If you read my blog post from a couple weeks ago, I know what you might be thinking….”what?? I thought you just said that fear is horrible and we should let go of it no matter what!”
I do strongly believe that fear and other negative emotions can be damaging to our health, can keep us from living our best possible lives, and can even be detrimental on a global scale.
Here’s the thing though…shitty things happen in our lives that are largely out of our control. A loved one gets a scary diagnosis. We get into a car accident. Natural disasters like hurricanes or tornadoes come barreling into our reality, seemingly out of nowhere. We can’t always control our circumstances.
For example, during the last few summers here in Colorado, we’ve experienced more and more wildfires. We’ve specifically had two fires threaten our local community, coming dangerously close to homes in nearby neighborhoods. Our niece was evacuated from her home, along with many of our friends. Real, imminent danger threatened people in our lives, and if things had gotten worse, the fires could’ve threatened our own home.
It is okay to be scared in this type of scenario – some might even argue that it’s healthy. For many, this was pretty much a real fight-or-flight situation. Thankfully for our community, the fires were contained while they were still relatively small, all homes in our area were saved, and no one was injured.
Even after the real danger was gone, almost everyone was still pretty spooked, including myself. Some people were angry, some were sad. It was undoubtedly a super stressful situation for all involved. We all know how fragile our forest ecosystem can be and we’ve all seen the sad, scary wildfire stories coming out of California and other places throughout the West.
One thing I’ve learned (and am still learning), is it’s actually ok to feel fear, anger, sadness, etc. when hellish things like this happen (even after the “thing” is over). I’ve discovered that when I allow myself to feel the negative emotion, it actually passes a lot faster, versus when I resist it and think “this feeling is awful, I don’t want to feel it anymore!” Even when I think I “should” stop feeling negatively about a traumatic situation, it’s best to honor the feeling until it eases.
Everyone experiences and processes emotions differently. But giving yourself the space to feel crappy when life throws you a curveball is the best thing you can do for yourself.
Fear When Pushing the Limits
Another example of when I believe fear is okay or even healthy is when I’m about to do something physically demanding that tests my limits. Last spring, I went canyoneering for the second time in my life. You can bet my palms were sweating and my heart was racing as I stepped down over the edge of each rappel!
Maybe this goes without saying, but I don’t think I’d be human if I didn’t feel some level of freak out as I was preparing to step off a cliff and dangle a couple hundred feet off the ground. Letting myself feel the fear and adrenaline was an important component to the experience…but choosing to surrender and trust that I was safe in the moment was exhilarating. Letting myself be with the fear (not fighting it) was part of the process of actually overcoming the fear, and also part of what made the adventure so rewarding.
The Type of Fear That’s Unhealthy
The type of fear that I believe is unhealthy is the fear that you spin over and over in your head. What’s detrimental is when you relive a negative story again and again in your mind, and allow it to take over.
Last April some mysterious bumps appeared on my abdomen, and I freaked out. Was this a recurrence? Was it something else bad? Was it another type of cancer? I obsessed almost constantly over all the negative possibilities, without any factual evidence that there was a real reason to be scared. The anxiety manifested in my body as other physical symptoms, like shortness of breath, GI problems, and a lot of sleepless nights.
After a couple weeks of panicking, I finally went to see my doctor. I’m fortunate to have a GP/GYN on my side who is very down to earth, takes all the time I need for my questions, and gives me pep talks when I need them. She ordered a CT scan for the next day, but that actually wasn’t the most important action she took. The most meaningful thing she did was calmly ask me, “what does your intuition say about these symptoms you are having?”
I paused, and for a moment my mind quieted. I hadn’t stopped to consider what my gut was saying. No one had ever asked me. It’s not really something society promotes – we’re encouraged to always be using our analytical, thinking brains. And I’m aware that the vast majority of doctors don’t ever ask their patients this same question.
When I stopped to let my intuition answer, it told me that I had nothing to worry about.
I wish I could say that all of my fear faded in that instant and I walked away from that appointment confident and relaxed about everything. I got my CT results just 24 hours later, and there was no evidence of disease. My regular doctor sent the results to my oncologist, who reviewed them the following week. When we spoke on the phone, she explained that the only way to know for sure that I was cancer-free was to have surgery. What?!?! She wasn’t suggesting that I schedule an appointment in the OR, but basically she was telling me that I couldn’t completely put my fears to rest, because we didn’t have 100% of the information.
I feel grateful that I was self-aware enough at that time to realize I couldn’t keep living in the fear of the unknown. My gut definitely knew that wasn’t healthy or productive. I recognized that I needed to do something about it – and that I couldn’t let my mind and my emotions keep taking control over my life. Thankfully, through a LOT of inner work over the next few months, I was able to let go of fear’s firm grip.
I’ve slowly been learning to trust my intuition more and more confidently. I’ve learned to pause to ask myself, is my mind obsessively attaching itself to a scary thought, or am I in real, actual danger? 99.99% of the time, it’s my mind just going crazy. Our minds are powerful tools, but they also can be our own worst enemies, playing scary stories on constant repeat.
It takes practice to be able to distinguish between the different types of fear. Often, they can sound similar in our heads and feel the same in our bodies. At first glance they can seem identical, but when you really tune in, you might notice subtle differences.
Meditation is definitely a tool that helps me determine what kind of fear I’m dealing with. From there, I can choose to allow myself to feel the fear, or take steps to think positive thoughts and move into more positive emotions.
I don’t pretend to be an expert on how to process emotions. I think that everyone is different, and what works for some might not work for others. What I do know though is that becoming aware of our emotions is a powerful skill. Becoming aware of our emotions allows you to choose our emotions.
There’s not a lot in life that we can control. But we can always control how we react, we can control our thoughts, and we always have complete power over our own inner world.
This, to me, actually feels freeing. I’ve spent the last several months of my life in a much more relaxed, easy place. I’ve lived most of my adult life with low-level, chronic anxiety…but this is the calmest I’ve consistently felt in decades, and that feels amazing.
A great introductory book on learning how to let go of fear is The Universe Has Your Back by Gabrielle Bernstein. It’s a light, easy read, and the author offers practical tips for “getting out of your head”. She even gives some tips on how to start meditating if you’ve never done it before. I’ve returned to it many times, sometimes reading it from cover to cover, and other times just picking a few pages when I need a little extra help.
Do you have any favorite books, tools, or tips for quieting your mind when it feels like it’s on overdrive? Share them in the comments!