The Fear Factor

by Rachel Morris for SurvivingSundays.com

I recently saw a blog that displays photographs of women holding hand written signs. They have all answered the same question – ‘What would you do if you weren’t afraid?’ ‘I’d go freelance.’ Said one woman, ‘I’d stand up for myself more.’ Said another. ‘I’d leave my marriage.’ Said another. My question to them was what’s stopping you? What specifically are you afraid of? Could it be fear itself?

What about you – what would you do? Stop drinking? Write that novel? Book those singing lessons? End that toxic relationship? Get the dog you’ve always wanted, move to the countryside or lose some weight? Maybe you’d start therapy, let go of old resentments and heal past wounds? Why not turn that desire into a goal and take the first step – right now?

Are you feeling uncomfortable yet? Marianne Williamson (‘A Course In Miracles) famously said, “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us.” She’s referring to our fragile sense of entitlement. Why should I have what I want? What’s so special about me? What if I don’t deserve to be successful/happy/safe.

Identifying what we’re really afraid of is hard. Fear is tricky to pin down, it’s as nebulous and changeable as a cumulus nimbus because fear is a feeling and not a fact – it doesn’t actually exist; it has no form or substance. Fear acts as a fog whose purpose is to obscure our view, to stop us from taking the kind of risks that might alert us to the aforementioned deepest fear, which isn’t a fear at all but a deep down harboured belief that we are undeserving.

Some of us have been explicitly told that we are unworthy of happiness love or success by an abusive parent or partner the rest of us have inferred it from the way we have been undervalued by the education or class system.

Read this twice: Whomever it was that said or implied that you deserved less – was wrong. You were born worthy. You are worthy now. This is not something you have to work hard to prove or earn or attract. Who do you give the power to say otherwise?

Feel The Fear And Do It Anyway! Announced fear expert Susan Jeffers in the title of her 1980’s self help bible.I can’t remember if I actually read the book but the spine has sat facing me on the bookshelf opposite my desk for as long as I can remember – because the title reminds me that fear is just a feeling and that once we’ve acknowledged it and seen through it, we are free to crack on with the plan. If we’re too afraid to even look at our fear, we’ll become petrified – frozen like rabbits in the headlights unable to move in any direction. If you think there’s a monster under the bed but are too afraid to check, you may lie shuddering in the fear of not knowing, all night long. The monsters that live in our heads are not real – but we have to look, so we can relax.

Consider this: all fear is sci-fi/horror written and directed by us and projected into the future using our creative imagination or fuelled by past trauma. We are literally making it up! Once we’re in the drama (in our heads), we begin to experience the feelings we imagine we’d have if this particular drama were to actually happen In Real Life. The suggestion of impending danger stimulates the brain into releasing a few stress hormones, because our brains can’t tell the difference between a real enemy and an imagined one. Now we’re feeling real fear – about the imaginary scenario, which adds a kind of authenticity to our script; maybe there really IS a monster under the bed! As the neurochemicals mount up they shift us into fight or flight mode and now we’re panicking In Real Life but there are no Real enemies to run from or stand up to – they are still in our head and we are left floundering in fear.

At this point no amount of cognitive processing is going to help. We have created a physiological problem that requires a physiological response. If you are prone to high levels of anxiety and the threat of full blown panic attacks, use the *Green Cross Code to see you safely across to the other side.

STOP As soon as you notice the tension building get yourself somewhere safe (the car, a toilet cubicle, a changing room). Breathe: IN through the nose for a count of 4. HOLD for a count of 7. OUT though the nose for a count of 8…Your parasympathetic nervous system will respond and slow your heart rate.

LOOK at the world around you. Pay attention to detail – the clouds moving across the sky, the sound of the rain on the pavement, the smell of the chip shop on the corner. Once you’re focussed on something real and present, ask – Am I in actual danger – right now – in this moment? Recognise that the danger has only been imagined and that everything is okay. Breathe 4,7,8.

LISTEN to your inner voice. What scary thing are you telling yourself? Place your right hand on your heart and your left hand on your gut. Press a little so you feel held and breathe 4,7,8. Whisper the sound of ‘caaaaalm’ on your out-breath. It’s a looped feedback mechanism that reassures you; I have got this. Everything is okay. I’m safe.

In the 1930’s or thereabouts, American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr wrote The Serenity Prayer, which was adopted by Alcoholics Anonymous and is still said today, aloud by recovering addicts and alcoholics the world over at the end of each and every meeting. It’s not just a prayer and it’s not just for alcoholics; it is, in my opinion a perfectly crafted recipe for a fear free existence. 

It goes like this.

(God) grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can
And the wisdom to know the difference