Transforming Fear into Wisdom

Liana Brooks-Rubin, L.Ac., Dipl.O.M.

March 25, 2020

I am writing this in the midst of a global pandemic.  The first one that (almost) everyone alive has lived through.  A global pandemic that our systems and society are ill-equipped to handle.  There is a lot of fear in the collective.  Many of us are deeply feeling into both our own fear and that of the collective.  There’s a lot to be afraid of.  Many of us are vulnerable to getting very sick and our healthcare system is not equipped to handle a situation such as the one we are witnessing in parts of Europe.  Many others of us have lost our livelihoods and with it a sense that we will be able to support ourselves and our families.  Some of us are on the front lines of responding to this crisis, as first responders, as doctors, nurses, and other healthcare professionals in hospitals.  There are some extremely vulnerable people among us who were barely making ends meet before this pandemic hit and they are the most likely to suffer even more greatly due to lack of access to healthy food and medical care, and due to racism, xenophobia, misogyny, and poverty.  Our children are out of school and off of their sports teams and activities, possibly for months, and have suddenly lost the ability to interact meaningfully with their friends.  I could go on, but you get the picture.  The fear is real, it is everywhere and there are legitimate reasons to be afraid.

I am writing this piece, the first of a two-part series, primarily because I want to communicate about what living in constant fear does to our bodies and the bodies we interact with (both in-person and remotely).  I am writing this as a two-part series because I intend in this first paper to provide background and information so that you (I hope) understand why regulating our own nervous system and helping others to regulate theirs is critical in this frightening and overwhelming time.  The intention of the second piece in the series (forthcoming) is to provide additional tangible practice suggestions.

Our Nervous Systems in Design and Real Life

Our nervous systems are brilliantly designed to respond to fear through the reactions of fight, flight, or freeze.  When we experience or anticipate a threat, our physiological system undergoes mobilization that supports our ability to protect ourselves.  Our heart races, our blood pressure rises, our muscle system is activated.  Conversely, other parts of our physiology such as digestion or the ability to fall asleep are inhibited as they are not immediately needed for self-protection.  During arousal of the sympathetic nervous system, adrenaline and cortisol pump through our bodies leading us to take action for our survival.  But when our sympathetic nervous system is aroused constantly and there’s no resolution/discharge, these hormones continue coursing through our bodies, eventually wreaking havoc on every bodily system:  nervous, immune, endocrine, digestive, and reproductive.

Even before news of this pandemic sunk in, many of us were walking around afraid or overwhelmed or generically “stressed out.” Many of us were already dealing with adrenaline and  cortisol coursing through our bodies, our muscles constantly mobilized, our digestive system compromised, difficulties resting and/or sleeping.  Many of our bodies were existing in a state of constant intense survival energy.  Over time, when living in such a state, we start to experience physical or psycho-emotional symptoms.  Oftentimes both.  When our bodies are in a state of high alert for long enough, our immunity becomes compromised, we are unable to properly rest, we don’t digest our food well and we are more susceptible to pretty much all external pathogens.  Eventually we also become more susceptible to chronic internal disease.

A Chinese Medicine Explanation

It would be remiss of me as a Chinese Medicine (CM) practitioner to neglect a short discussion of how this brilliant medicine understands the impact of excessive or continuous fear on our bodies.  Just as I cannot cover in depth all of the physiological mechanisms of a continuously aroused sympathetic nervous system, I am similarly unable in this paper to provide a deep CM context.  Nevertheless, it is relevant to mention that in Chinese Medicine, there are five  elements, which each have a particular capacity for emotional disturbance, as well as a virtue that is developed when we transform that imbalanced emotion in service of the Heart.  The Water element’s emotional disturbance is fear and when transformed, it becomes wisdom.  The Water element’s season is winter, the darkest time of the year when nature rests, animals  hibernate and human animals require (although do not always get) more rest.  In the stillness of winter, we are guided by the macrocosm to pull in socially and energetically, to mimic what is happening in the natural world.  During this time of relative stillness, introspection is greater and wisdom grows.  However, when disturbed by any sense of life threat, our quiet contemplation turns into consuming fear. Fear and wisdom (and other emotions) are experienced as physiological states in the body.  Therefore, to transform an imbalanced emotion into its virtue, we must work through our bodies.  In the case of consuming fear, we will either become hyper-aroused and/or hyper-vigilant, constantly sensing threat even when it is not present, or we will collapse into hypo-arousal, which leaves us feeling frozen and often distrustful.

