Chilling Out, Freaking Out, and Checking Out

Fear can be overwhelming! When fear becomes too much to handle, you have three options. First, you can check out. Shutting down and dissociating from your body can be a great way to escape an otherwise overwhelming experience. Second, you can freak out. When fear fills the body to the point of overflowing, then shaking, screaming, and otherwise expressing the fear helps get the energy moving. Third, you can chill out. Calming your system down, breathing, and diffusing the emotion makes the unbearable bearable.

Overcoming fear requires an awareness of how these three responses fit together. The stuck energy of fear can only be freed up by freaking out. Too much freaking out in too disorganized a fashion, however, further overwhelms an already stressed nervous system, and will cause you to check out. While there’s nothing wrong with checking out, it will never help you to overcome fear. It only postpones the process. Sometimes, then, in order to freak out just the right amount, you need help to chill out a little first.

Once you understand the three responses, you can follow the basic recipe for overcoming fear. Chill out enough that you can freak out in a more manageable way so you don’t need to check out.

This video is part 3 in an ongoing series on Overcoming Fear

View Video Transcript
Chilling Out, Freaking Out, and Checking Out
Steve Bearman
August 20, 2012

When fear gets strong enough that it’s at least a little overwhelming, there are three different kinds of ways that people can respond to it. You can check out, meaning, it’s too much, your body just can’t handle it, your mind can’t handle it, you just kind of dissociate, you go elsewhere. That’s checking out. You can freak out which means it just fills up your body and it just comes out in a scream or a shake or some other kind of sound: that’s freaking out, or you can chill out. You can figure out how to calm your system down, to relax it enough, so that what was overwhelming is no longer overwhelming. Now if you want to learn how to overcome fear, here’s how it goes: you don’t want to be checking out. Checking out means that you’re just kind of gone from the playing field and there’s really nothing to be done but slowly find your way back and then you are still in the same place you were before. No fear has been overcome. Checking out however, is a really wonderful natural process. It’s just something that’s built into us. It’s like the idea of a deer in headlights. Well, the deer in headlights is the deer in headlights because they have the same built-in mechanism that we do, that has them freeze sometimes when they're overwhelmed. I’ll come back in a minute to talk about why this is useful and important but for overcoming fear it won't do you any good. To overcome fear what you need to do is freak out. You need to be able to move the energy of the fear through your body and discharge it. You watched my previous video in overcoming fear about discharging fear. We talk a lot about and show as an example how discharging fear makes it possible to then not be afraid of the thing that was previously scary. It's just another natural response that we have. It’s necessary to let fear do its thing and move through your system to come out of you. However, sometimes fear is so strong that the freak out response is huge and disorganized and so overwhelming, that it causes people to check out. So if you just freak out and just go wild especially if you don’t have any help or support, it’s going to be the thing that usually makes you shut down later. So, sometimes you need to chill out enough so that you can freak out just the right amount. You need to be able to calm your system down and do whatever it takes to be able to relax, to chill, so that you can then start to notice what’s scary and move enough of that fear through you and freak out just enough for that to be helpful in the process of healing and discharging and overcoming fear. Let me give you a couple of examples of how this works. One is tree climbing. I love teaching people to climb trees, and the process often goes like this. Someone gets to a limb in the tree that’s high enough to scare them. For some people that’s like right at the ground, it’s the first line, and some people they have to get high up enough that they look down, they go, ‘Ooohaaahh!’ and what often happens at that time is people will get paralyzed with fear, they check out. They can’t go any further. Now what a wonderful built-in mechanism for keeping someone from doing something that might be dangerous, it’s a really great thing that people don’t keep going, instead they freeze. So they have checked out. But I want them to overcome the fear that’s keeping them from climbing higher so that they can enjoy climbing the tree. So instead I try to help them freak out. I say, “Okay now, I want you to look down at the ground and shake and go “ahhhhhhh!” and just act out your fear as much as you can,” and if they can do that, they’ll do it for a while, sometimes people cry, people just say, talk out loud about what might happen if they fall, they do all this stuff to move it and then after a little while they look up, they see the next limb and they keep climbing. But some people can’t do that discharging of fear because they are just too scared. They just stay kind of frozen. So before they can do that I have to help them chill out. I say, “Listen, get on a limb where you can tell your solid, sit down, right, I want you to hold on to that, I want you to feel that you are actually being held by the tree, you are not going to fall, you are not going to slip, OK, you can tell, anow breathe, I help them to breathe, to slow down the process, slow down their nervous systems so that then once they are in a calmer state I can say, "now I want you to notice that it’s really scary and freak out a little bit’”, and then they freak out. So that’s the example for climbing trees. You got to chill out enough to freak out enough so you don’t check out. Another great example of how this works is with panic attacks. People who have panic attacks—what a panic attack means is just that someone is very scared. In fact, the term panic attack is sometimes used for what happens when people just get really scared and feel it and it overwhelms their whole system and people think there’s something wrong with that as if that shouldn’t be happening. Now there’s more to say about panic attacks and I will in the next installment in the series on overcoming fear. But for now I’ll say that what’s useful for people to do when they are having panic attacks is to have the panic attack. The panic attack is an attempt to freak out, to allow all the fear that for whatever reason is in a person’s system, to move through, so that it’s not in there anymore. But it’s too much for most people most of the time and so they try to stop it because they can’t handle it. They try to freeze and often successfully do so, check out, dissociate, leave their bodies, they can’t handle it. It’s too much, it’s too disorganized, so instead what they need is someone with them to help them chill out enough so that they can freak out to say, “I’ve got you, I promise you, you will not die. I am going to make sure that no matter what happens, I will keep you alive and I just want you to just feel as scared as you feel and I am going to stay right here with you,” and that and maybe also helping the person to calm down in other ways, or to breathe or to resource in their bodies to find something that’s calm in them, that is often enough to help them start to freak out in a more manageable way, in a smaller amount at once. Freaking out enough to heal the fear that they have to chill out enough to be able to get to, so they don’t check out, and that is checking out, chilling out and freaking out. In the next installment on this series on overcoming fear, I am going to talk about a number of different forms that fear takes. The kinds of challenges people have, the kinds of disorders that are associated with fear and how to work with all of them in essentially the same way that involves slowly approaching the object of fear and then using these principles.

About the Author

Steve Bearman, Ph.D., earned his doctorate in Psychology from the University of California, Santa Cruz. He founded Interchange Counseling Institute in 2002 and is the lead teacher of Interchange's San Francisco-based year-long counseling and coaching training. When he's not counseling people, leading workshops, and advocating for social justice, Steve climbs mountains, adventures in the urban wilderness, explores the edges and limits of what's possible, deconstructs everything, and finds new ways to put it all back together.