Fear is annoying.
More than anything, it gets in the way of what we want. I don’t mean to trivialize fear – I think we all understand that it is a crippling, debilitating and haunting feeling. We know it when it hits, and it can feel like someone has reached inside your chest to wring your heart out. Not nice at all.
But the thing I find helpful is to try to think of it as less than it really seems. If I think about fear as an annoying sound, like a song on the radio that you can just choose to ignore, then that seems much more manageable, right?
What is it?
In order to think about fear as something smaller than it seems, it can be helpful to understand what is actually happening in the body when we feel it. Fear manifests itself as a manipulation of the Peripheral Nervous System in the brain. The amygdala, an area of the brain that contributes to emotional processing, interprets images and sounds. When it perceives something threatening in any way, it sends a distress signal to the hypothalamus.
The hypothalamus is a bit like a command centre, communicating with the sympathetic (triggers the fight or flight response) and parasympathetic (calms us down) parts of the autonomic nervous system (part of the body responsible for bodily functions such as breathing and heart beat).
The amygdala sends a distress signal, and then the hypothalamus activates the sympathetic nervous system, which in turn gets adrenaline pumping through the body. When adrenaline pumps through the body, there’s a few things that happen: the heart beats faster, pumping more blood to muscles, blood pressure increases, and as a result breathing becomes more rapid and intake of oxygen is greater, increasing alertness. Senses become sharper, but all of these things happen so quickly that we don’t even have time to think about it.
Fear is the feeling that tells us to leave a situation. But as we don’t have time to think about, we are therefore capable of making decisions before we have actually had time to think about it with a calm brain.
Yoga teacher says: “I want you to try a headstand today.”
*distress signal, adrenaline pumping, heart beats faster, increased blood pressure, RAPID BREATHING……PANIC*
Student says: “Ummmmm no I’m fine thanks.”
And we decline the opportunity before we’ve even thought about it, bringing to mind the importance of acting slowly.
Yoga and Fear
Fear can be the reason that people turn to yoga, but it can also be the reason that we don’t try. Yoga is something that forces us to think introspectively. If we are not happy with a certain part of our situation, or ourselves, then it can be a very difficult step to take to engage in something encourages us to re-evaluate.
It’s much easier to stay in an unhappy situation that we are familiar with than to find the courage and summon the effort to change it, because we don’t know if it will work, and we don’t know how it will feel. What if we never feel better? What if we never move past it? What if we try and it just doesn’t work? Then that mental, physical and emotional effort seems wasted and it feels like there’s nothing to show for it.
‘What if’ is the operative phrase here. What if we change the thinking? What if instead of pre-empting failure, we say what if it works? What if I try today, and I feel better tomorrow, one day at a time? What if I try a headstand and I just manage to lift my toes this time?
Who’s in control?
It really is a thing of the mind. If we think about it differently, we see it differently. If we see it differently, we can act differently. And the beautiful thing about that is, it shows us that we can change it. We are in control of how we see things. We project our thoughts onto our situations. If we change how we see our current situation, then we feel better about the situation, or we could change the situation if we feel we need to.
So doesn’t that mean that we are in control? That these situations that seem out of our hands are actually entirely within our hands and no one else’s? We can change what we want to change, and it starts with thought.
But how am I supposed to control my thoughts, you might ask. Well just try listening really intently to that bird tapping its beak against the window. Can you hear it?
What happened to your breathing when you started to listen? It slowed down, or even stopped, right? And what were you thinking about? I was thinking about nothing other than trying to hear that bird.
So there seems to be a correlation here between breath and thought. If we slow the breath down, we slow the mind down from its usual frantic speed. This brings us back to the point that if we think slowly, we can act.
To combat the actions that come about as a result of fear, we need to breathe slow.
Now it sounds a little more manageable, right? Breathing is certainly a good place to start.