Learning to dance with fear

What do we do with all those unnecessary, paralysing fears that take their toll on our minds and bodies? We can learn to dance...

Learning to dance with fear

On a recent mini break (remember those?!) the owner of our Airbnb had a large, barking dog. Within seconds, a series of catastrophes played out in my mind involving lost limbs, rabies, blood-stained clothes and potential lawsuits.

You see, I am afraid of big dogs. On a family camping holiday when I was four, my brother and sister both got bitten by a bad-tempered collie. I have a clear memory ‘snapshot’ of the three of us racing back to the tent in terror. Fast-forward 34 years, and while I’m better able to talk myself down from the initial overblown response, I can nonetheless still feel the fear in my body.

Of course, the Airbnb dog turned out to be old and soppy and barking out of enthusiasm rather than animosity. And no limbs were lost. But I was taken aback by the strength of that old knee-jerk fear reaction. And in a classic control-and-compartmentalise approach, I decided to write a list of all the things I was afraid of. I wanted to make sure I had a handle on my fears to avoid inadvertently passing them on to my daughter. The list looked like this:

  • Big scary dogs (check)
  • Concrete steps (specifically myself, or someone I love, falling down them)
  • Car accidents
  • Capsizing boats
  • Angry people

It didn’t surprise me that I can trace all of these fears back to specific incidents in my past. The fear from the original event (even if it happened decades ago) lodges in the body and stays dormant until it is triggered by something that sets off my fight-flight-freeze response. And try as I may, I can’t seem to control what is a very real physiological reaction.

But what about our more hidden, more slippery fears?

What did surprise me was how short this list was. I had anticipated that ‘Things I’m Afraid Of’ would run to several pages. But then it occurred to me that this list was really just covering my practical, ‘tangible’ fears. And that the really crippling fears I haul around with me on a day-to-day basis are far more insidious and dangerous.

There’s the fear of what other people will think. The fear of being unlovable. The fear of ending up alone. The fear of change (even when I know I have outgrown certain circumstances or people). The fear of no-one ever really seeing who I am because I’m so hell-bent on hiding it away – and why? Because of the fear of rejection. 

And these fears are the ones that really need tackling.

The trouble is, while it’s relatively easy to say to a friend or even a stranger ‘I’m a bit afraid of big dogs because I had a bad experience when I was four’, it’s a lot harder to say ‘I’m a bit afraid of meeting new people because I’m worried I’ll say the wrong thing.’ Not only because it’s somehow less socially acceptable, but also because much of the time we carry these fears around subconsciously. We might have some vague sense of discomfort or insecurity, but often we won’t (or can’t) name the fear, or share it, or shine a light on it. So we end up lugging these shadowy blighters around. They’re hidden deeply enough that we don’t have to deal with them, but shallow enough that they can be triggered at a moment’s notice.

Projecting the past on to the future

Krishnamurti famously said ‘One is never afraid of the unknown. One is afraid of the known coming to an end’. I’ve come to realise that the way my mind copes with fear – whether the tangible fears on my ridiculous list or the more nebulous fears of my subconscious – is to take the ‘known’ events of the past as my benchmark.

Whether it’s ‘that big dog is going to bite me’ or ‘that person is going to break my heart’ or ‘that person hasn’t texted me back because I’ve done something to annoy her’, the rationale is the same. I’m taking the known fear of what has happened in the past and projecting it onto what might happen in the future. It’s a technique which gives us a short-term sense of control because we want to be prepared for what’s coming – which, of course, we never are.

‘One is never afraid of the unknown. One is afraid of the known coming to an end’. Krishnamurti

And before we know it, we end up in a state of hyper-vigilance, waiting for the next thing to go wrong, even if we’re not fully conscious of it. This state of being traps our vitality, our spontaneity and our joy. It keeps us lodged in our minds and disconnected from our bodies. It keeps us small in the mistaken guise of keeping us safe.

Having had my own long-running battle with PTSD (a whole other story!) I know how physical fear can be. I know how it can end up creating its own cellular blueprint for our responses – physiologically and emotionally. Fear is, of course, a natural, deeply-rooted reaction that’s been essential to our survival as a species. When we were cavemen/women, we needed this ‘fight or flight’ response in order to outwit or outrun the sabre-tooth tiger.

The problem is that in today’s society, the moments of acute physical danger have largely been replaced by more insidious, chronic stresses. But our brains continue to respond as though we are in a perpetual race against a tiger. Not only is there (generally) no tiger, but we no longer know how to shake off the fear once the immediate threat has passed. So we feel the original surge of fear, push it down, anticipate more fear, push it down… until we are living in a perpetual cycle of fear, and fear about the fear.

But, what if it all went right?

A therapist once said something which has really stuck with me. In response to all my worries about what might happen, she simply said, ‘Yes but Jo, anything can happen’. When I expressed puzzlement, she simply asked me to flip some of my catastrophising tendencies on their head. To push them to the other extreme. So rather than ruminating about all the things that could go wrong, to start imagining all the things that could go right.

What if, rather than thinking disaster might befall you, you think about the amazing things that might be around the corner instead? What if tomorrow you might bump into the person who can change your life? What if you were about to land your dream job, the one you didn’t know you wanted? What if things were all about to go really right?

The point is that, good or bad, none of us can predict what is going to happen, or when. (If 2020 has taught us anything, isn’t it that?!) Life will always retain an edge of chaos and uncertainty. However many imaginary catastrophes we rehearse in our minds in an attempt to be prepared, the stuff that actually happens always spins out of left field and takes us by surprise.  Try as we can to outthink it, outsmart it, outrun it or avoid it, fear will always be a part of our human make-up. We need it for protection; we need it, sometimes, as a spur to action.

You can push it away, or you can let it go

But what do we do with all the rest of it? All these unnecessary, paralysing personal fears that take their toll on our minds and bodies? In ‘The Untethered Soul’ Michael Singer explains simply, there are only two real ways to deal with fear: “You can push it away, or you can let it go.” And the process of letting go involves first acknowledging it, embracing it (‘feel the fear’ as the old adage goes) staying compassionate towards it and letting it pass through us. Perhaps sometimes even being able to laugh at it.

Because we can’t avoid fear. But we can begin to dance with it.

Image credit Ahmad Odeh

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Jo Matthews
Jo MatthewsJo is a freelance writer, poet and copywriter, a coach in training and a new(ish) mum. Originally from Oxford, she now lives in Amsterdam. You can find out more about her at jo-matthews.com