There’s not much we can do about fear. Not really. It is uncomfortable; that is true. Too much of it is certainly not a good thing, but not enough of it in situations where it is warranted can be deadly and dangerous to our well-being.
In fear we have evolved a remarkable adaptive mechanism. It’s not been that long since we crouched in the damp or arid confines of wherever we found shelter, with our little sputtering fires and our nearly tamed pack of dogs not far out of the ring of shadows and light. We lived in a constant state of hyper vigilance; or at least, most of our forebears who were small and had to contend with much larger carnivores did. Our adrenalized danger signals and systems of retreat or attack were finely tuned to the dangers of our surroundings.
When we needed to, when the huge teeth and claws of the larger meat-eaters glinted too close to us in our little packs, our bodies were well-equipped for the split-second decision to escape or fight for our lives and for the lives of our children. Immediately our adrenal system dumped a kind of speed into our electrical and cardio systems and our pulses raced to prepare us for battle or to run, our breathing became shallow and our blood supply was altered: more to the huge muscle masses that would help us run or fight, less to the rest of us. Often this resulted in instant elimination, the lighter the better. Our higher brain functions took second place to muscle and more primitive memory parts of the brain. We could kill if we had to. We could save ourselves even when our pack-members were being eaten. Perhaps their shrieks spurred on our body’s powerfully self preserving mechanism. Sometimes in the end, we got away. Sometimes in the end, we had more food for the cold months.
It’s been a blink of an evolutionary eye since we lived in that world. Some of us still do, although now it is more often others of our own species that we fight or flee from, often it is the machines of war and massacre. The adrenalized mechanism of survival is put to good use even now. We hear the stories of mothers or fathers lifting cars off the crushed bodies of their children. We see films and reports of people who respond heroically in crises: the 12 year old girl I read about who lived on a small island about to be inundated by a tsunami who ran to ring the community bell to warn the community and in doing so saved the entire small population of her hometown.
Fear is a good thing. It isn’t often considered to be. But it has its drawbacks as well. The powerful system that it uses to let us know of its presence, of the presence of what has been interpreted as danger, is as well-developed and speedily put into action in an executive whose most dangerous act all day is to cross the street before and after he goes to work, as in a tribal family in Kashmir that has to contend with the sudden incursions and withdrawals of a number of armies that use them as fodder for their deadly acts of war.
Even in peaceful communities with low level conflict and social pressures instead of life and death events that happen on a regular basis, fear is ever present… in fact, how it makes itself known in those situations may even become more recognizable, for the nature of the fear is less tangible and easily minimized when compared with what we remember collectively and deeply.
In recent years we have seen the rise of the somewhat misleading term “anxiety attack” although the “attack” part of the term may, in fact, be a very accurate descriptor of how the event of a sudden panic or anxiety event feels to its victim. Someone walks through the aisle of a grocery store and suddenly feels a need to move more quickly and breaks into a sweat. The lips are numb. Balance feels off and fear of collapsing occurs along with a heart beat that feels like it might pound through the rib cage. Nausea sets in as well as blurred vision. The more that person becomes aware of the terror being felt, the feeling that something is WRONG, the worse it gets. The shopping cart gets left in the aisle, after an urgent trip to the rest room. When he or she then manages to get to the local emergency room, the doctor says everything is normal; “your vitals are heightened, but there is nothing wrong”... and then that question comes: “Have you been under any stress lately?”
While this may sound like an extreme example, it is not an unusual one. Many people live with the debilitating effects of these kinds of “attacks” for many years, and much of the literature about the treatment of such events is not very optimistic about treatment, at least from a pharmacological angle; in fact, medicating such events is often seen as a reinforcement to the “attacks” over the long term as opposed to a good way to ameliorate them.
And perhaps these are extreme examples of how fear can become a stumbling block in our lives as opposed to something we can keep in an appropriate perspective and use instead of being used by. In my work with grieving people and those who have terminal or life-threatening, life-changing illness the occurrence of anxiety and panic events was so common that I made discussions of it routine as opposed to waiting until it presented itself. For one thing, some people who had such events were reticent to report them.
In grief, especially, the mourners often experienced such things as a medical event entirely and were mystified when nothing besides an elevated blood pressure or pulse could be found. They might have been afraid they too were about to succumb to the terminal illness from which their loved one died. So I came prepared with education and normalization, as well as breathing exercises and a number of other informal, self-initiated, bio-feedback interventions to pull out of my bag of tricks… and they were invariably welcomed and used.
