Fear Not: Psychologist’s empowering new book helps readers break free from paralyzing fear, anxiety and worry

Dr. Nancy Stella transcends traditional therapeutic approaches in a new guide to living the life you want

CINCINNATI, Ohio – Are you afraid of loneliness or failure, confrontation or facing the unknown? Psychologist Dr. Nancy Stella draws on decades of experience in clinical practice in her new book, “Fear Traps: Escape the Triggers that Keep You Stuck” — which presents her concept of the Courageous Brain Process, a six-step, science-based treatment plan to help people overcome fear.

“Fear Traps” equips readers to heal trauma and take on new challenges with confidence and resilience. Dr. Stella shows us that fear is normal, but fear does not need to control you. If you’re feeling trapped in a cycle of coping mechanisms that just keep making things worse, there is a way out. With over 30 years of experience as a clinical psychologist, Nancy Stella, PsyD, PhD, helps us get unstuck by teaching us how our brain processes fear. Using current neuroscience research, her Courageous Brain Process (CBP) provides transformative, science-based practices to regain control over the emotions that once controlled us.

“Fear Traps: Escape the Triggers that Keep You Stuck”
Dr. Nancy Stella | Oct. 26, 2021 | Berry Powell Press | Nonfiction / Mental Health
Paperback | ISBN 978-1-7363953-0-1 | $15.99
Ebook | ISBN 978-1-7363953-1-8 | $9.99

About the Author

Dr. Nancy Stella has been a leading clinical psychologist in the Cincinnati area for over 20 years. As former president and owner, Dr. Stella expanded BridgePointe Psychological and Counseling Center into one of Ohio’s largest private, multi-specialty mental health practices with over 75 providers.

After a shattering divorce, Dr. Stella found traditional therapeutic approaches wanting, so she developed the Courageous Brain Process (CBP) — an innovative, science-based method of therapy. Rooted in the most up-to-date neuroscience, it bypassed the shortcomings of traditional talk therapy to repattern the way our brains process fear.

When the results proved to be undeniably effective, Dr. Stella left BridgePointe in 2014 to open a counseling practice focused on the CBP. As a result, countless clients have been able to break free of self-destructive patterns triggered by unresolved fear. In addition, Dr. Stella provides training and consultation to other clinicians who want to include this method in their practices.

Follow Dr. Nancy Stella:
Website: NancyStella.com| Instagram: @drnancystella

Praise for “Fear Traps”

“A must-have resource for anyone stuck in a cycle of fear.”
— Celia Oliver, PhD, PsyD, President of the New Hampshire Psychological Association

“Dr. Stella integrates cutting-edge neuroscience, millennia-old meditation practices, and decades of clinical experience to provide hope and concrete guidance to anyone trapped in the revolving door of their own fears.”
— Richard Reckman, PhD, Past President, Ohio Psychological Association

“When we feel small and paralyzed, this book reminds us we are capable of so much more than we think.”
— Marian Rubin, LISW, Licensed Independent Social Worker

“Dr. Stella takes away the stigma often associated with trauma responses.”
— Dianne Latimer, PsyD, Licensed Psychologist

In an interview, Dr. Nancy Stella can discuss:

  • How the lowest, darkest period of her life inspired her to confront and conquer fear.
  • How to recognize fear, an uncomfortable feeling triggered by the belief that something is threatening us. The threat can be physical, emotional, or both.
  • Trigger warnings—how to recognize signs that appear when you’re feeling stuck in an ongoing cycle of fear.
  • Why, as a psychologist, she focuses on fear, not just anxiety and depression.
  • The Courageous Brain Process—a six-step plan to help people overcome the root fears behind anxiety and depression to create lasting change:
    1. Tell your story
    2. Identify your triggers
    3. Describe patterns of self-sabotage
    4. Imagine the worst-case scenario
    5. Create a courageous brain
    6. Live free of the fear trap
  • The role of resilience in challenging times, such as the global pandemic.
  • What mindful meditation exercises can teach us about controlling and overcoming fear.

An Interview with Nancy Stella

The concepts introduced in “Fear Traps” were born out of the lowest, darkest point in your life after learning that your husband at the time was having an affair. How did that discovery affect you and eventually lead to the six-step plan that you call the Courageous Brain Process?

