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On New Year’s Day I realised my worst fear
On New Year’s Day I realised my worst fear
Last year, I took part in a tandem parachute jump. I didn’t think I could beat that for facing all my fears, after all, what could be worse than jumping out of an aeroplane? If I could do that, then I could do or achieve anything. But it turns out there was something I missed, something worse than facing potential death.
On New Year’s Day 2017, I sat alone, tears flooding down my cheeks and a pain in my chest. No one had invited me to a New Year’s Eve party. The overwhelming fear and sadness of not feeling part of the tribe, the community, that I didn’t fit in or wasn’t liked.
That was my greatest fear, far worse than jumping out of a plane at 10,000 feet. Sure, I enjoy my own company, but not feeling included, not having a choice as to whether I spend the night in my own company or with my tribe – really hurt. As a Quest Cognitive Hypnotherapist, we are always looking to learn ways to grow as individuals. And so, the pain I experienced in that moment turned out to be one of my best eureka moments.
I wasn’t going to die! Even though I had not been included in this event. I could now see exactly what my worst and greatest fear was and furthermore, how it had impacted on most of my life, especially as a teenager and adult. I had spent all of those years people-pleasing, being so eager to do something to help, just to be liked and included. As a child, I was shy and introverted, and I never felt as though I fitted in. This led to many years of being a cigarette smoker and an abuser of alcohol, had drugs been a part of my society, I would have tried them too. This brought along bouts of depression, anxiety and panic attacks, with other negative behaviours and sometimes not so good acquaintances.
Suddenly, I had a profound sense of freedom, as a great weight lifted. For the first time, I felt free to be myself, to fully accept myself for who I am.
How Is Fear Learned?
In our first few months of life, we don’t have fears. Babies will pick up anything and put it in their mouths, even bugs and mud. Take a small child leaping from sofa to chair, with absolute abandon and no fear of getting hurt (often to the horror of their parents!). As we grow in these early years, we fearlessly explore our environment, learning what is safe and where or what isn’t safe.
Fearful beliefs tend to start when the adults around us shout out in panic, or reprimand us in some way, “Don’t eat that its dirty, ugh!”. We can literally build allergies to foods and our environment through learned fear, as the body can reject a substance just because it believes it is bad for us.
This is how we learn fear, through stories from the unconscious, formed from our experiences, often in early childhood. “I’m not good enough” or “I’m a bad person”; “Flying is going to kill me”, “The spider is going to eat me”, “I cannot speak in public because everyone will laugh at me”.
So, Is Fear an emotion that serves or hinders us?
Emotions are the body’s way of calibrating whether something is good or not. For example, you get an instinct about whether you like someone or, when in a street alone, that perhaps you are not safe.
Way back in the days of the caveman, we needed a guidance system that would enable us to be aware of the environment around us and keep us safe. This came in the form of our five senses. Fear is vital to keep us alive and enable us to continue to evolve. Giving us tools to know when to run, stay still or hug someone.
Fear was the guidance system that let us know if we were in danger (alert! alert!) “Sabre-tooth tiger is outside the cave”, “We could be attacked or eaten alive”. In this context, we can understand why we required this emotion of fear, and the body reacts by running, freezing or fighting. So, fear does have a place, but it’s not always useful.
Some people live on high alert causing anxiety, stress, depression, and related issues that can lead to many other health conditions like heart attacks, strokes and even back and spinal problems.
Fear can affect us in many ways, preventing us from living a life of happiness and prosperity. We fear not being good enough and find ourselves limited in what we strive to achieve. We fear not being liked, so we accept behaviours from others that we shouldn’t, or we do more than we should for people, just to please them. We spend so much time running, freezing or avoiding something because of fear-based beliefs that we miss so much of what life could offer.
Joe Griffin and Ivan Tyrell, authors of “Human Givens, A new approach to emotional health and clear thinking. 2004”, through their years of studying the brain and how it works in relationship to psychology have created an acronym that offers a simple explanation of how humans react to situations.
A P E T =
Activating Event. This could be the spider in the corner (phobia) or the boss walks into the office and looks at you.
Pattern Matching. The unconscious part of the brain is a fantastic machine that is searching for, this is similar to that. So, the first time you ever encountered a spider, or the time you were 3 years old and sang for mummy and she laughed.
Emotion is created in the body, maybe the tummy starts to churn, the heart starts to race, the knees go weak or a feeling of nausea overcomes you.
Thought and conscious awareness of the fear, spider! I must run, or I can see everybody laughing at me every time I speak to a group of people.
There is a delay of approximately 30 seconds between the activating event and the thought that then creates a negative or positive behaviour.
How can we use this information to make a change?
In the past, therapists have primarily worked with changing a thought and not accounted for the correlation between emotions and thoughts. They are two sides of the same coin. You have one and you will have the other.
When we are aware of the feeling and the thoughts that occur, we can then start to connect the dots, e.g. this feeling equals being scared, “Oh my god there is a spider in the corner!”. We can then reframe the thought and hence create a different, more resourceful outcome. A reframe could be imaging the spider in red wellies and a yellow hat doing the tango as it runs away from you or if mummy laughed at you when you were 3 it was because you were cute, and it was the laughter of joy and pride.
There are hundreds of stories that we tell ourselves every day, stories that generate emotions and behaviours. These emotions and behaviours can then often become a part of a story that others then tell themselves based on their own interpretation.
But here’s the thing, we are good at noticing happy feelings in others and tend to respond in a similar way. Just as when we are in a bad mood, others will also respond in a similar way.
When we change the story to something more positive, we alter our posture, breathing, and the tension. Your face alters and softens somehow and, as we project a different more positive reality outward, others respond to us differently. We create a lovely positive feedback loop. Positive neurons and chemicals rush through our bodies and brain, resulting in more helpful connections and a more positive time in that moment.
We go along in our daily lives having many thoughts in a day, most of which we are totally unaware of. Many of which are limiting us from our full potential as human beings. Much of the time, we are living in either a past reality or a future state, not spending much time in the present. Mindfulness meditations offer useful tools to quieten the mind. I often hear people say that they can’t do mediation. Sometimes we just overthink things, and meditation is one of those things. Taking 2 minutes out of every couple of hours (maybe visiting the toilet if you need privacy) and breathing 7-11, in for 7 through the nose and out for 11 through the nose, or a similar ratio that works for you. This practise will begin to help you deal with your next two hours in a more productive way because it just quietens the mind chatter that is going on in your head. It can give you a moment to reframe any unhelpful stories that may be rattling around in your head, so you can be more positive in moving forward.
Fear has its place to keep us safe, however, we may be overusing this emotion to inhibit ourselves from living a fulfilling life. Instead of living in protection, take the opportunity of shifting to a life lived in growth.