The Most Important Lesson I Have Learned in My Life

The following is the most important lesson I have learned in my life and it is likely the most  valuable tool I offer my patients in the clinic, so I will repeat it here and likely elsewhere: every emotion we experience, we tangibly experience in the body.  Many of us are not aware of these physiological reactions to our emotions, especially if they are subtle.  When I am afraid, for example, I feel this first (before the racing heart and tightening in my shoulders) as a clenching in my gut.  When I am sad, I feel this as a dull, persistent pain in my chest.  If I ignore my body’s first signs of fear or sadness and carry on, I will more likely than not end up with a full-blown anxiety attack or a bout of terrible insomnia.  This basic tenet is true for all of us although we each need to learn which physiological signs are relevant for us to track and we will each  experience a different set of symptoms if the imbalanced emotion goes unaddressed for too long.  The entire physiological process I’m describing bypasses our frontal cortex, which is the thinking part of our brain.  Whether we are in actual or perceived danger, our bodies continually respond to the message that there is something to fear and, as much as we love to think our way out of every problem, we cannot effectively use our front brains to talk our body out of  responding in the ways it responds.  The bottom line is that we have to learn how to work with our bodies to observe and experience the physiological reaction and ultimately move through it.  In other words and in the case of the emotion of fear, we need to learn how to transform the physiological experience of fear into the physiological experience of wisdom.

I am indebted to a long lineage of teachers, ancient and modern, for everything in this piece.  As strange as this is going to sound to many of you, I am also indebted to my own traumas, big and small, developmental and acute, for ultimately teaching me how to stay in my body when I  notice the physiological signs that call me to pay attention: a tight chest, a clenching in my gut, a gripping in my calves.  Only when I remain present to these signs and listen to what they are teaching me do I know how to move out of a place of hyper-arousal/paralyzing fear into a place of a calm, introspective, grounded, open wisdom.

My Grandmother’s Hands and Other Sources of Wisdom

Regarding teachers, I’m citing a few of them below (along with some excellent books) for those of you interested in understanding these concepts in greater depth.  However, the specific inspiration for writing this comes from observing and physiologically experiencing the collective fear that’s taken hold in the past couple of weeks and simultaneously rereading the brilliant Resmaa Menakem’s book entitled My Grandmother’s Hands:  Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending Our Hearts and Bodies.  (There is so much wisdom in this book that I wish I could persuade the entire world to read it and use his suggested somatic practices on the daily).  What keeps coming up for me as relevant in these times is this:  when a dysregulated, hyper-aroused person comes into contact with a person whose nervous system is regulated, the one who is consumed with fear will almost always settle into calmness in the presence of the one who is regulated.  The opposite is true, of course, too.  If I am walking around (or posting on  social media) with a dysregulated nervous system, completely consumed with fear and experiencing all of the associated physiological reactions, I am much more likely to create a similar disturbance in the bodies of everyone I interact with and those people are more likely to spread the dysregulation in their own interactions.  Not only is a dysregulated nervous system harmful to my own health, but it has potentially harmful impacts on my family, patients, friends, community and the collective at large.  We don’t have to look very far to see this play out in real life.

Menakem’s main premise (which is directly related to healing racial trauma in America AND that I believe has *even* larger implications relating to navigating healthily amidst great uncertainty and fear) is that changing the world begins with healing the trauma held in each of our bodies. As Menakem writes, “Healing does not occur in a vacuum.  We also need to begin mending our collective body.  This mending takes place in connection with other bodies.”  I would add that this mending takes place remotely, as well as in person, although social distancing and isolation makes this infinitely more challenging.  Fortunately, this is not simply a great idea to aspire to.  We can, each of us, lean how to transform our trauma, move from fear to wisdom or regulate our hyper-aroused (or hypo-aroused) nervous systems through regular, simple and effective practices.  We can do this even when there is unprecedented uncertainty and very real things to fear.  We can do it in a way that does not bypass real fears and keeps the body ready to  mobilize when there’s an actual in-your-face threat.

