Fear is a fact of life. We may as well get used to it.
I say that because we all spend an inordinate amount of energy avoiding fear. For what? We still feel it. In fact, very often when we avoid fear, we really only grow that fear.
Let me be clear: I am not talking about the fears that keep us alive (our survival instincts), but about the fears that rule our lives. Someone gets anxious around others, so he or she stays away from people. Someone fears speaking in front of others, so she or he turns down a great job to avoid that. Someone fears a broken heart, so he or she avoids getting close to someone.
Fear pretends to be our friend. It whispers in our ear that it is only protecting us, but fear restricts us. It keeps us from living a full life.
Unless we learn to accept it and move on. As Susan Jeffers says, “feel the fear and do it anyway.” What powerful, and counterintuitive, advice!
This rule fits into the previous rules about thoughts because fear is tied into our thinking. We use our thoughts to stay caught in our fears. In this way, we misuse our thought capacity.
Just for a moment, let’s think about fear. Remember the old “fight or flight response” from Biology 101?
Imagine yourself living millenia ago. The world was far less safe to you than it is now. Replace our city streets with small paths running through the jungles or forests. Imagine miles and miles between safety. Imagine not being at the top of the food chain (that’s a big one!). You are, literally, at the mercy of the elements! In some ways, it is amazing that our genes are even still around.
Through the process of natural selection, those capable of getting away, steering clear of danger (in other words, quick to feel danger and fear) survived to pass on their genes. Those more reckless or those unable to detect a threat no longer have genes to pass on. Those genes became extinct.
Now, in evolutionary terms, it has only been a blink-of-an-eye since then. While we have used our intellect to tame the wild, pushed back nature and its threat to the edge of town, we still live with those genes that were selected way back! In other words, we are wired to have a fear response.
Not only are we wired to have that response, it is a response that happens automatically. Remember that class when you heard how animals have a fight-or-flight response? That response is also a part of our make-up. Not only is it a part of our make-up, it still happens as automatically as it does for that animal.
For survival’s sake, our bodies do not need for our minds to take the time to consider a risk analysis. It needs for our minds to go on automatic while our bodies get out of the way. Imagine again, being alive millenia ago. Imagine walking down that path we mentioned. Imagine seeing a shadow move across the path. Our body does not need for us to have this thought: “Hmmm, I wonder if that was a saber-tooth tiger? Or maybe it was just my imagination? Perhaps a bird flying by?” By this time, if it were a saber-tooth tiger, our questions would have ceased, and a very satisfied tiger would remain.
And if we determined that it was, indeed a tiger in time, our mind does not need for us to ask the question: “should I run away? Or perhaps I should climb that tree? Or maybe I can scare the tiger away?” Our body needs us not to think, but to act. And in order for it to act, our body goes on automatic. It responds in ways that are almost impossible (notice the “almost” part) to control.
We see the shadow, and our pulse quickens, our breathing becomes more rapid. Our stomach tenses, and our palms become sweaty. Perhaps we even feel our feet take on a life of their own: they want us to run, move, get clear of the danger!
Our brain and body need for this to happen nearly instantaneously. That is what is necessary to survive. So we perceive a threat, and we respond.
Now, fast-forward those millenia. There are no saber-tooth tigers. Rarely do we find ourselves below the top position on the food chain. And our threats have become much more difficult to ascertain. Who is the enemy? Is it that person around the corner? Is it the boss? Is it our spouse? We still feel that immediate and automatic response to a sense of threat, even if that threat turns out to be nothing more than someone who had a bad day, someone who is not a threat but a grouch!
We have this automated system that scans for threats. That is true for all crawling, flying, swimming and walking creatures. There is only one difference for humans: we add our thoughts into the process. We feel some natural anxiety, but decide there is a threat. Then we move into fear mode.
Think about two events for a moment. Recall something that made you excited, gave you an adrenaline rush that you would seek out. Now recall something that scared you, made your stomach do flip-flops and that you would avoid.
Got it in your mind? For your body, there is no difference between those two reactions. Your body is doing the exact same thing in either case. The same chemicals are being released. Your muscles are responding in the exact same way (including your heart)! The difference between those two events? Only the thoughts you attribute to each item.
And the same event may be interpreted in opposite ways by different people. For example, I SCUBA dive. I love it. I find the experience to be exhilirating and freeing. My wife does not care for the water. The thought of being 80 feet below the surface is more frightening than exciting.
The task is to work through whether the fear is really protecting us, or if we are adding our thoughts in. In other words, it is once again about becoming aware of our thoughts. Once we are aware of the thoughts, we can choose to act in spite of feeling fear. The presence of the fear is non-negotiable.