on being afraid

Being afraid is a b*!#@! Regardless of what it is exactly you’re afraid of, the experience of fear sucks. Heart pounding in your ears, mind racing crazy thoughts in spite of every attempt to talk yourself out of the crazy, imagination running wild, recalling every episode of CSI, NCIS, and that old show about missing persons and the FBI. Ugh!

The physiological response to fear can be overwhelming. Basically, as soon a person feels fear the amygdala (a small organ in the center of the brain) sends messages to the autonomic nervous system which then kicks in, creating a domino effect of events: increased heart rate, higher blood pressure, rapid breathing and release of adrenalin and cortisol. In return, the cerebral cortex effectively shuts down (well, is impaired at best). Problem is, the cerebral cortex is the part of the brain where reasoning and judgment live. This is a problem when you’re afraid, because often reasoning and clear judgment are the keys to avoiding panic and to making appropriate decisions.

When lying wide awake at 3:00 am, having one’s cerebral cortex take a coffee break is a real pain. Regardless of how many breathing exercises and peace mantras, prayers and self-reprimands one repeats, what inevitably comes to the forefront of the mind is that horrifically disturbing picture of a giant snake that someone just HAD to post on Facebook (and you’re convinced has now taken up residence in your attic) or a commercial for that new tv show, Stalker. Seriously!?!

Even when we are convinced that the fear we feel is largely unfounded or mostly unreasonable, our bodies beg to differ based on the responses we experience. When we feel it, it’s as real as the words on this page. And, when our reasoning is impaired it’s easy to let the fear take over.

For example, I slept with a nightlight on in my room the other night, something I hadn’t done since childhood. There had been a little “incident” in my neighborhood, and by bedtime I had worked myself up into quite the frenzy. My cerebral cortex was more than impaired. It had taken a vacation. I tried every trick in the book (and, as a trained mental health professional, I know a few tricks). But the more I tried to convince myself that the threat to me was likely non-existent, the greater the fear response. My dark bedroom became the perfect incubator for wild, imaginative, and largely ridiculous thoughts. And, the more my thoughts ran wild, the faster my heart raced. And, the more my heart pounded, the crazier the thoughts – until finally I realized that the night had come and gone and it was time to get up.

Now, I realize that this type of fear is exaggerated and usually in response to some threat of harm. But, as I’ve spent this past week thinking (a LOT) about fear, I’m aware that we all feel afraid sometimes. Be it fear of the unknown, of that which is out of our control, whatever – fear is a reality in life.

[Let me pause here for a disclaimer and to acknowledge that there are parts of our world in which the kind of fear I described above as somewhat unnecessary, is absolutely appropriate and real. That is not the world in which I live, thanks be to God. The kind of fear I tend to experience is largely self-created. It’s this kind of fear I’m exploring here.]

I mentioned in my first post a hesitancy to show up fully in life, and I posed a question: “What exactly keeps us (me) from fully engaging in our own lives?” Well, I think I know the answer to that question – it’s fear. “Of what” would be the next logical question, but what I learned this week about fear is that it isn’t really logical. In fact, it’s just the opposite. Because our logic presumably lives alongside our reasoning in the cerebral cortex (which, remember, checks out when we’re afraid), we can’t always give a LOGICAL answer to the question: of what are we afraid?

So, logic aside, I still think it’s important to wonder a little bit about the fears that sometimes keep us awake at night. Like when we have an opportunity to do something we’ve always wanted to do but we decline the invitation because we’ve convinced ourselves of any number of things: we’re not smart enough or talented enough or we’ll embarrass ourselves. Like when the man (or woman) of our dreams invites us into relationship but we run away because we’re afraid of being hurt or of being found unworthy of love. Like when our dream job is an application away but we don’t click “submit” because we’re certain we’ll be determined a fraud.

See where I’m going here? While the physiological response might be lesser than when faced with bodily harm, the fear response still applies (at least the part about reasoning and judgment checking out and irrational thoughts flooding in). Many of us have the uncanny ability to talk ourselves into being afraid even when the fear is completely unfounded.

