We have become so conditioned to avoid discomfort. Between taking a pill, avoiding the stressor or situation (which social media has had a huge help in) and the endless supply of safety nets and snake oil solutions out on the streets, it is no wonder we feel like sitting in discomfort is painful and unnecessary. Why would I be uncomfortable if I can avoid it? Why would I feel pain if there are things to take it away? Why face that hard situation if I can just pretend it never happened?
How does that effect me?
By increasing our methods of avoidance, we have trained our brain to assume that feelings of discomfort must be avoided because they are unsafe, harmful or detrimental. And when we associate something with those words or feelings, they trigger our fear response, a system designed to protect us from potential threats that is housed in what is referred to as our “old” or “reptilian” brain.
Why does the location matter?
Because, while so much of our brain has incredibly complex processing power and capability, our old brain runs on the equivalent of MS-DOS. There is no higher functioning power, no ability to work through options and pick the best one. This is because in times of potential death or harm, that type of processing takes too long and could, in it of itself, get you “killed”. Instead, it works in black and white, all-or-nothing responses. It knows “yes” and “no”, “safe” and “unsafe”. So, the more we begin to label experiences as “yes” or “no”/”safe” or “unsafe”, the more our brain enacts it’s defense system, by way of the fight-flight-or-freeze response. When this occurs, our brain completely shuts down all other parts of our brain and enacts a safety plan it has deemed necessary to protect us. We have no choice and no control.
So, while the I think this part of our brain is SUPER important in the instance of saving me from a bear or pulling my hand from a hot stove…hell, even giving me that uneasy feeling that makes me avoid a potentially dangerous situation, sometimes, this response is a little dramatic and unnecessary. Do I really have to avoid sitting in my thoughts for 30 seconds? Is checking Instagram really necessary?
Not everything that we experience as scary, anxiety-provoking, or potentially harmful is actually life-threatening. And in many instances, we perceive situations to be of much greater risk than they truly are. And yet, that part of our brain equates your fear of public speaking to the fear you would feel if a saber-toothed tiger was running towards you. It sees your discomfort of having a hard conversation with a friend or loved one on the same level as being in a dark alley at night with a hooded figure moving towards you (did anyone else just imagine a Dementor??? No, just the HP nerd…okay, I get it. Moving on).
Why is this ultimately a problem?
Well, besides the fact that we lose our ability to logically function in those moments, we begin to avoid an ever-growing list of people, places, situations and experiences as we label more and more things as “no” and “unsafe”. Over time, we narrow down our scope of view of the world and perfect our predictable shittyness bubble, avoiding discomfort at any cost. We stay in crappy relationships or work shitty jobs because we fear what would happen if we quit. We say “no” to new opportunities and experiences because the fear of the unknown takes over. We tell ourselves we “shouldn’t” say something, do something, want something or be something all because our brain assumes that those things would lead to a threat to our livelihood.
And worst of all, we look for external solutions to an internal problem. We let people sell us bullshit ideas about how to “live our best lives” without actually facing the hard shit bubbling underneath. We jump to action without insight and keep putting on new coats of paint to a shit-covered wall.
Any of this resonate with you?
If you are saying no, 1) I call bullshit and 2) you probably didn’t make it this far in the blog post so it doesn’t even matter. In reality, no one is immune to this. We have all fallen victim to these thoughts and feelings and have held ourselves back from things because of fear. But, does fear go away? Can we truly conquer fear? No. And we wouldn’t want to. We need fear — it keeps us alive. Instead, it is about building a better relationship with fear where it can trust that not every feeling of distress or discomfort is a bad thing. We have to train it’s primitive thinking to be a little more discerning.
Think about it. The first time you got on a bike, I guarantee you were nervous. On your first day of school, first date, first job interview…or any first, you had a degree of discomfort because it was new and your brain did not know what to do with it. Were all of those things bad? No. I mean sure, some things ended in literal and metaphorical pain — not every conversation I have entered into ended up going well, the first time I tried roller blading as an adult I fell down a hill and scraped my legs (and pride really bad) and my first serious relationship definitely did not go well. But a lot of firsts took me to new places. My move across the country, launching my own business, going camping, etc. Pain and discomfort can be a sign we are growing or facing something really important and rather than avoid it, sometimes we can do better to engage with and listen to it. If I didn’t face my discomfort in my relationship, I never would have ended it and made space to meet my husband. If I never would have started my own business, I would have continued to try and force myself to function in a 9-5 job, hating every minute of it. If I never dared to try speaking, I wouldn’t have expanded one of my favorite parts of my business. And if I never would have dared to show up to hard conversations, I would have continued to lose myself behind shame, people pleasing and fear. I think Elizabeth Gilbert said it best when she said, “Jump, and the net might catch you.” Not every time we try something will it work out but what is the cost of letting fear stop us from ever trying?
What can I do about it?
Stop using every avoidance strategy hoisted at you in our culture. Have the hard conversations. Do the things that frighten you. Spend less time on social media. And remind yourself that fear has the right to show up to try and protect us but does not always need to take the keys from us to drive the bus in our lives. Check out these tools to help you through this process and begin the process to walking through and feeling fear and discomfort rather than avoiding it.
Use this tool to “Determine the Real Risks” in a situation and get a little more clarity about the negative self talk and fear-based thinking that is guiding this dominating worry.
Try using Mel Robbin’s 5-Second Rule to try and shift your brain from seeing something as scary to seeing it as exciting. Why does this work? Because the fear-based response stimulates the same physiological reaction as excitement, it is just about how the brain codes it. So, if we can hard-wire the brain to code it the other way then we can remove a lot of the distress around various topics.
BONUS: Try using her “Anchor Thought” technique she also talks about in this video
DOUBLE BONUS: Check out her book, “The 5 Second Rule”, to learn more about this and other amazing techniques to respond to fear.
Be kind to yourself. The more you practice self-care and self-compassion, the more your body releases oxytocin and other feel good hormones which can equate to a greater sense of self-love and self-efficacy, thus helping you build greater trust in your ability to handle different situations and circumstances in life.