Yesterday, we had a Halloween Themed class focused on fear. Halloween is the time of year we embrace what is scary, even seek it out in horror movies and spooky decorations. We explored what the body does when faced with fear, and what systems are involved. Looking for ideas and inspiration, I poked around various yoga blogs and meditations on fear. I was struck by the number of articles that encouraged people to either deny or move past their fear in some way. Most often spoken about was “overcoming fear.” It felt like denial of fear was missing the mark.
Fear serves a very necessary purpose for the brain and body. Fear alerts us to a potential danger. ReEmbody Method Creator, Kevin Moore, said in a recent workshop, “Our brain’s first priority is always safety.” Gavin DeBecker even wrote an entire book entitled, “The Gift of Fear” which discusses how our sense of fear can save our lives in many situations.
When we encounter what our brain perceives as a potential danger or threat, the sympathetic nervous system involuntarily kicks into gear — we begin to sweat, our heart and respiratory rate increases, blood and oxygen is sent to our muscles, and our body is filled with adrenaline to be ready for action: fight, flight or freeze. On many of these occasions, we must react in order to keep ourselves safe. We run away. We duck. We hit back. Fractions of a second isn’t time to process when a car is about to hit you. Reaction is necessary and it is thanks to the sympathetic nervous system that we can protect ourselves as much as possible in dangerous situations.
There are other times that our brain perceives a danger when there is no actual danger. My son jumps out of bed in reaction to every sound he hears: a house creek, cats fighting outside, a car door closing. Some part of his brain is constantly on high alert and then we have to wind him down with clear explanations for whatever he heard. His body has reacted, but there is no actual threat.
Fears also creep into our brains as anxiety. What if I’m not good enough? What if I’m rejected? What if I speak my truth and I’m called a liar? What if I try that yoga pose and I fall and look stupid? What if I confront that person and they’re mean to me? What if… what if… what if…? These fears also arise to keep us safe. Emotional threat doesn’t feel much different from physical threat. I can vividly recall reading a mean email and having the same sympathetic nervous system reaction as when I experience a near car accident: sweat, speeding pulse, tense muscles. The difference is the pause. When we are facing an emotional threat, we usually don’t have to react to save our lives like we do when we are in a car accident. We can take a breath. We can take another breath. We can feel the fear and get curious about it. Denying the fear, or pretending the fear isn’t there only teaches the body to ignore the fear when we are faced with a real physical risk.
Just like I talk to my son to calm him when he is scared at night, we can talk to ourselves to understand why we are experiencing fear or anxiety in the face of an emotional threat. When I received that mean email, I wanted to reply, to REACT, immediatly. I had so many pithy, cutting and even meaner remarks to say to this person. My sypathetic nervous system made a clear choice of FIGHT. How very unyogic of me. Thankfully, I didn’t do that. Instead, I turned off the computer. I asked myself if this needed to be addressed immediatly. While I tend to FEEL it’s urgent, when I stop to THINK I see that it almost never is. I got curious and asked myself — why am I so scared right now? What am I afraid of? What is the worst that can happen? I sat with it all and then went about my day. I gave space for the parasypathetic nervous system to “rest and digest” rather than handing the wheel over to the sympathetic “fight or flight.” When I felt calm again, I was able to respond to the email with honesty and integrity rather than defensive anger.
The nervous system is also in play when we practice yoga. When you first come into a new stretch, the body often has an immediate reaction (sympathetic nervous system) to tense that muscle group in order to protect itself. When you hold that stretch for 20-30 seconds, or 5-6 breaths, the brain tells the muscles that it’s safe to proceed and it’s just fine to surrender and release (parasympathic nervous system). Yoga can be a safe time and space to be curious about how the body reacts to percieved threats. On the mat, it’s possible to have time to make choices. The choices we make on the mat can help teach us resiliancy in the face of our fears. For some, it may be the fear of falling over in Vrkshasana (Tree). For others the fear may be falling on our face in Bakasana (Crow). For others still, walking into a yoga class when you’ve never heard of Tree pose in the first place can be just as terrifying. Observe what bubbles up. Get curious. Breathe and choose a response.
I invite you to explore your fears in meditation this week. Start with recalling a time you experinced fear and the corresponding bodily reaction. If you suffer from any trauma or PTSD, I suggest bringing to mind an experience of mild fear that you feel safe recalling. Bring your awareness to how your body reacted. Notice if you are having a similar reaction now just recalling the memory. Recall to mind how you dealt with the fear — if you had to react or if you had time to honor the pause and respond to the fear. Try to recall the experience without judgement, but as if you are watching a movie, detached from the events. What did this experience teach you? What would you have done the same or differently if you were there again? How did going through this experince teach you resiliancy?
Now, bring to mind something you are currently afraid of — I’d suggest not starting with a paralyzing fear, but something that is more mild. It may be a challenge at work that you are anxious about, or a difficult conversation you need to have with someone. Notice what bubbles up in the mind and body when you think of this fear. Now take a few moments to get curious about what you are really afraid of in this situation. Are you afraid of looking stupid in front of collegues? Are you afraid of speaking in public? Are you afraid this person will reject you in some way? Continue to be curious about how this affects your sense of either physical or emotional security. In your meditation, explore different choices to respond to the situation and continue to be curious about what your response may ilicit. If the situation is something out of your control, recognize where you may have attachment to a particular outcome and what fears bubble up surrounding it.
Keep your awareness on your breath and notice any subtle changes in the body and breath as you practice meditation. As you close out your meditation practice, ground yourself and your senses with some movement such as cat/cows or vocalizations of OM. I also encourage you to journal about what you learn through this practice and how it will inform your response next time you are experiencing fear.
Fear is a necessary human reaction to danger and it should not be cast aside. Tap into the feeling and experience to make a sound judgement of the fear and what, if any, threat may be lurking in the feeling. Honor the fear, give voice to it and when you are able, respond to the situation at hand. With practice, discern where there is a real danger and where there is only percieved danger. Learn the difference between a physcial threat and an emotional one. Choose courage over comfort as you build resiliance. Most importantly, remember that this is a life long practice. You will miss the mark. I miss the mark all the time. For that one email that I was able to respond thoughtfully and appropriatly, there are dozens where I pressed send before thinking. Learn from these moments so that next time you can push pause, take a breath or two and respond rather than react. Fear can be a gift when we know how to work with it.