Still, when we talk about how fear motivates us, how we move because of it in our lives, we are generally not talking about dramatic examples. For those of us whose most dangerous act might be more in the realm of crossing a busy street, flying cross country in a jumbo jet, giving a presentation at our place of business, sitting down with a supervisor to review topics of conflict, or making and presenting a holiday dinner for a group of extended family fear does not seem to amount to what our forbears experienced in their little groups on the savannah.
But I would like to suggest that the level of fear in our lives may, in fact, be completely relative. It may, even in our comparatively safe world, occupy as much of our functioning, our complex systems of motivation and search for meaning and satisfaction, as it did in our more dangerous pasts. To minimize its role may be a potentially serious misjudgment. This is a frightening world. The things that threaten us may seem distant and less graspable than the way being confronted by a grizzly bear outside the door of our stone shelter did, but they can often symbolize life and death in as frightening a way. Financial and business troubles, the prospects and lives of our children as the economy continues to fail to grant them the kinds of opportunities we had, threats from various parts of a society that is full of inner, if not outer, unrest and lack of sureness about health and wellness and security in our housing can feel as threatening to us as that bear felt to our ancestors… if less obviously a direct and immediate threat to our body’s ability to go on.
We live in a world where fear is less an event-to-event possibility of extremes. It is stretched and smeared out over time as a collective constant that we keep informed about through news mediums and various community information systems. It is layered over the more personal fears we carry from experiences that inform our lives and are remnants of the wounds and traumas all of us carry. These are the wounds and traumas that exist as parts of the building blocks of our individuation and how we educate and transform and build the communication that occurs between our genetic codes and our nervous system. We can manage this more nebulous fear as a good teacher of what to avoid that delivered us into similarly threatening situations in our pasts. It can push us through patterns of social functioning and disappointment successfully by reminding us, consciously and not, what we did that delivered us from fear in the past and how we can avoid traveling the same “pathway” or “river”.
But fear is an uncomfortable teacher. And relied upon exclusively does not often instruct us in joy or even love but more in suspicion and dependence. Fear can be used by others who really do not have our best interests in mind to manipulate us; others who know the buttons that can be pushed to activate it. It is an automatic response and can be turned on purposely to gain control and move individuals and the collective. Much of advertising, propaganda and campaigning is adept at this use of fear buttons: the science of the concrete replications of the cues that demand a fear response in humans is largely ensconced in the public relations and political campaigning fields.
But people want something other than fear as a teacher. The discomfort of fear and its modern sibling anxiety may in fact be a major motivator, but it is resisted and in itself feared. In fear and anxiety we walk away from what makes us fearful and anxious. We “double-whammy” ourselves by feeling fearful and anxious about fear and anxiety. We want to shed it. It hurts. We want less of it. We want to be pulled forward by something that is attractive, by attraction itself, by what lies before us… rather than feeling we are always walking, or running, away from what we are afraid of, what we hope we are leaving behind.
How can we do this? If fear is such an integrated part of who we are as people, as one person, if it so informs our way through and into our futures, and what we avoid and try to escape from, how can we see, create and/or recognize the thing that is before us that might have the power to mitigate that discomfort… might even resolve and dissolve it or balance it out?
If fear must push us forward, can something else more attractive, something like authentic hope or invention, be there equally to pull us forward? To balance the yin and the yang of our process into being who we really are and want to be and become?
In a questionnaire I routinely give to my clients that asks questions about their fears and the role they have in their lives and the reasons they have sought out a coach, I ask them to imagine what their life would be like without their fears… how would their life and their strivings look if fear was not involved? Can they imagine their goals as a part of something other than a fear or anxiety about where they are? Can fear be transformed into more of a clear and transcendent reaching into the uninvented future? And if they can do this, how will their life look, what will they feel like as they move toward their goals?
Often enough, people reach an awareness, sometimes for the first time when they answer this question that their fears are instructive and constructive. They would not lose them entirely but modify how they are felt and the effects they have on their feelings about their goals. Even through this modest exercise, authentic inner-driven hope already demonstrates the power of its ability to balance the scale between fearing and embracing the future, the plan for the future.
Just as often, people also say without the discomfort of fear they would feel lighter. More light. I like that: the idea that without fear, or with fear accepted and held but not in itself feared, we can become lighter, more like the light. How fine is that? To be able to go forward on our journey with our new invented future but with less weight, more illumination.
I challenge you to do the same. In a truly frightening world in which the changes portend an even more disturbing future, what would it be like for you to see it without fear or without the fear of feeling fearful?
If you are successful at envisioning this, what do you imagine would be the primary benefit of seeing your future in this way? What fears do you imagine you will still need? How will they serve you and how will you balance the discomfort they cause so that they do not stop your forward motion or keep you looking backward as you move into your potential for a more illuminated future?