Day 21: The Physiology Of Fear

I am sitting here in my tiny house and suddenly, a gunshot. Then another, then another. I live in the country, so firearms are not an unusual occurrence. There is something about these shots though that is different. A different cadence, a closer proximity. Likely, someone is hunting coyote. It is the most probable explanation, but not the first one that went through my mind. Nope, my first thought was a murder/suicide, then I quickly realized that was unlikely and a silly thought, or is it… in this day and age I am not so sure anymore. My unease is not helped by the fact that I am watching The Ring, alone… at night. Why do I do this to myself? Why does it sometimes feel good to be scared? Probably because it reminds us that we are alive.

I can feel it even now, there is tension in my body. My shoulders are pulled up, my breath shallow. Blood is pounding in my ears. I am in fight or flight mode. I breathe, deeply and my body relaxes a little, one more breath, more tension melts away. But what happens to our bodies when we are in prolonged fear states? Long term effects can include weakening of the immune system, gastrointestinal issues, cardiovascular issues, and premature aging to name a few things. Simply put, our bodies are not made to withstand prolonged threats. Fear is a very powerful biological process. It alerts us to anything that threatens our survival. It screams at us to move, it pumps adrenaline into our blood, it heightens all of our sense.

Whether that threat is real or not.

If you are anything like me you are used to fear. It is a constant companion. For me fear shows up as low level anxiety and debilitating exhaustion. It shows up as a lack of ability to make decisions. It shows up in the tightness in my back and the painful stomach aches. We are not meant to make fear a companion. I think this all started at a pretty young age with me. I never really felt safe in my home. No, I was never under threat of being killed and I wasn’t really physically abused, but there was a constant barrage of emotional, mental and psychological drama that resulted in some very well honed fear responses. As a result I have spent much of my life in a state of anxiety. Anxiety can be useful and can help us change direction, or can be the motivation we need to make a big move, but constant anxiety leads to mental distress, physical ailments and lack of well-being. For me, when fear takes over, there is a heightening of that response and after years and years of feeling under attack, it takes less and less to put me in that state. Aaannddd I often jump to the worst case scenario (hello, murder/suicide).

Now, I am not one that was ever very successful with therapy. I found it a useless exercise, mostly because I have processed the past events in my life. I don’t need to hash them out again and again, and many of them I no longer feel any attachment towards and can instead see them as beneficial on my path to where I am now. Therapists would ask me to talk about an issue and I would come full circle on whatever little tidbit they were trying to extract or whatever lesson they were hoping I would see in about ten seconds flat. The real issue for me is retraining the nervous system to chill out a little bit and rewire those pathways that lead to this continuous cycle of anxiety. I have done this/am doing this without therapy, but this is the part where I say please, please, please for the love of God if you feel like you are struggling and need some help, see a shrink. Therapy has done some amazing things for a lot of people that I know.

Some of the things that I do to get through fear are:

  1. I acknowledge that fear is there. When I feel my body tightening I take that awareness and shift it to why I am feeling that way. What is the threat? Is it perceived or real? Is it a story that my mind is making up?
  2. Then I breathe. Deeply. Sometimes if I am able to I will drop into a meditation and quiet everything around me.
  3. Once I decide what category that fear goes into, real or perceived, I decide what action to take. Real threats, I will get out of there and worry about the rest later. Most of the fears in my life aren’t real. They aren’t life or death and are, most of time, just mental chatter. When I realize that is what is going on I play the scripts out in my mind. I ask myself what is the worst case scenario? How does that feel? What is the best case scenario? How does that feel?

By the time I get to step 3, which only really takes a few moments, I am usually much more relaxed. I am aware of what’s happening in my body and I am able to alter my response. This is all just a matter of shifting perspectives. Most of the time the best case scenario option is enough of a feel good potential for me to take that “risk.”

