By Stuart McDonald, Accredited Exercise Physiologist.
I said in my last post that we can let fear be, allow it to exist in us, to be there, real and potent.
I do not say that we should pander to fear, seek it out or do nothing about it. Rather, I say that fear is something that is legitimate and that we experience for a very good reasons – even if we can’t work out what that reason is…
When we experience fear, our body changes in many different ways. In the brain, certain circuits fire up, and certain hormones are released throughout the body. Our muscles react, our breathing changes, our blood vessels change, our memory systems become more potent and our body wants to do something about the fear. It is as we suppress the fear – as we push it down, pretending it is not there or fooling ourselves into believing we shouldn’t feel fear – that we don’t allow the body to respond.
Not allowing the body to do what it is most naturally made to do – and not allowing it to do that thing over and over again – will result in the body finding other ways to express that fear. Typically, it will be things like: Sudden, explosive reactions to fearful events; sudden angry outbursts; physical and verbal aggression; agitation; constantly tense muscles; anxiety attacks; guilt and depressive symptoms; poor sleep quality; stress-related symptoms – cardiovascular issues, breathing issues, metabolic issues.
Sounds stupid, doesn’t it?
Well, that’s the body and it’s not stupid, it’s beautiful and amazing and sensible.
You see, there is no “mind-body” connection. That’s an old idea and it’s a little outdated. By about 20 years. What there is, is a “mind-body” (see what I did there? No connection). The mind and the body meticulously interplay, they intertwine and feed one into the other. Your mind and sense of self is only what it is because it receives information all the time from your body – and your body is what it is because it is changed by the mind, which responds to your body (and your external environment).
When the fear instils itself in your body, it is a conscious representation of the emotion of fear that your non-conscious self is responding to. The body is changed because of the fear – there is a perceived threat of some sort – and the non-conscious self makes that fear accessible – you become aware of the fearful changes in your body and interpret those as “I am afraid”.
Now, I don’t know about you but when I ignore internal states like that – say, oh, I don’t know, like a full bladder – that can end up all kinds of messy. And smelly. It works like this: the muscles of the bladder stretch as the bladder fills up and they constantly send a signal to the brain. When they stretch a certain amount, that signal changes and the brain then brings the signal into the awareness of your conscious self – you become aware that the bladder is (almost) full. It was filling up and the signal was going to the brain all that time but you were only made aware of it once the signal needed to be dealt with.
You only became aware of the signal once the signal needed to be dealt with.
Fear, too, has a signal. It is one that occurs throughout the whole body – it’s more of a combination of a host of signals – there’s the central neurological one, but there’s a whole lot of other ones as well, depending on the thing you’re afraid of. They can be physical stimuli (that muscle is stretching too much!) and they can be cognitive stimuli (There’s no way in heaven I can pass that exam!). Once the signal needs to be dealt with, the body makes the conscious self aware of it. The body was always sending the signal to the non conscious self, but it brings it into awareness when we need to deal with it.
And so, like a full bladder, fear is simply an experience the body wants you to deal with so that everything can feel a little bit more balanced, a little more okay.
The body brings the signal about the bladder into our awareness when it’s time to deal with it. And the body brings the fear into our awareness when it’s time to deal with it. And so we shouldn’t suppress the fear or pretend it’s not there or tell ourselves we shouldn’t feel that fear (you shouldn’t feel you need to do a pee?). It is instead a time to understand the fear; to explore the fear; to ask if the fear is warranted or not, grounded or not in truth? Or is it just my opinion?
When we are children, we do not know how to understand the signals about our bladder. Then we learn to. In the human body, if you don’t use it, you lose it. And so, with fear – if for 15, 20, 45 years we have stopped listening to our fear and have instead been suppressing it, running from it, pretending it doesn’t exist or feeling guilty about it (small or large) then we will need to rest ourselves like children again, children learning to go to the toilet. We will need to learn once again to listen to the signals of fear, to understand the body’s language, and understand what it is about this fear that is important. And like children toilet training, that is a thing that takes time and lots of frustration. And it is most rewarding.
It’s probably best to do this at a safe time, and not when the lion (metaphorical or real) is chasing us. In that case, just run. It’s what your body wants 🙂