered that the journey from fear to freedom, which is all about coming into right relationship with uncertainty, is a predictable journey, one that many have traveled before you and many will travel after you. As you read through the five phases, consider where you are on your own journey. It is a map of sorts and can help you assess where you are on your path.
Recently, I was blessed to be able to spend an hour on the phone with my shero and mentor Brené Brown, author of the #1 New York Times bestseller Daring Greatly. We had so much giddy fun on our teleclass about the intersection of vulnerability and health, how shame is lethal, and how daring greatly and practicing mind over medicine helps you heal. (If you missed the live call, you can get the free download here.)
I had an epiphany during our call that I want to share with you, so pull out your big highlighter. Brené says the most terrifying emotion we experience as humans is joy. We're so frightened of loss that we can't even allow ourselves to lean into those moments when we're standing over our children watching them sleep or when we're falling in love and it feels like our hearts will burst. The second most of us start to feel joy, instead of relishing the blessings, we tend to get swallowed by the fear that the other shoe is about to drop.
Brené said, “When we lose our tolerance for vulnerability, joy becomes foreboding." Instead of allowing ourselves to feel the vulnerability of how much joy we feel and how much hurt we would experience if we lost what we have, we dress rehearse tragedy so we can beat vulnerability to the punch. We look at our kids with so much love and then imagine them dying. We feel such tenderness for the person we're falling in love with that we fast forward straight to the day when we get our heart broken. If things are going well in our professional life, we imagine the day we get fired or lose all our money, power, and status. It's like, by trying to imagine the worst case scenario, we somehow think we're protecting ourselves from what we fear most.
But guess what? It doesn't work. If your child dies or the love of your life abandons you or you lose your job or you declare bankruptcy - or whatever tragedy you imagine might befall you happens - no dress rehearsal will protect you from loss and pain. And in the interim, you've missed your chance for effervescent joy, radical presence, true bliss - and the health benefits that accompany joy.
In this New York Times article, A-list actress Angelina Jolie bravely announced that she made the tough decision to undergo elective bilateral mastectomy after her doctors warned her that she has an 87% risk of developing breast cancer and a 50% risk of getting ovarian cancer because her mother died of breast cancer and she carries the BRCA1 gene. While I fully support Angelina’s right to write The Prescription for herself, and while I admire her courage to go public with what some might hide, as an OB/GYN physician with a passion for mind-body medicine, this breaking news concerns me for a variety of reasons.
The Nocebo Effect
In Chapter 2 of Mind Over Medicine, I share the scientific data about "the nocebo effect," the opposite of the placebo effect, when we think something will harm our health - and it does. In one case study, a man was misdiagnosed with cancer and told he would only live 3 months. He died exactly 3 months later and was found to have no cancer on autopsy.
In another case study that is the stuff of fairy tales, a woman born on Friday the 13th in the Okefenokee Swamp near the Georgia-Florida border was one of three girls delivered that day by a midwife, who proclaimed that all three girls, born on such a fateful day, were hexed. The first, she announced, would die before her 16th birthday. The second would not survive her 21st. And the patient in question was told she would die before her 23rd birthday.
As it turns out, the first two girls died within one day of their 16th and 21st birthdays. The third woman, terrified that she would die on her 23rd birthday, showed up at the hospital the day before her birthday, hyperventilating. Soon afterwards, just before she turned 23, she died, proving the midwife’s predictions correct. This is an extreme example of the nocebo effect, when fear-based thoughts about your health can actually kill you.
In his book Spontaneous Healing, Dr. Andrew Weil argues that physicians may unwittingly engage in what he calls “medical hexing.” When we pronounce patients with “chronic,” “incurable,” or “terminal” illnesses, we may be programming their subconscious minds with negative beliefs and activating stress responses that do more harm than good. What proof do we have that they will not be one of the case studies who winds up in the Spontaneous Remission Project, having been cured of a so-called “incurable” illness?
By labeling a patient with a negative prognosis and robbing a patient of the hope that cure might be possible, we may ultimately prove the poor prognosis we have bestowed upon our patient correct. Wouldn’t we be better off offering hope and triggering the mind to release health-inducing chemicals intended to aid the body’s self-repair mechanisms?
Is it really healthy for any of us to know that we might have an 87% risk of any illness? Do we really want to poison our minds with such fear-based thoughts that then force us to make decisions about whether or not we will electively cut off perfectly healthy body parts?
We’re taught that it’s good to be vulnerable (file under Brené Brown,) but bad to be needy (file under “People - especially men - run screaming in the other direction.”) But it seems to me that it’s a fine edge I’m exploring in some of my relationships. So humor me while I try to figure this out.
The Vulnerability of Need
Over the past couple of years, I’ve been renegotiating sacred contracts with the people closest to me, and one of my requests in my relationships is that those I love share with me what they want and need so I don’t have to read their minds. I’ve spent too many years feeling like I’ve disappointed the people I love, but often, it’s because I didn’t even know what they wanted, so I failed to meet their desires.
I set out to change all that. My terms were these: Tell me honestly how you’d love to have me show up in our relationship, and as long as it doesn’t conflict with my own needs, I’ll do everything I can to meet that want or need. Seems straightforward, right?
Then I realized what I noticed in how many of my loved ones responded. Dead silence.
You already know how fear can paralyze you personally and professionally, rob you of your joy, and keep you from going after your dreams. But did you know it can also make you sick? Whenever your mind feels fear, it triggers the “fight-or-flight” stress response in your body, which disables your body’s natural self-repair mechanisms and makes you more susceptible to illness. But never fear (no pun intended). Here are a few tips for living a healthier, happier life by overcoming fear.
Understand that fear is primal. It originates from the lizard brain of your amygdala and exists as an adaptive mechanism meant to save your life. But in modern society, fear is a warning signal gone haywire. Most of what you fear - losing a loved one, money, or a relationship, for example - isn’t actually threatening your life, though it may be threatening your sense of security. You may not be able to ditch the emotion of fear, but you can make the choice not to let it run the show anymore.
Assess your fears to determine whether they’re helpful or harmful. If you’re afraid of crashing on the rocks when you consider jumping off a cliff, your fear is probably valid. But if you’re afraid to write the book you dream of writing because you’re afraid of failure, fear is only getting the way. Sometimes fear shows up as a valuable intuition, but often, it’s just an agent of self-sabotage. Learning to tell the difference can make all the difference.
Recognize that fear often masquerades as protection. Consider how many times you make decisions because of the “just in case.” Remember that “just in case” is fear masquerading as self-preservation. But it’s still fear, and it’s still harmful to your health.