Example, my boss called me into her office for a “chat,” but she looks really angry. This fear may or may not be real. I may lose my job, which is fear inducing if I go down a rabbit hole of all of the potential consequences of that. Most of the time though I would choose to say to myself, first of all, I don’t know if she is angry or not and even if she is it may or may not have anything to do with me. Likely, it doesn’t. Then I will play out the worst case scenario, in this case, losing my job. What would that feel like? Initially, not very good and I would probably feel like I was incapable or not good enough. And then I would realize that wasn’t the case and I have been unhappy in my job for months and likely my boss realizes that. If I lost my job it would also give me a tremendous amount of freedom to look around at other organizations and would relieve the pressure of wondering if I should quit or not etc. Best case scenario? She is bringing me in to recognize me for a job well done or a raise, and that would feel really good. Once this process becomes second nature the turn around is very quick, usually a matter of seconds.

Fear has kept me from so much in my life. One of the things that helps me push through fear is the company of a dog. I usually have one with me wherever I go. Dogs are so humbling. Animals in generally really. They run on instinct. These guys are my totem… which I will write about another day, maybe tomorrow. When I decided to go to into the medical field, I had this wonderful dog. She was my heart, that one. She was with me all through school. The day before I was supposed to leave to move across the country and start my first job in this profession, she died, very suddenly. I was absolutely devastated. My adventure buddy was gone. I stayed in bed (a sleeping bag on my apartment floor as I had already shipped my things) for a couple days, delaying my trip. I had planned this awesome camping, cross country adventure just me and her. The only “vacation” I had had in years. I still went on that trip. It was a march of total, utter devastation. In a way I was fearless because I had lost the most important being in my life. I slept in my car in some shady spots, I went to national parks and hiked trails with grizzly bears. I went state after state with my head down, not engaging with people, sobbing along the way. It was pretty awful, but I saw some really beautiful and moving things. Once I reached my current destination I threw myself into my work. I had zero confidence, I was genuinely scared every day as decisions that I made could now actually be life or death. I was terrified to be a doctor. In the first year of practice I became more and more isolated, more and more anxious and I was not enjoying anything about my life anymore. I got another dog, far too soon. He is a lovable disaster who has his own rocky past and it took us a solid 9 months before we really bonded. It was a very unstable time in my life and resulted in me spending a lot of hours in front of the TV, in my bed during my time off, completely and utterly exhausted. My back hurt, my shoulders hurt, I couldn’t think straight. I wanted nothing to do with making decisions which resulted in me eating a ton of frozen pizza and basically single-handedly supporting Netflix. I was essentially letting fear run my life.

Then I heard this guy talk (yes, broken record, it’s Mike Kemski) and one of his teachings is you are the power. That really struck a cord with me, because it forced me to look at my life and realize I had created my current state. I wasn’t surrounded by threatening situations, but I was allowing them to be considered as such. I was creating them that way in my mind. But the cool part was if I could create them, I could also change them. And so it began. Very VERY slowly I started to peek out of my self made prison and take a look at the world. It would take another 8 months before this concept would sink in but I now realize that everything I do is a choice and a perspective. If I decide to have a lazy day at home, it is because I have chosen, not because I am afraid to go out in the world. And I do venture out… way more than I used to. I walk slower, I take in the scenery. I enjoy the views and the people watching and I have a curiosity about the world that I thought was dead in my heart.

When fear does strike I am able to thank it for being there, for trying to protect me – my body and mind are badass guardians! Then I move through it, I try the new thing, I go the new place. I walk the new hike. Every once in a while my gut gets involved with a really clear message and those I listen to. I adjust course, I take a different trail, but most of the time, there is no threat. The world isn’t out to get me. I am powering my existence and I choose to see all of the ways I am supported and loved and all of the ways I am safe. Fear has been a tremendous asset in my life and continues to be a really enlightening teacher. But it’s no longer welcome in the driver’s seat. ❤ ❤

** There is still time to join Mike Kemski’s challenge, it officially starts at 3 PM CST tomorrow. I write about him here and in a few of my other posts. He is a fantastic human being, a close friend, and an amazing catalyst for change. He exists to be sure that people know how to get the most out of life so they don’t die with regret. His challenge is two weeks long and he goes over a simple process that is the building block for having the life you have always wanted. Check him out on Facebook or jump into the challenge here:

Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay

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