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You’re afraid to start your own business because you might fail.

You’re afraid to go to the doctor because she might find something wrong.

You’re afraid to get married because you might wind up divorced.

You’re afraid to travel to Africa because Africa can be so dangerous.

You’re afraid to do what you love because it might not pay the bills.

You’re afraid to ask out the object of your affection because you might get rejected.

You’re afraid to go for that first kiss.

You’re afraid to take guitar lessons because you might suck.

You’re afraid to quit your soul-sucking job because you might never find another one.

You’re afraid to retire because you might not have enough money.

You’re afraid to buy your dream home because you might not be able to make the mortgage.

You’re afraid to take French lessons because it might mean you’ll actually have to go to France.

You’re afraid to let them see you cry because they might think you’re unprofessional.

You’re afraid to let them see the real you because they might not like you. 

Fear Is Everywhere

It surrounds us. Many of us are completely ruled by it, moment by moment, day after day. We’re panicked rats, racing around in a maze while being chased by dragons. Life is scary.

But did you know that, even more so than smoking or boozing it up or eating fried food or being a couch potato, fear is bad for your health?

There. Now you have something else to be afraid of. (Just kidding.)

Seriously, though, we experience fear for a reason. It’s meant to protect us, so that when we’re being chased by a cave bear, our fear response triggers the body’s “fight or flight” mode and we’re better able to outrun the bear.

But I have news for you, darling. There is no cave bear. It’s all in your mind. Well… really, it’s all in your body. Here’s how.

The Body’s Stress Response

Your lizard brain is a computer that can’t tell the difference between a cave bear chasing you and less life-threatening fears. When your brain registers the emotion of fear – whether it’s fear of being rejected by the one you love, fear of quitting your job, or fear of losing money – it trips a switch that triggers the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, activating the hypothalamus and releasing corticotrophin-releasing factor (CRF) into the nervous system. CRF stimulates the pituitary gland, causing it to secrete prolactin, growth hormone, and adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH), which stimulate the adrenal gland and cause it to release cortisol, which is responsible for helping the body maintain homeostasis when the brain experiences fear and assumes that a threat – like the cave bear – is a clear and present danger.

When you’re scared, your lizard brain also turns on the sympathetic nervous system (the “fight-or-flight” response), causing the adrenal glands to release epinephrine and norepinephrine, which increase pulse, blood pressure, and affect other physiological responses.  The secretion of these hormones leads to a variety of metabolic changes all over the body.

Blood vessels traveling to the gastrointestinal tract, hands, and feet constrict, while vessels traveling to the heart, large muscle groups, and brain dilate, preferentially shunting blood to the organs that will help you get out of dodge in an emergency. Your pupils dilate so more light can get in. Metabolism speeds up in order to jolt you with a boost of energy by breaking down fat stores and liberating glucose into the bloodstream. Your respiratory rate increases and your bronchi dilate, allowing more oxygen in, and your muscles become tense and ready to sprint away from the cave bear.

Stomach acid increases and digestive enzymes decrease, often leading to esophageal contractions, diarrhea, or constipation. Cortisol suppresses your immune system to reduce the inflammation that would accompany any wounds the attacking cave bear might inflict.  Reproduction gets shut off (sex is a luxury when there’s a cave bear around!)

There Is No Cave Bear

Basically, if you’re getting attacked by a cave bear, your body ignores sleeping, digesting, and reproducing, while it focuses on running, breathing, thinking, and delivering oxygen and energy wherever it deems it necessary in order to keep you safe. When you’re scared about losing money, getting rejected, or failing at a professional venture, the body doesn’t realize that there is no cave bear. It just flips on the physiological stress response, and over time, when this stress response is repetitively triggered, nature’s biological response winds up actually doing more harm than good.

Here’s The Kicker

When your body is in the stress response, it can’t repair itself. Bodily functions break down every day, but they can only repair themselves when the body is in a state of physiological relaxation. When the stress response is repetitively triggered, organs get damaged and the body can’t fix them. The cancer cells we naturally make, which usually get blasted away by the immune system, are allowed to proliferate.  The effects of chronic wear-and-tear on the human body take their toll, and we wind up sick.

It doesn’t have to be this way. 

The body knows how to relax with a scientifically proven counterbalancing relaxation response. (For more details, read Dr. Herbert Bensen’s bestselling book The Relaxation Response). When the conscious forebrain thinks and feels positive thoughts, things like love, connection, intimacy, pleasure, and hope, the fearful emotions dissipate, and the hypothalamus stops triggering the stress responses. When you feel optimistic and hopeful, loved and supported, in the flow in your professional or creative life, spiritually tapped in, or sexually connected to another person, the relaxation response takes the place of the stress response.

Fear predisposes you to illness and makes recovery difficult. 

Love, faith, and pleasure are preventative medicine and highly effective treatment.

When the body relaxes, the sympathetic nervous system shuts off. Cortisol and adrenaline, which damage the body over time, drop. The parasympathetic nervous system takes over. The immune system flips back on. And the body can go about its natural self-repair process.

Voila! Your mind can heal your body, and it’s not some New Age metaphysical thing. It’s simple physiology.

The Fear Cure

This is what my next book (the one after Mind Over Medicine which comes out May 1) is all about.  Hay House just offered me a book deal for my next book, The Fear Cure: Cultivating Courage As Medicine For The Body, Mind & Soul. So stay tuned for more about this topic! I’m heading to Lake Tahoe this weekend to research and write this next book, so you can be sure there will be many future blog posts about how we can live more fearlessly and love more fully.

Are You Afraid?

Do you live in a state of fear? If so, I feel you. I was once like that, until I learned how to transform my fear into faith. (You can read more about how I did that here.)