Putting It Into Practice (Part One)

All of the world’s ancient wisdom and healing traditions—including Chinese medicine, Ayurvedic medicine originating on the subcontinent, a variety of Indigenous healing traditions and more—provided us with tools to work with and through our bodies to transform consuming fear into wisdom.  Or in other words, a hyper-aroused (or hypo-aroused) nervous system into a calm, steady, alert and regulated one.  Many modern traditions have borrowed from these ancient healing traditions and developed tools such as Somatic Experiencing, Emotional Freedom Technique, Reiki, Cranio-Sacral therapy and a host of other healing modalities.  Many  psychotherapists and medical professionals trained in allopathic (Western) medicine have learned one or more of these somatic-based techniques and currently incorporate them into their practices.  The last section of this paper outlines for you, the reader, one simple practice that I hope will help you begin to understand or remind you of in a tangible way the connection between your body, mind, and emotions.  The second paper in this series will be entirely dedicated to somatic-based practices that are designed for use regularly in order to regulate your nervous system in the face of great fear.

Unlike all of the preceding paragraphs, which you had to use your mind to read and process, this last section is designed for you to practice when you have the time and space to drop out of your head and into an observation of the physiological experiences of your body.  You can do this sitting up comfortably or lying down.  You can do it alone or with your children, partner or anyone else you are currently in contact with.  You can even do it through a Zoom call.

*Because of the importance of touch (which I will go into in greater depth in the next paper), I would recommend placing one hand on your sternum, over your heart and one hand on your belly, just below your navel.

*Begin by taking five deep breaths, counting to four as you inhale through your nose and to four as you exhale through your mouth.

*Continue breathing in this way (you can stop counting) and then notice all of the points of  contact between various body parts and the floor or bed.  Whether you are seated or lying down, can you release your skin, muscles, sinews, bones, even viscera down into those points of contact?  Can you make your bones feel heavier so that they sink fully into the support of whatever’s beneath you?  As one of my first yoga teacher’s used to say, can you let gravity have you?

*As you continue to breathe and drop your weight, trusting gravity and your support (the earth, the floor, the bed), turn your attention inward and first notice where in your body feels comfortable, open or safe?  If you’re in a state of hyper-arousal, you might want to begin on the periphery as you might find that your gut, chest, hips, shoulders, jaw, head feel like the eye of the storm.  Start with an ankle or a toe or one finger if this is the case for you.  Spend some time observing that part of your body that feels supported, comfortable, safe.  If there are several parts of your body that feel supported, spend some time observing each of them.  The idea here is to signal to your nervous system that right in this moment, even amidst great chaos, fear,  panic, and/or anxiety, at least one small part of your body feels safe and supported.

*Maintaining the same breathing pattern and sense of heaviness and while continuing to notice yourself supported by what’s below you, notice a place in your body that feels tight, constricted or uncomfortable.  Be very gentle with this!  Those of us who have experienced significant trauma often cannot tolerate that space at all or for very long—not at first.  If it’s tight, but tolerable, move one of your hands to that area (if it’s not already there) and be curious about whether the weight, shape and warmth of your hand can communicate a sense of safety to the tight/uncomfortable part of you.  Your mind is going to want to make up a million explanations for why you feel the way you do; this it the mind just doing its job.  Keep your attention on your breath, your physiological experiences, your skin and bones in contact with their support.  If it is tolerable to stay with the tightness/discomfort until it shifts, then do so.  Notice precisely how it shifts.

*Observe any other shifts in your body.  If you find it is too much to stay with that tight place, go back to one of the places in which you have ease in the body.  Notice again what that ease feels like.  Notice if perhaps there are now more parts of your body that feel this ease.  End this practice with five more breaths in and out as described above.

*The above practice, like all of the practices that I will share in the next paper, is meant to be used regularly.  At least once per day, maybe twice.  You can’t overdo it.  Commit to this practice for at least 5 minutes at a time; longer is fine too.  If you journal, spend a few minutes journaling about the experience before moving onto your next activity.

*This is by no means a comprehensive list of the teachers and/or authors from whom I have learned, but I do need to mention the following influential teachers:  Lucia Perillan, Bob Duggan (may his memory be for a blessing), Dianne Connelly, Amy Tatsumi, Miyuki Yamamoto, Alaine Duncan, Andrew Nugent-Head, Thea Elijah.  I highly encourage you to explore these concepts in greater depth, if interested, in the following books:  My Grandmother’s Hands:  Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending Our Hearts and Bodies by Resmaa Menakem; The Tao of Trauma by Alaine D. Duncan; The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma by Bessel van der Kolk; Treating Emotional Trauma with Chinese Medicine by CT Holman.