Fear has great potential to either be a catalyst for growth and change, or to be the cause of crippling paralysis. Fear is what enables us to run away from a burning building or dangerous animal, but if we have not had experiences of fear mobilizing us into action than we can get stuck in a cycle of freezing. Much of how we respond to fear and what we do with it is based on our early childhood experiences and what our bodies have learned to do with fear.
Most often fear is not actually about the phone call, job interview, or new career venture that we are deciding to make or not. Fear is actually about the neural connections that have fired together in the past. Our Limbic System is the part of our brain that houses our Amygdala; and our Amygdala is the primary part of our brain responsible for our fight/flight response. Our limbic brain, also known as our mammalian brain, can feel emotions (such as fear), but it does not have the rational that our prefrontal cortex (the thinking part of our brain) has. This means that our limbic system has no way to differentiate between the fear I am feeling when I need to have a difficult conversation and the fear I have felt when I was white water rafting the Nile River in Uganda. All it has the ability to say, as you may have seen in my previous posts, is “all systems red alert!!” or “it’s okay to rest, digest and chill”.
If as children we experienced chronic trauma or stress that was inescapable we can become trapped in a perpetual state of fight/flight or freeze. We may be constantly in a state of unrest that leaves us agitated and prone to outrageous outbursts, or we may be stuck in an immobility response that keeps us stuck in toxic relationships or communities without the sense of self agency to leave.
So what is it that you are avoiding?
Is it that you are really avoiding that big career change, or that boundary that you need to set for yourself with someone else? Are you really staying away from the risk of that new invention? Or book you want to write?
Perhaps are you avoiding the feeling of what it is to set that boundary or make that leap?
We aren’t taught in our Western culture to befriend our emotions. We are taught to not feel, or at least to pretend like we don’t feel. The problem is that this is a bit like ignoring a burning coal that you’ve buried under a stack of wood that has been drying out in a desert for three years. The more we try to hide or look away from our emotions, especially ones that are charged with energy because they are meant for our safety and survival - the more those emotions will come back with a fire that we cannot ignore. Sometimes this smoldering can look like an autoimmune disease within the body, sometime it can look like a forest fire of relationships that we leave in our wake because we have not chosen to address the coal in the first place.
So how do we face the fear in order to use it as a catalyst and not a hindrance? How do we harness the energy and fuel from the fire and keep it from becoming a destructive force to us and to others? I am glad you asked :) Here are some thoughts…
This may sound challenging and absolutely awful, and I won’t say it won’t be at first, but I believe that is actually the main reason we need to do it…
stay. with. the. fear.
Don’t run away from it. Don’t avoid it. Don’t hide it. But listen to it. Ask yourself; what does this fear feel like? Where in my body do I feel the fear? Is it a shudder through my entire system? Is it a hole in my stomach? Is it racing thoughts in my head? Become familiar with what the fear feels like for you.
After you have recognized the feelings of fear see if you can find a place in your body that does not feel afraid, or if you can access a memory of what your body felt like when you weren’t afraid. When did you feel peaceful? How did that feeling feel in your body? Where did you feel rest? Where did you feel spaciousness within yourself? Where in your body did you feel settled?
Now that you have built a certain level of safety within yourself come back to the fear. Has it increased? Has it shifted? Now start to ask yourself, “when was the first time I felt this way?” See if there is an age, an experience, or a memory that comes to mind. Who are the people in this memory? What is the setting? How old were you? Start to create a narrative in your mind that enables the body memory of fear to find one of the places it originated. As yourself, “How was my fear attuned to?” “who helped me overcome my fear or allowed me to feel a sense of agency when I was scared?” Some of these answers may become unsettling to you, and if they feel overwhelming return to point two and continue to build safety within yourself. Returning to the questions and curiosity about the fear when and as you are able to. Letting go of judgment and expectation of if you “should” be able to engage them now- but listening authentically to where you are at in this moment.
After you have located experiences when you first learned this feeling of fear ask yourself, “what did that part of me need?” perhaps there was an experience where you needed to run away or fight off someone or something and you weren’t able to. Allow your body to move in any motion that makes you feel as if you are running away or fighting something off- this can help your body complete the survival response it may not have been able to in the moment. Perhaps what you needed to receive in that moment was comfort and for someone to let you know you were going to be okay, and if that is true maybe offer yourself a weighted blanket, a warm bath, or ask a loved one that you trust to hold your and speak to you kind words letting you know you will be okay. In whatever seems right for you pay attention to your breath. See if you can allow long, deep, slow breaths to fill your entire belly and chest; this will help make sure you are staying in parasympathetic (peaceful) dominance and not re-traumatizing yourself. This can begin to give your nervous system a new experience of what fear is and let you know you are not stuck in a memory where you didn’t have choice or the ability to run or fight. You are safe now.
Come back to point two- maybe even with increased awareness of places of safety within yourself that you have found. Maybe you have found a new level of agency and support that you are able to offer yourself. Perhaps you have now grown a sense of confidence that you can do scary things and still survive. Continue paying attention to and trying to expand and slow down your breathing.
See if you can take this breath and safety with you into whatever that risky and scary endeavor you need to make is. Come back to your place of safety within the fear; allowing yourself to move fluidly between fear and peace; and go for it!
If you found yourself still unable to engage the fear- that is okay! Perhaps you are not ready to, and it may be helpful for you to find a professional that can help you address the themes of fear or terror with you.
Often times the most dangerous thing about fear is how it can be latched on to by people or systems that wish to use it against those that are afraid.
By building our capacity to face our fears and learn what soothing and comfort feel like we can start to reclaim parts of ourselves that feel oppressed and stuck in systems or relationships that are unhealthy for us. We can start to grow our autonomy and safety within ourselves that give us greater capacity to seek out safe and healthy relationships and communities with others.
Thanks for reading!