Life would have you expand, fear would have you contract

Fear is so deeply and widely felt throughout humanity. Its effects can be strong or subtle, we can either be aware of it or it can sneak up on us so we don’t even realise it is fear that might be holding us back from doing something.

As we have evolved, fear has served a useful purpose. Back in the “caveman days” the fight, flight or freeze response often kept us alive. Say if we come across a big tiger, it is quite amazing to think that in a split second our heart rate can rapidly increase, adrenaline pumping blood to our arms and legs so we can run or fight for our life. Our mental alertness is heightened so we can pick up on any subtle movements of the potential predator and act accordingly.

In many parts of the world people are still faced with threats to their survival daily. For those who are fortunate enough to largely live in safety, this response is still part of the human system but usually lays dormant in case it is needed. Our ability to respond to threat like this is something that has helped us survive long enough to get to where we are today.

Worry is another way that fear can manifest. What worry really is, in essence, is our mind conceiving of everything that could potentially go wrong in a situation, and repeating these scenarios to us over and over again (often when we are just trying to get to sleep!). The basic ability to look ahead and anticipate risks has helped us to overcome more obscure threats to our survival- in many developed societies we have used this ability to extend our lives by for example building flood walls, wearing safety gear, and securing ongoing sources of food.

But what happens when we are no longer faced with regular threats to our survival and we have already planned as well as we are able to? We are left with a degree of uncertainty. Despite our skills, we are never able to eliminate every single possible threat to our lives, no matter how much effort we put into this.

So what do we do with this uncertainty?

That is up to us. Life would have us expand, seek new experiences, take small risks with doing things differently just to see how it turns out. We have an innate pull to seek experiences and learn. It is that inner nudge to apply for a role that you are not sure you will get, to start a conversation with someone new, to try a different way of making something. Through having these different experiences we see new perspectives we didn’t before. We can make meaningful connections with people we otherwise wouldn’t have, and our lives can take a different course.

The mind is comfortable with what it already knows. Anywhere that there exists uncertainty, fear can fill that space with everything that could possibly go wrong. Fear would have you contract your life, so that you never go beyond that which is familiar, even if the familiar is negative. Your mind would rather you minimised contact with uncertainty by keeping everything the same.

This manifests as avoidance. To keep the experience of fear at a minimum, we can avoid taking actions that would create change or bring an element of uncertainty. Avoidance can feel relieving in the short term. When we decide not to take an action, any tension that came with that step is suddenly gone. As humans, we would typically not choose to feel tension, anxiety or pain if we could help it! We would rather feel peaceful and harmonious. But what if that action that you avoid was something that a deep part of you wanted? Regardless of whether it came with fear? Then stepping back might feel initially relieving, but would be accompanied by a sadness that might be hard to pinpoint.

So what is the way through this then? How do we live our lives without being restricted by fear?

The way through fear is to choose to expand despite the presence of it. Waiting for fear to leave before taking action can have you waiting indefinitely.

Start with a situation that brings you a small amount of fear. Find a quiet space where you can spend some time alone, and bring your full attention to one thing- it could be the feeling of your body breathing, or the sounds you can hear from the environment around you. If you do this in nature it is much easier.

Every time your mind wanders somewhere or any thoughts pop up, just acknowledge that this has occurred and gently return your attention to whatever you were focusing on. Whenever you feel ready, move your attention to the situation you are feeling anxious about. Notice what arises in your body. Bring a curious observation to how your physical self responds when this emotion is present. Do not try to control or change how you are feeling. Allow yourself to fully feel the fear just as it is. Allow it to be.

Your mind will probably try to get involved here and remind you why the situation is so terrible, in an attempt to amplify your fear. Treat all thoughts the same. Notice them, allow them to be, then return your focus to what you can actually feel.

Whenever you feel it is time, return your focus to the feeling of breathing or the sounds around you. When you have finished spend a few moments noticing what happened and feeling any changes inside you.

Emotions are like waves. They can peak in intensity sometimes, but they never stay at that same peak forever. Doing this exercise is like consciously riding the wave of fear, instead of being tossed around by it. There is a depth inside you that is beneath the fear, or any negative emotion you may experience. You experience emotion, but you are not your emotions. The more you engage in turning toward negative feelings when they arise and allowing them to be just as they are, the more you realise and connect with the profound part of you that lies beyond these feelings. The true part of you is like a mountain that stands grounded in the middle of the raging sea.

Cliff waves