Here’s an example. You get a notice that your dream job has just been posted. This job couldn’t be more perfect for you if you had designed it yourself. You really want this job. You sit down at the computer and log in to the application. You scroll through and begin to answer the questions. You’ve got some butterflies in your stomach, and you’re excited about the opportunity. Then you get to the question about your weaknesses or areas for growth, and every mistake you’ve ever made in your profession comes to mind. Reason and judgment slip out the side door, and fear busts in and makes itself at home. Before you realize it you’ve convinced yourself that you’re a total fraud and you’re lucky no one at your current job has figured it out yet. Then you begin to wonder why your boss requested you move up your performance evaluation. And, didn’t that guy down the hall make some comment the other day about the company downsizing?? —- See what happened here? Now you’re on that slippery slope that leads to sleeping with a nightlight in your room and with covers pulled up to your ears.

Once fear manages to work its way into our psyches, it can literally take over. And, while our bodies’ natural responses to fear can be critical when faced with a real threat of harm, the same responses can be detrimental to our ability to live fully and to engage in the kind of living that brings us joy and fulfillment.

So, back to that question about what keeps us (me) from engaging in life… Here are some fears to chew on: what if I put myself out there and am totally rejected? What if I let myself fall in love only to get my heart broken (again)? What if I’m really not willing to change? What if it’s too hard? What if I’m not good enough to make it as a writer? What if people think I’m a failure? What if I wake up this same time next year and nothing is different??? (eek)

The good news (whew) is that we can learn ways to counteract our fears and to sift through the messages our imaginations create during times of distress. One of the primary recommendations regarding counterbalancing the fear response is to breathe. Sounds simple, doesn’t it? (Well, it isn’t when you’re convinced that the Creeper is camped out under your bedroom window…) However, one of the best ways, for sure, to get out of our heads and into our bodies is to focus on our breathing. As our breathing begins to regulate, so does our heart rate. And, as our bodies settle into a relaxation response, our minds have far less control, and those thoughts that threaten our very sanity begin to quiet down a bit.

Once settled, we can ask ourselves a few questions, thus reengaging that part of the brain where reason and judgment live. Going back to the job application example: do my professional growing edges really indicate incompetence, or are they just areas of potential growth? Could it be that I’m afraid that I might actually get the job and it won’t be everything I’d hoped? Could it be that I’m afraid I won’t get the job and that I’ll feel like a failure? (you get the idea)

We have an opportunity, once we’ve settled down a bit, to walk around in our fear and to explore what it really means and where it comes from. While I’ll admit that this doesn’t easily happen at 3:00 in the morning, it can happen the next day (or the day after). And, while we might not be ready to turn the nightlight off, moving it into the bathroom might be a next best step.

You see, I firmly believe that fear is an inevitable part of life. And, I believe we don’t have to let it paralyze us. Regardless of the origin of the fear and even our initial responses to it, we really can find ways to manage it and move through it.

[Here’s where I make another disclaimer: I’m writing out of my own experience. I haven’t figured this out yet or become an expert at fully managing my fears. That’s part of what this blog is about, attempting to counterbalance my fears about “becoming” and owning my story by putting it out there. My hope is that I can begin to trust my experience. And, if what I write resonates for you, you can know you’re not alone. In the end, there’s great value in shared experience.]

So, I’m sleeping now sans nightlight. I had enough time to settle down and to create a plan for encounters with creepers in the night. (I also ordered a security system, but that’s beside the point!) And, as I’ve thought more about this whole idea of fear and where it comes from and how it can take over, I’m aware that being afraid hasn’t killed me (yet).

There are things I really want for my life – experiences, feelings, opportunities – and, I’m really afraid that some of them won’t happen and that some of them will (requiring change, which is a whole other topic). And, being afraid doesn’t mean I have to give up on my hopes and dreams. It just means that sometimes I have to sleep with a nightlight on and tell my village about what makes me afraid and maybe make a plan for handling whatever comes my way.

Yep. Being afraid is a b*$#@. But it doesn’t have to stop me from living.


[*Final disclaimer: I’m not a neuroscientist. If you’re concerned about the accuracy of the information on brain processes, do your own research. My point here is in the psychology of fear, not so much the neurology. Here’s my source: http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/crisis-center/200807/the-anatomy-fear]

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