How do you handle your fear? Has fear resulted in illness in your body? Tell us your story.

Trying to live fearlessly,

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8 Comments

  1. Jensy Scarola

    This piece was perfect! Thank you so much! I love how you broke it down so that a non-medical mind could embrace this. Fear took me to bad place for many years that manifested to anorexia. The fear of never being good enough. Now, when I feel fear, I know I MUST take action because on the other side of it, is what I have been searching for…peace, self-esteem, self-confidence, rebirth, life lessons, pleasure. You gotta feel it to heal it. And its usually a little comfortable before it gets real comfortable, kinda like a new bed, sofa, or relationship.

    Reply
  2. Katherine

    I was in an abusive marriage for over twenty-five years. All the denial was an effective mask for the fear. Six years ago I got out. The ensuing chaos was even more frightening. I finally sought help and began talking about my experience. As the fear and shame receded I began to have chronic problems related to inflammation; arthritis, bursitis, tendonitis and what one doctor called “localized inflammation.” I’m not sure if I can fix any of it, but reading your articles is helping me get my head around what’s going on.

    Reply
  3. Millie

    Anxiety can be confused with fear. However, fear is concrete, (a real danger) whereas anxiety is the paranoia of something out there that seems menacing but may not be menacing, and, indeed, may not even be out there.[7] – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anxiety

    Reply
  4. Elke Neubeck

    Thank you Lisa for your grate articles. Deep abusive childhood caused my entire life to collapse and so did my body (physically paralyzed in difficult situations). Today I see behind the curtain to recognize that the fear of loss (mainly LOVE) caused me to make drastic changes in my life, one extreme to another, causing difficult life circumstances and isolation. The child never had support, or the security of the family it needs to grow to a healthy secure personality itself. It was afraid asking, it could not see the people around. A defense of rejection and protection was created. The exercise is patience and the trust I can ASK others for assistance, expressing my truth and fears, instead of hiding and believing I have to do it all by myself. And than to allow it in. The result is I draw in the people who are assisting me with their loving way to find that ground under my feet.

    Reply
  5. Maryanne

    I think I may have said this already somewhere but going back to school I took on an attitude saying: “I’m excited to be uncomfortable.” It helped me and still helps me get through some fear inducing situations in my life! It has helped me take control when no one else will or just take control because I can and I am ultimately capable of whatever the situation might be. It has helped me grow and will continue to do so as school is finished now and I’m moving on, slowly, but moving nonetheless!

    Reply
  6. Debra Olsson

    I am now dealing with breast cancer. for the past 2+ years of my almost 10 year marriage we have had heated, ugly, hateful fights, mostly on my end. I have wanted a divorce for the past 2 years and have not had the funds to split. i know my husband loves me but he doesn’t know how to show it or be a strong husband with respect and leadership. we have always had issues but the past 2 years have been the worse. I knew the fights were not good for my health. I would even scream that fact to him in the middle of a fight. I thought it had to do with my thyroid nodules. I always felt them bigger when I was stressed. never did I think I would get cancer.
    well a large lump was found in 10-2012 by my dr. followed by a new mammogram, ultrasound to a biopsy to the 1st lumpectomy in DEC and the last one just 10 days ago. I need chemo, then radiation then hormone treatments.
    btw i get yearly mammograms every march. always negative. I felt this lump in may and thought it was a fibrous cyst. it was actually smaller and softer in Oct when the dr found it then when I felt it in may. Which lead me to think it was harmless. cos I just had my mammogram 2 months before I felt it, and it was negative. How could this be cancer at the size it was. plus I get cysts so I thought that was what it was. didn’t tell a dr till Oct. I feel let down by the whole mammogram thing. the cyst when found in Oct was 2.1cm by 1.0 cm and had tentacles going in all directions. why didn’t the mammogram in march find it? It was the size of a large egg in May. I worry about all the women out there who think they are clean of cancer cos the mammogram comes back clean that are not, like me. In Oct I was diagnosed with invasive ductal breast cancer. 4 out of the 16 lymph nodes they took were positive.
    I know totally and i accept complete responsibility that this cancer is a reaction/outcome to my emotions of rage, resentment, hatred and anger to my husband over the past 2 years.
    the surgeon said I have had this cancer in my body for at least 9 years (cos of it’s size). I dont buy that. I think I have had it for 2+ years and all the intense ugly emotions I have felt made it began and grow at a fast and rapid rate.
    my husband and I through many talks and channels have now gotten back together somewhat. i will never mention the D word again as I believe if I did then I would get sick again and not survive it that time around.
    everything happens for a reason and i believe this cancer was a wake up call for me. I chose to hear it, listen to it and change because of it.

    Reply
    • Lissa_Rankin

      Thank you for sharing your story Debra- and I wish you all the best. It’s never too late to make the changes you need to make in order to make your body ripe for miracles. I believe in you…

      With love
      Lissa

      Reply
  7. Julie Branum

    Lissa,
    I’m anxious for your mind over medicine book to be released. I wanted to ask you if you’ve done any work with Ashok Gupta in the UK. I have been doing my own belief work recently and new sources of healing are coming into my life like the Gupta Programme which is based on the science you describe here. I, like some of the commenters here, experienced child abuse and abusive marriage. The day after i got out of my hostile marriage, i developed fibromyalgia and and since also developed Sjögren’s syndrome.

    Does your research approach diseases like fibromyalgia and CFS where the brain is literally trapped in the flight mode and the limbic system has run amuck?

    Thanks. And thank you for following your inner knowing. Your blog and the recent fruition of your passion for mind body awareness in the US health care system rock!

    Much love,
    Julie

    Reply

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