If I asked you to explain the purpose of fear what would your answer be? We know there must be a reason for our brain to manifest fear or we wouldn’t be wired for it. The first obvious reason I can think of is that appropriate fears protect us. However, most of the fears we experience come from our view, or memory, of the future and not from any specifically dangerous encounter. It is obviously appropriate to fear high places, loud or threatening noises, and predators. Tests reveal that animals and infants have these fears wired in before anyone trains them to fear dangerous places.
Studies also show we instinctively draw back when we see what we think is a snake on our path before we have the time to intellectually evaluate the object and whether it is a snake. One of our sons had pet snakes in his room and our daughter frequently screamed for help when she saw a snake in the hallway before she realized that it was a rubber snake and the boys were teasing her; though once in a while the snakes did get loose and always preferred to hide in her room. That reflex is built in to protect us, but most of the fear we experience in our lives does more harm than good.
When I am counseling people with life threatening illnesses, I see how fear affects their daily life. The fear may be of treatments that are prescribed, death, disease, disability, what will happen to their loved ones when they are gone, pain, poor care, and more. Generally these people are giving up their power, visualizing the worst outcomes and letting the resulting fear affect their life even though these events may never occur. That is why I refer to fear and hope as memories of the future. When we fear, our reptilian brain is the focus of activity, and what that does to our body is not healthy when the threat is due to our thought and not a snake or tiger on our path.
Before I finish this article I will share how to alter the brain’s activity and bring a feeling of peace to you and your life, even in the midst of threatening events, but first—a story. Several years ago my wife and I were visiting the San Diego zoo and saw a tiger walking around. I thought there was an invisible fence but as it approached us I realized it had escaped. I distracted the tiger so my wife could run for help and then headed for an embankment I could climb down to get away from the tiger. I grabbed a vine and started to climb down while the tiger stood watching me. When I heard a roar I thought it was the same tiger but he was standing quietly observing me. So I looked down and there was another tiger below me. I realized then that the tiger had climbed up the wall to get out and I was now hanging onto a vine between two tigers.
Above me, the tiger of my birth and below, the tiger of my death, but I felt secure on the vine until something hit my forehead. Turns out there were two mice, one black and the other white, eating away at the vine. Here were night and day eating away at me. Well, now I was a little worried, to put it mildly, and no sign of my wife. What was I to do? The only thing I could do was to reach out and eat some grapes that were hanging from the vine. They tasted delicious and I truly appreciated the moment. Obviously my wife loves me, and showed up in time to help rescue me or I wouldn’t be writing this now. When dealing with fear I learned these steps:
- STEP ONE is to enjoy the moment and “taste the grapes.”
- STEP TWO is to define your fears so they are not vague statements like, “I fear dying.” I want to know the specific things that you are afraid of in detail so we can make plans to deal with those fears should they occur.
- STEP THREE is to become empowered to make your own decisions, and to not do something because someone else prescribes it. Life is a labor pain of self-birth, but the pains you experience are not up to others to decide upon. This is your life and your choice; when you do the choosing, you suffer fewer complications.
- STEP FOUR is to take steps to shift the brain’s activity away from the fear center by reprogramming your thoughts. Some simple ways that people can do this are through focusing your mind on what you are grateful for using meditation, visualization, saying the rosary, repeating a mantra, certain expressions, or prayers. To be more specific you can meditate and focus on your breathing, visualize a successful outcome related to what you fear or some pleasant experience in your past, repeat a word like love or peace, or the name of someone you love, or a spiritual figure that you have faith in.
- STEP FIVE is my suggestion that you do what a wise Buddhist suggested. Many times each day say to yourself, “Thank you for everything. I have no complaint whatsoever.”
I have done all of these things, and know they work because I can feel the change in my body as I change the focus of my thoughts. When you practice these things, you will come to the same point as a 90 year old member of our support group. When I asked her what she feared, during a very tense meeting, she stopped for a few minutes to think and then said, “Driving on the parkway at night.”
This reminds me of the story of a young man who entered a dark cave and saw a precious pearl. As he went to pick it up, a dragon roared and he ran from the cave. His entire life he regretted not having the courage to confront the dragon. As an old man he went back to the cave to see the pearl again before he died. When he entered and walked up to the pearl there was a little lizard standing there. He picked up the pearl and took it home to his family.
When you finish reading, visualize a crying infant. Go over and massage it and then embrace it and watch the change you bring about. Now embrace your greatest fear in the same way and watch what happens as the dragon becomes a lizard who no longer threatens you.