Fear is optional… (pt4 – the options)

Pay Attention! This Is Important!

What We Can Do

Learn to recognize fear and what it has to tell us. The best place to start is by finding ways to dampen fears that come from things out of our control, such as other people’s thoughts, feelings, or actions. Unless we’re dealing with a small child whom we could physically control, feeling afraid of what someone else is thinking, feeling or might do is background noise that interferes with our ability to actually “hear” what needs our attention.

Within the din of a multitude of fears, our amygdala goes into over drive and increases the volume of our fears. Over time, this volume damages the organs in our bodies that are responding to our fears, like our hearts, spleens, and joints. Just like hearing loss caused by too much noise, we can lose our ability to “hear” and respond to fear, to our detriment. By dampening fears that are manufactured – by ourselves or others – we will open up space for fear to do its job of drawing our attention to what truly matters for us. Listening to fear will make it possible to hear a wind chime rather than only klaxons.

Watch our language. Our words shape and define our reality. Conditioning ourselves with phrases like “be fearless,” “no fear,” “overcome your fear,” “I’m too scared,” or “fear is a destructive emotion” will create realities in which fear is a monster, rather than a helpmate to our survival. By changing our words, we can begin to honor fear as an aspect of a healthy, thriving life: “This new project really scares me! What’s causing that? What’s important for me here?”

By asking real questions of our fear, we can learn how to navigate daily events, long-term relationships, and incidental surprises. Our culture is filled with stories of heroes encountering monsters that turned out to be, after a few good questions were asked, beings of great power and help. Calling fear a “power tool” rather than a “monster” makes it no less powerful and far more approachable. And, remember to always say “thank you” for what fear has taught you. An attitude of gratitude in regarding fear goes a long way toward turning down the volume.

Ask fear “why?” five times. This is more than getting in touch with our inner two year-old. When we can take time to evaluate our fear alert – which is more often than not – we need to ask “Why is this scaring me?” five times to really get to the heart of the matter, because each answer will likely dissolve into another layer of truth. (As a brief aside, courage is actually a mixture of heart/love and fear.) This is a good practice as we start to work with, rather than against, fear. As we become more practiced with listening to our fear, we won’t need to do this as often.

Use fear to focus our efforts and activities. Once we have dampened the background noise of anxiety (“free-radicals” in the fear realm) and engaged with what is actually scaring us in the moment, we can use feeling afraid to guide our attention and actions toward what really matters. Heart racing when approaching the airport gate? Feeling a bit nauseous on your way to the job interview? We can listen to our actual, possibly pre-cognitive fear (i.e., there’s something wrong on the plane; this isn’t the right job) and access our six fear responses to act appropriately and in our best interests.

Fear is our gift if we treat it as an aspect of a healthy life. It can alert us to new discoveries, let us know what risks to take and what risks to avoid, stir the pot of creative soup, and it can lead us to releasing what is no longer working for us so space is opened up to new integration and growth. We need to appreciate that we can care through fear, that we can make connections with fear present, that we can hold fear without having to do anything about it, and that fear can fuel us to battle that which truly threatens us.

We have options, far more than we’ve been led to believe, when we’re scared. We can successfully move with and through our fears by embracing them with awareness, gratitude and compassion.  We can condition ourselves – our brains! – to learn and grow from fear without having to fix ourselves or anyone else.

We are not broken! Our fears are not bad!

They are there for a reason.  And if we let them, they can actually serve us and our planetary home.

We never have a thought without a felt…

Whenever we have an experience, however we take in an experience via our myriad senses, it arrives in our awareness already awash in colorful emotions.

Our experience processing network, aka, our nervous system, takes in far more information that our consciousness can handle. We only see a tiny portion of the light spectrum, we only hear a narrow range of sound waves, and we hardly smell anything at all. Our big, expensive brains need a way to receive really important information – that which impacts our ability to protect, provide, and procreate – so we can make effective choices before we even think it.

Thanks to our successful ancestors, we are able to act before we think based on basic emotions. We literally feel before we think as experiences pass through our amygdala (our emotion center) before reaching our cortex, let alone our pre-frontal cortex where executive decisions are made. Regardless of what any scientist, teacher, or parent has ever told you – all of our decisions are emotional. Rationality is useful and requires intentional practice, and it is still colored by emotion. So in situations of stress or danger, our most reliable ally is our most basic emotion.

Welcome fear.

We have few, if any, ancestors who were fearless, because fearless people die early. Fear’s function is an alert or alarm system. Regardless of what we do about it, fear shows up with a neon flashing sign telling us “PAY ATTENTION! THIS IS IMPORTANT!” Whether it’s a jaguar, a speaking engagement, a courtroom, a gun, or a visit from the in-laws – fear gets us focused on what is really important in this moment.

Then we fight or flee, right? Maybe. This is another falsehood we’ve been fed that defies our actual experience and capabilities. We actually have at least SIX stress/fear responses. The fight-or-flight response model was actually based – I kid you not – on experiments in the U.S. in the 1950s exclusively carried out with male…rats.

Now I hold rats in very high regard overall and have known some very kind, brilliant, fine rats; however, they are not human. Humans respond to fear in different ways to accomplish different outcomes. So what are they?

Fight: overcome the source of the fear

Flight: flee the source of the fear

Freeze: stop to assess the source of the fear or allow it to pass by

Fake: change appearance or sound to cause the source of the fear to stop and assess

Care: address the perceived needs of the source of the fear

Connect: establish a relationship with the source of the fear
The first two responses share the basic action of separating us from whatever is scaring us. The second pair both function to buy some time, if possible. The third pair both keep us engaged with what is scaring us. These additional four responses all share the potential for transforming our experience of fear and even transforming the source of our fear. The initial two, because they separate us from the source and experience of the fear, function to reinforce that the source of fear is always scary and, therefore, bad.

We all use all six of these in various ways, frequencies, and circumstances. I know that when I get extremely scared, I get pissed (fight). Seriously – don’t scare me, you’ll get hurt. As a kid and into early adulthood, my chaotic environment taught me to freeze and allow the crazy to go by and maybe not notice me. In other situations where I’m facing a challenge to my worldview, when someone tells or shows me that what I think is true is not, I get curious and connect with the real fear of losing my grip on reality.

When you reflect on real feelings of fear, what do you notice? What do you do? How does that serve you?