At the time I discovered my husband’s affair, I was a psychologist with a thriving practice. On a personal level, I was an emotionally mature woman with the ability to successfully deal with this kind of trauma. Of course it hurts terribly when someone you love betrays you, and it’s not easy to go through a divorce, but I had everything I needed to be okay—practically, emotionally, and psychologically.

However, I did not feel like I could cope. In fact, I felt like I couldn’t survive without him, very much like a child feels if they’re abandoned by a parent. I became needy and clingy. I knew crying and pleading with my husband would not convince him to stay, but my adult self flew out the window.

I recognized that I was overreacting, but I couldn’t stop myself. It was then that I realized: my brain is not just reacting to this loss. The experience of suddenly losing someone I loved reminded my brain of my father suddenly dying when I was 5. Suddenly, I lost my adult abilities to cope—I acted like a 5 year-old again. I may have been using adult language, but I lost the ability to deal with the situation like the capable, self-sustaining woman I was.

Then an amazing insight hit me: I had seen this pattern over and over again with my clients. When triggered, we think and problem solve at the age the trauma or original wound first occurred. For example, if you were criticized by a teacher when you were in the third grade, you would revert back to an eight-year-old when given a bad review by your supervisor. If a beloved grandparent died when you were ten, you might handle your grief like a child if you lost someone as an adult. If as a teenager, you were mocked for being overweight, you might respond like an adolescent if someone suggests you should diet. The painful events can stick with us so that later in life our brains are reminded of that past wound. We become triggered and our brains over-react to the perceived danger, even if we’re not in danger at all.

I realized in order to create sustaining change, we need to address the original fear. Mine was the fear of abandonment. But I wondered, what does it actually look like to break free of those entrenched fears? This is how the Courageous Brain Process emerged. I developed it to give both myself and my clients practical tools to work through the root fears behind the symptoms of anxiety and depression to create the lasting change we seek.

What are the six steps of the Courageous Brain Process?

  1. Tell your story
    1. Telling your story provides a foundation for the next two steps, and it’s critical to starting the healing process.
  2. Identify your triggers
    1. This helps us understand what sets off the “danger signal” in our brains so we can discern when the danger is real versus when we’re likely overreacting.
  3. Describe patterns of self-sabotage
    1. When we’re triggered, we make choices out of fear. Those choices tend to hurt us and others, but we continue to make them repeatedly. We must recognize these patterns so we can work against them.
  4. Imagine the worst-case scenario
    1. The worst-case scenario is almost always something we can survive. This realization undermines and diffuses the fear we feel.
  5. Create a courageous brain
    1. This means actually changing the physical structures of your brain through a focused meditation exercise in the book specifically targeted for a particular fear.
  6. Live free of the fear trap
    1. This involves continual self-awareness and practice.

These six steps help people create courageous brains, free from past trauma and confident to handle whatever comes their way.

How do you define fear, and what exactly is a “fear trap?”

Fear is a strong and uncomfortable feeling triggered by the belief that something is threatening us. The threat can be physical, emotional, or both. When we feel fear, our body responds with a jolt of adrenaline that pushes us to respond and seek safety. We need this instinct to keep us safe. However, a fear trap occurs when we are chronically fearful that something bad is going to happen based on something painful that happened to us before.

When we’re stuck in a fear trap, we go round and round in a cycle of anxiety. We engage in self-defeating patterns of overreaction that can literally ruin our relationships, careers, and health. I was stuck in a fear trap for many years, and I’ve seen chronic fear steal the joy and health from the hundreds of clients I’ve worked with over several decades.

Why do you specifically focus on fear rather than anxiety or depression?

Anxiety and depression can have a variety of causes, but they typically trace back to a root fear. Fear is a basic physiological and emotional response to a perceived threat. When we’re stuck in fear, we feel helpless to change. But when we understand how the brain works and address the root issue of fear, we show our brains that we are safe.

In your book, you mention that people experience fear in three basic ways: fight, flight, and freeze. What does that mean?

Fight, flight and freeze are primitive and automatic responses to fear designed to save our lives. When in danger, our physiological makeup allows us to respond automatically to be safe—that is we can fight the danger, flee from the danger or freeze so the danger does not attack us. For example, if you stepped off a curb and a bus was barrelling towards you, you would not stop and think about what to do. You automatically respond in a way that keeps you safe and gets you out of the way of the bus. In other situations, fighting the danger or being still would be the safest route.

