overcoming fear

“The thing about fear and creativity is that they will always be linked.”

“There’s not a lot of room for dignity in a creative life. Dignity is just another incarnation of fear.”

– Liz Gilbert, Magic Lessons Episode #9, “Dear Creativity and Fear”

If you create in any capacity in your life, I highly recommend checking out Liz Gilbert’s new podcast, “Magic Lessons,” where she gives practical advice to artists who feel stuck in their creative lives. I listened to her podcast as I walked the dog this afternoon and these two lines shot out of the conversation right at me, like darts. Liz was talking to a photographer who wants to take her creativity in a new direction, towards podcasting, and felt what she called a fear based betrayal of her photography when she considered expressing herself in this new way. That was interesting to me because I’m doing a lot of reading, meditating, and writing about fear lately in my study about how the wiring of the brain effects worldview and behavior. The fear response is a natural and necessary part of how our brain keeps us alive. Our brains evolved in an environment where we played the roles of both predator and prey, and there had to be a mechanism in place to keep us from being eaten back when people were fair game for a big meal. Giant bear chasing you through the woods? You’re going to be really thankful that the fear response in your brain gives you a shot of epinephrine to speed up your heart rate so it can pump your blood faster and dilate your pupils so you can take in more light, cortisol to suppress your immune system so you are less susceptible to inflammation from wounds, stress hormones to distract you from the other primal states- hungry and horny- and major stimulation to your amygdala which seeks out and identifies negative feedback (bear attacks) to avoid pain. The limbic system is responsible for keeping us alive when we’re in life or death situations, so it can be a helpful thing to have when you’re in a pinch. Here’s the catch, though. Your limbic system doesn’t know the difference between fear from a bear attack and fear from the possibility of starting a new creative project, telling someone you love them, skydiving, or singing karaoke. Fear registers in the brain as fear, no matter the source. This explains why the fear of getting on stage to speak in public manifests itself, for some, in much the same way as fear of getting truck by a train. When there is no bear, when there is no oncoming train, what are we to do with fear? How are we to deal with this biological hard-wiring when our higher consciousness knows the threat is not real, but we can sense fear shutting down our ability to act?

The first step, truly, is understanding. If we understand why fear makes our heart rate shoot through the roof when our name gets called to accept an award, why our internal alarms fire like a 21 gun salute when that person walks into the room, why our higher functions seems to shut down and all we want to do is self-protect instead of having a difficult conversation, then we can begin to deal with the reality of relatively low stakes situations in which we find ourselves responding as if a velociraptor were hot on our heels. There are structures and systems in our nervous system which evolved, very effectively, to keep us alive. What we’ve been talking about so far is the sympathetic nervous system. Even when we feel calm and balanced, this system is constantly scanning the world around us looking for threats, to which it is particularly sensitive.

Our brains register and hold onto negative feedback much more readily than positive feedback, and our instincts drive us to avoid potential pain much more strongly than they drive us to seek out pleasure. Think about the greatest physical pain you’ve ever felt. Third degree burn? Gunshot wound? Broken bones? Now think about the greatest physical pleasure you’ve ever felt. Chances are your body reacted more strongly to the memories of pain than to the memories of pleasure. I can think fondly on a great night of sex and intimacy and feel warm fuzzies, but if I think about the time a doctor plunged a 5 inch needle into my hip socket to give me a steroid shot deep inside the joint, my entire body reacts. My shoulders tense up, my hands get hot, my heart starts to race, my jaw clenches… you get the idea. Our souls love the warm fuzzies, but, when it comes to survival the limbic system wins. Your nervous system is going to work a lot harder to keep you away from harm than it ever would to help you achieve a comparable reward. For a system with headquarters in the brain, it’s all braun.

Imagine living your life in a constant or even frequent state of fear, anxiety, or panic. Because all of the systems of your body are connected, that would be a short life. Living with this fear response constantly engaged can cause ulcers, heart attacks, irritable bowel syndrome, lowered libido, type II diabetes, and a host of other incredibly unpleasant conditions. Imagine having your higher functions suppressed for days or weeks at a time, your body in a near constant state of fight or flight. Not. Fun. But, many people in our world live that life every day. They’re consistently on high alert, anticipating attacks. These are not usually the most pleasant people to be around.

Ready for some good news? You have the ability to counter-balance this fight or flight limbic system response. You are capable of sending messages to the brain that suppress this biological response and flood your brain with calming and relaxing chemicals to help you chill the fuck out. The sympathetic nervous system exists to respond to changes around you (temperature changes, oncoming traffic, velociraptors, etc), but your normal state is parasympathetic activation- the rest and relax state of your autonomic nervous system. Your parasympathetic nervous system keeps your ship steady and on course, and the sympathetic nervous system fires alarms when threats come into view. When you start to sense alarms going off, and you want to respond to the trigger from a state of relaxation and tranquility rather than panic and fear, guess what you do to reactivate parasympathetic calm?

You take a deep breath.

You take another deep breath.

You take another deep breath.

You take an even longer deep breath.

You take an even longer deep breath.

You choose calm.

That’s it.

The most effective tool you have at your disposal to live from a place of calm rather than reactivity is a thing you do all day every day without even thinking about it. Breathe. Inhale. Exhale. Repeat. That is the secret. When you breath deeply and slowly, your muscles relax and your heart beat slows down. That sends signals to the sympathetic nervous system that all is well, that there is no bear. The fires cool a little at a time until you’re left with a necessary but not threatening flame of limbic activity. Then, you get to act. You get to jump out of the plane, put the painting on display, tell the person you love them, belt out Shania Twain in front of drunken strangers. You’re not afraid anymore, or if you are, you’re not frozen. You’re not fighting. You’re not running away. You’re calm and resolved and at peace, even though there’s still a fire burning inside. What a way to live.

Ready for the spiritual connection? The pain itself doesn’t cause most of our suffering, you guys. The pain is usually short and fast. Sometimes, it lingers, but the most intense suffering we experience comes not from the fear or the pain but from our reaction to it. We want to tell that person we love them, but every time we think about it we get that limbic response and we spend a week thinking about all the ways it could go wrong. The suffering wasn’t found in the moments of the limbic response, the suffering came about in the week of worry and self doubt and judgement we put ourselves through in reaction to it. So you want to put your art out there for the world to see but you’re afraid? Your suffering doesn’t come from the chemicals in your brain which register your fear. Your suffering comes from the rabbit hole of negative stories you write about yourself when you consider what it might feel like to be rejected. Want to sing Shania over karaoke but you’re afraid? You suffering doesn’t come because your brain registers fear, your suffering comes because you have told yourself all the reasons why you’re not good enough to sing and how shameful it would be to do it. Want to jump out of the plane? Do it. The fear passes about 2 seconds after you leap.

We think we suffer because of fear, but really we suffer because of how we deal with fear. The next time you feel the alarms go off, take some time to breathe and calm yourself down. See how much you are able to lessen your suffering by simply becoming aware of your own patterns, tendencies, and reactions. You may still feel fear, but you will start to have a say over how much suffering you endure. I heard one time that often our suffering is like a painter who paints a portrait of a ghost and then becomes afraid that his house his haunted by that ghost. What ghosts are you painting in your house? Where have you allowed your reaction to fear to cause you unnecessary suffering?

Take a deep breath.

And leap.

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