Fear of the dark, fear of flying, fear of heights, fear of spiders and fear of snakes, what do they all have in common?
Most of us have one or more of these common fears and there are plenty more too.
We have a type of evolutionary memory that is hereditary. This was at one time a very useful fear that protected us from harm. In many ways, well, most ways, we are built for the stone age and our body and mind are entirely unsuited to our modern life style. Many people live in deep shame about their fear of heights and cannot understand why they have it.
My time spent as a rock climbing instructor involves me spending many hours dangling from a rope over the type of exposed drops that would mean death if i fell. I don´t suffer from vertigo but I do have a healthy awareness that I had better pay attention to what I am doing as I am never very far away from a deadly fall. I often meet and climb with people who are very much terrified by heights and in fact I noticed that almost everybody I meet has a fear of heights somewhere on the scale, most of us can still function well enough and find the fear useful as it focuses the mind and helps us to avoid dying.
Evolution, the survival of the fittest, has already weeded out those that had absolutely no fear of heights at all, they all died, probably in avoidable falls. Those with a healthy fear of heights survived and passed on their genes to us who all still maintain a healthy fear of heights. So don´t worry or feel ashamed if you cant stand heights, it´s not unusual and actually it´s OK and helpful if you can just learn to use the fear instead of fighting it.
Likewise with spiders and snakes, in many parts of the world, these can be really dangerous and are best avoided, this is why so many of us have such an irrational fear of spiders and snakes, many years ago, our ancestors that respected these creatures enough to stay away from them survived while those that got too close did not.
This fear mechanism that we have is designed very much to keep us alive but as we move from a life lived in nature to one lived in a metropolis, it is a system that seems wildly inappropriate to the level of risk that most people face.
I hate job interviews, at least I used to, I have not had one for so long I don´t really know how I feel about them anymore but years ago, A job interview was my most feared activity.
I would arrive the usual 10 minutes early but feeling a general jittery excitement which would escalate the longer that I was left waiting for the interviewers to show up. Often by the time they had arrived, I was a joyless, sweaty, tense mess. I would have a dry mouth, fast pulse, shallow breathing and found it hard to think clearly. All of these bodily responses are designed to improve our physical ability to run or fight. They are completely useless in a job interview though.
I later learned that this was my built in fight or flight system activating and performing it´s routine function.
My prehistoric brain was preparing me to either fight or run away from a Sabre toothed tiger!
When we undertake certain events in life that can change the path that we are on, give us increased income or a different role, a certain level of value is assigned to it in our heads and we want to make sure that we get it, this generates stress which eventually leads to our prehistoric brain that thinks ¨ah, the sabre tooth tiger is back, we had better fight it or run away¨.
Where this system is still very effective is when we go back to nature and they become a key system again. Fear of the dark, well Humans are diurnal, daytime creatures. Most predators in the wild are nocturnal, night time creatures. Our fear of the dark leads us to either create light or to stay in one place when it is dark, this helps to keep us safe, away from danger hidden by darkness and away from the predators that might enjoy eating us in the dark.
Our sight is obviously not very good in the dark but our other senses still work, in fact they become more sensitive in the dark in order to compensate a little for the absence of vision. We can use our sense of smell and sound to build a picture of where a threat might be. The problem with this is that without a visual reference, that loud rustling sound or the footsteps we hear sound like huge wolf or a bear when in fact it is a mouse sniffing around the camp. As our senses become more acute, things tend to seem bigger than they are.
Fear of the forest is not something that I have ever had a problem with but I know other people that are intensely scared of being in a forest alone. One person who was a student on a course that I was running was paralyzed by it, literally, at night, he was screaming in fear which actually was pretty scary for the rest of us because we all thought that something was seriously wrong!e learned how to live in the forest, how to use its resources and how to identify all of the trees, plants and animals that live there. Soon, nothing in the forest was strange or new to him, even the foxes that sound like screaming babies in the night. As he got to know the forest and accept it, a little bit at a time, he found himself become calm and comfortable there and it is now a place that he goes to to feel peace and quiet and ironically, safe.
I used have a fear of flying, I never let this fear prevent me from flying but it always made the experience of flying more stressful that it needed to be. After a while, the fear vanished but would return from time to time.
Being sealed into a pressurised aluminium tube and propelled at great speed to 30,000 feet is not a natural position to find yourself in. The fact that you cannot leave and have absolutely no influence over the successful or unsuccessful flight can cause a stressful reaction in some.
The last time it returned, I spent the entirety of a 1.5hr flight having a panic attack but just about managing to stay in my seat and not spring up and start running for the door. It was pretty uncomfortable. After that I decided that as I was in no danger, it was a ridiculous situation to find myself. I did not know why I was so bothered by flying, probably the feeling of being trapped inside but I made a firm decision that it no longer mattered and that I would fly whenever I wanted to no matter what my pre-historic brain thought about it. I stopped any thoughts or feelings of resisting the fear, I did not try to be brave or courageous, i just got on the plane, sat down and read my book.
Quite often I would get half way through the fight and suddenly realise that I was not at all concerned by the flight and then i´d start to feel the fear again. These days I don´t feel anything on flights except boredom, a niggling resentment the seats are far too close together and the desire to lie down flat instead of trying to sleep in those seats. Fear is not part of the equation anymore.
I stopped feeling fear during flights because I opted to not resist the fear and instead to just let it be to do it´s thing.
There are many different way to over come these fears and a good one is simple exposure but perhaps the most effective, long term cure is to simply accept that these things happen for a reason and that we can use these fears to sharpen our senses and to keep us alive.
Attempting to suppress fear never works
A great analogy I heard once was that in nature, a tree bends in the wind, it does not stand stiff and try to hold itself still in face of such force. It bends and in doing so is able to absorb the strength of the wind and not break.
A river moves around a large rock in it´s way, it does not try to break the rock, it simply flows around it.
If we let fear takes it´s course and do not try to stop it, it flows through us and eventually it looses it´s grip on us.
With practice, fear need not be a hindrance to you, it need not be the reason that you choose not to do certain things and in fact once you get the hang of using fear for it´s intended purpose, it can be really fun and exciting.
Without fear there can be no courage
Prevention is better than the cure, you can´t really talk yourself out of a state of panic as the chemicals that create and influence your mood are mixed in such a cocktail that fighting or running are the only courses of action that your brain is able to cope with. The trick, and this may seem obvious, is to not allow your subconscious mind to whip you up into a panic in the first place.
This can fairly easily be achieved by
- Accept the situation as it is – You may be trapped in an aero plane, there might be a spider in the bath, yes that might be a snake in your sleeping bag
- Take deep breaths. Breath deeply and slowly. One of the first reactions to fear in the body is to begin breathing quickly to oxygenate the blood in preparation to run away or fight the snake. Breath in for 5 long seconds, hold it for a few seconds and exhale for 5 long seconds. Repeat as necessary
- Focus on stillness, do not process any fleeting thoughts or images and allow your mind to become clear
- Relaxation should then become an option in which you can forget about the flight, catch the spider in a glass and throw it outside or gently slide out of that sleeping bag with the snake it it.
If you have a fear of heights, forests or something else, get in touch with me and I can help. I have about 15 years of experience living with fear and panic and have come to enjoy the process of eliminating the control that fear can have over our lives. You can not, nor should you, remove fear from your life but you can learn to control it so that it helps rather than hinders.
Get in touch with me