Holidays can be a fun opportunity to take a look at the themes that underlie the festivities and commercialism. Halloween is perfectly designed to explore “Fear.” Fear is experienced by humans and animals alike. It is a perfectly natural mechanism which alerts us to danger and keeps us safe. It can tell us what we should do, or what we shouldn’t do. It is a warning sign to help us navigate life. Fear is defined as “a negative emotional state triggered by the presence of a stimulus that has the potential to cause harm.” Imagine you are walking down a path in nature and you come across a snake! Your heart rate might spike and you begin to sweat. That is a healthy fear! Imagine a week later, you are taking the same hike again. There is no rattlesnake this time, but you are worried the whole time-- on alert-- just in case. That is anxiety -- a negative emotional state in which the threat is not present, but anticipated. The physical manifestations can often be similar to fear, especially if the amygdala of the brain is making an association with a past fear event. In that case a neutral stimulus can trigger a fear response, in addition to worry and anxiety. Humans are the best at anxiety. We have a unique ability to project far into the future, and play out possible scenarios in our minds. The more imaginative we are, the more likely it is that we are anxious.
The biological responses to fear are called “fear affect” and our body chemistry can shift in a variety of ways. For example, an antelope will experience increased blood flow to the extremities as it gets ready to flee-- “flight”. A panther may experience the tensing of muscles as it prepares to “fight”. The fur on a cat’s back bristles up, making them appear larger and more dangerous, while poodles crouch and appear submissive--”freeze.” If we are exposed to trauma repeatedly or over a long period of time, our perfectly natural trauma responses can be triggered in situations that don’t actually call for them --people who snap at you for the slightest provocation, or who are unable to take action under stress, or those who fear abandonment and run away when a relationship gets hard. Humans have an additional fear affect called “fawning.” “Fawning” is a term coined by Pete Walker, a C-PTSD survivor and licensed marriage and family therapist who specializes in helping adults who were traumatized in childhood. “Fawning” is people-pleasing, and can lead to co-dependent or emotionally/physically abusive relationships. According to Walker, people with this fear response “seek safety by merging with the wishes, needs and demands of others. They act as if they unconsciously believe that the price of admission to any relationship is the forfeiture of all their needs, rights, preferences and boundaries.” Rather than simply freezing, we comply but also try to minimize the confrontation by appeasing the aggressor. None of these trauma responses is better or worse than the others, and there is hope for developing healthy productive ways to deal with our fear.
The first thing we can do is to pause and lean into the fear. Pema Chodron tells a story of a young warrior who was told by her teacher that she had to do battle with fear. Fear was very scary and big and intimidating. When the day came, she approached him and asked “May I have permission to go into battle with you?” Fear said “Thank you for showing me so much respect that you ask my permission.” Then the young warrior asked how she could defeat him. Fear explained “My weapons are that I talk fast, and I get very close to your face. Then you get completely unnerved and you do whatever I say. If you don’t do what I tell you, I have no power. You can listen to me, and you can have respect for me. You can even be convinced by me. But if you don’t do what I say, I have no power.” In that way, the student learned how to defeat fear. We can respect fear, and listen to it, but refrain from acting long enough to gain some perspective. Instead of reacting, we can notice and observe the actual physical responses of our body to fear as a way to move out of our stories around the fear and into our immediate contact with the sensations, anchoring ourselves in the body. As we watch the sensations ebb and flow, we are reminded that all things are passing. Maria Ranier Rilke poetically describes leaning into fear.
“You nights of anguish. Why didn’t I kneel more deeply to accept you, inconsolable sisters, and surrendering, lose myself in your loosened hair? How we squander our hours of pain. How we gaze beyond them into the bitter duration to see if they have an end. Though they are really seasons of us, our winter…”
Once we have faced our fear and tuned into our physical body, we can use our intellect to separate productive fears from unproductive fears. It is said that most of our fears stem from the ultimate fear -- the fear of death. This can manifest in unexpected ways. If we get anxious waiting in a long line, it might be the fear of wasting precious time. If we are sick, we may fear being unable to work or care for our family. The Greek school of philosophy called “Stoicism,” as well as 12-step programs, remind us to separate what we can control from what we can’t, as a way to temper extreme emotional reactions. Seneca wrote, “We suffer more in imagination than in reality.” This litmus test can be extremely helpful on the fly when we want to snap out of an anxiety spiral.
Tim Ferriss, in his TedTalk, suggests an alternative to “goal setting” called “fear setting” which helps us sort through the fears that might be holding us back from doing the things we really want to do. The process involves: listing one’s fears; what you could do to prevent them; and what you could do to repair the damage if they did happen. Then list the possible benefits of doing the thing, and the cost of inaction if you don’t ever try, projecting forward six months or two years into the future. Through this process, some fears reveal themselves to be well-founded, while most will prove not to be. Ironically, often the very consequence we fear, is the one we realize by not acting! For example, if you fear looking stupid or ashamed if you tried to write a book, you might actually have those same feelings from not writing the book! Although often our thinking mind can take us down some dark paths, our intellect is not always a hindrance. In this circumstance, stepping outside our fear and enlisting our thinking-mind can broaden your perspective and bring spacious awareness.
If we are going to move past our unproductive fears and reach for our goals or try something new, we have to be willing to make mistakes. In our culture, we are taught from an early age to avoid failure. Our school systems teach us that “learning” is making fewer and fewer mistakes over time. But learning is actually trying, and making mistakes that won’t have catastrophic outcomes. (Two Guys in your Brain Podcast on Making Mistakes). One example, and an apt metaphor, is that most parents improperly set training wheels on children’s bicycles. They are supposed to set the training wheels high enough that the child can wobble from side to side and get a sense of balance over time. Yet, many parents, wanting to save their child frustration, failure or injury, set them low so that they don’t wobble at all. The more we avoid failure by not trying, the less familiar we will become with the feeling of failure. The pain of failure takes on a momentous quality that keeps us from trying. The only solution is to go out and make more mistakes and survive them, until making mistakes becomes a natural part of our learning process.
Perspective is also achieved by looking back on times in the past when we were afraid, but persevered. As we reflect back on those experiences, we can connect with the transitory nature of fears and emotions, and see that often on the other side, great growth occurs. You may also observe that in the past, and even now, you are not alone. We need to be reminded that we are part of something larger than our frightened self. (Tara Brach, Radical Acceptance) We are one with Source energy, and with the people around us. There is a Buddhist practice called “Taking Refuge” in the Buddha (our awakened nature), the Dharma (the teachings, the truth), and the Sangha (the spiritual community). We don’t have to face our fears alone, and we can ask for help.
Where is liberation from fear realized? In the moment. Ask yourself, “Is anything scary happening to you right now in this moment?” Right now, where you’re sitting, is anything bad actually happening or is it just the thoughts in your head that are disturbing you? We create our own suffering now, by worrying about things that may or may not happen in the future. This is unproductive fear. This Halloween, if something jumps out and shouts “Boo!”, rather than lashing out, or running, or getting stuck, or appeasing, you can pause and remember it might just be a kid in a sheet.
**For further reading, check out “Fawning: The Fourth Trauma Response We Don’t Talk About” by Julliet Virzi, Tedtalk by Tim Ferriss on “Fear Setting”, “Two guys in your brain” Podcast on “Making Mistakes”, You are a Badass, by Jen Sincero, and Radical Acceptance by Tara Brach, Much of the content of this article were inspired by these works.