However, since the flight, flight, or freeze response originates from a primitive part of our reptilian brain, it only knows if we are in danger by what our “smart brain” (our frontal lobes) think. Our primitive brain cannot assess what’s actually dangerous or not. So when our smart brain starts worrying about something, our primitive brain can’t tell if a tiger is chasing you, if you’re late to work, or if you’re worried about your relationship ending. When the smart brain worries our primitive brain kicks into action to protect us, even if we’re not in real danger.

What does it mean to feel “stuck,” and what signs can people look for to recognize that feeling?

We know we are stuck in a fear trap when our reaction to a situation is out of proportion to the event. When we overreact, we are being triggered by not only the current situation, but situations where we have been hurt in the past. This response often becomes a repetitive pattern. We feel stuck because we know our reaction doesn’t actually get us what we want, but we feel helpless to respond any differently.

Signs people can look for to recognize they’re being triggered:

  1. You feel angry, scared, and/or overwhelmed
  2. Your reaction is out of proportion to the actual situation
  3. You experience an uncomfortable physical reaction (headache, tense shoulders, stomach ache, shallow breathing, etc.)
  4. The situation becomes very black and white
  5. You can’t stop thinking about it
  6. The situation feels urgent, even if it’s not
  7. You dwell on the worst-case scenario
  8. Your perspective becomes “me versus them”
  9. You make assumptions about others and attribute motives to their actions

When you experience any of these, you know that the “fear center” of your brain is activated. Your feelings likely don’t represent reality in these moments. You have the choice to calm down before reacting so you can think critically about the situation and respond in a way that helps yourself and others.

For many people, the past couple years have been punctuated by loss, grief, anxiety and fear, but what are your thoughts on our resiliency during these difficult times?

We like predictability; we want to know what is going to happen because it makes us feel in-control and therefore safe. The COVID crisis robbed many of us of our feelings of control and security in believing we could predict what may happen. With uncertainty often comes fear. Reactions ranged from disbelief to terror. The challenge was to face our fear and respond in a healthy way. First of all, it is normal to feel afraid. Fear is an adaptive response to let us know of a potential threat. Yet, fear becomes unhealthy when it takes over, leading to destructive behaviors, anxiety, or depression.

Resiliency is a term many of you are familiar with. Resiliency refers to the ability to manage and return to a state of well being, in spite of difficult situations. The Courageous Brain Process uses an understanding of how the brain actually functions to make the brain more resilient. It guides people through the processes of facing what they fear and learning new ways to manage past hurts that trigger them.

What sets “Fear Traps” apart from other self-help books out there?

  1. It’s practical, tangible, and simple. With or without therapy, anyone can implement these clearly outlined tools into their everyday life.
  2. It presents tools that are scientifically proven to actually change the physical structures of our brain because it’s rooted in the most up-to-date science of how our brain actually works, and it’s backed by clinical professionals.
  3. It’s time-tested with over a decade of actual clinical experience.

Your book includes meditation exercises. How does meditation relate to overcoming fear?

Meditation, particularly mindful meditation, essentially teaches us mind control. Our fears all exist in our brains, and focused meditation is scientifically proven to change our brains. This allows us to intentionally shift our thoughts from worry to the present and reroute toxic cycles of thought that we thought we had no control over. The caveat: practice is important. Learning the skill before you need it, so your brain does not fight you when needed.

Do you need to be in therapy to understand and use the concepts in your book?

Not at all. The concepts in the book are easy to understand even if you’ve never been to therapy. In fact, this method has proven helpful for many people who didn’t feel ready to commit to therapy, or those who had a bad experience and weren’t ready to go back. This method is for people who know they’re stuck in a cycle and are determined to change, wherever they’re at in the process.

However, I will add: dealing with particularly severe early wounds can be overwhelming. In this case, I recommend working with a therapist as well.

Your book has such a hopeful, promising tone and makes overcoming fear sound so simple. Is it really?

Understanding and implementing the six steps of the Courageous Brain Process is simple. The process works.

However, wounds take time to heal. Facing our triggers and healing wounds stirs up some of the most challenging parts of our past and present. That’s never easy. But neither is being stuck in destructive cycles of fear! With practice, the process becomes easier and easier—especially as you observe the changes in yourself and your life. Eventually, it becomes a way of thinking.