Fear and the Self
Fear can be our friend – alerting us to potential threats to our wellbeing and safety. It orients us to information around us or within and prepares us to respond. However, fear can also become a habitual and largely unconscious and therefore unquestioned, learnt response to certain stimuli. Each time we encounter a particular person or situation which reminds our brain of an earlier experience, we respond with fear and/or anxiety. We may be left wondering why we often feel tense, tired or stressed. Fear creates a contraction throughout our whole system – a tightening into our centre away from the source of concern. Our breath is held tight and its flow restricted and we may find ourselves living in a heightened state of tension much of the time. In this state our muscular system becomes less elastic and less available to move in a way that supports us with ease and efficiency.
Years ago in a state of chronic pain, great anxiety and fear – I too found myself feeling small, contracted and afraid of many things. I was afraid to move in certain ways lest it increase my pain, I was afraid I would never be able to work or travel again, to play or hold grandchildren (who were not even on the horizon) and much more. I feared life itself and in my contracted state, I felt alone and bleak. The more I focused on the fear and pain the larger it grew. The more I protected myself the more my ability to do any activity reduced and a vicious cycle ensued.
Finding and exploring the twin tools of mindfulness and the Alexander Technique (AT) has supported me to bring to consciousness learnt patterns of response in a range of situations, and provided me with a set of tools I can apply to those that no longer serve me. It allows me to be aware of my habitual responses to events, activities and people and to make a choice, to consciously inhibit the old and allow something new and sometimes unexpected to arise. I have a more conscious and constructive response to life’s challenges. This has allowed me to expand again over the years out of the smaller, contracted state.
Earlier this year I was given another powerful opportunity to work with my fear response. On a camping trip in the desert in
, I was enjoying great
company and walking in the red, rocky landscape when we turned a corner and I suddenly
found myself confronted by a narrow ledge which dropped a long way down into
the dry river bed. I was instantly conscious of the fear and old responses
going through my mind. My immediate thought was to turn back. Israel
I could not imagine how I would walk along the ledge to the area where I would then have to climb down large boulders into the valley. One of my companions saw my response and quickly offered to return to the car with me while the others continued the descent into the valley and out the other side. I felt a pull in two directions, to go the old route and turn back or to inhibit this and allow myself to move forward.
With the encouragement of my companions and a sense of my greater abilities I let go of the old response and stepped forward. I became very present to where I was, with each footstep along the ledge, meeting each moment. Step-by-step I arrived at a wider area from which I then slowly began to climb down finding foot- and hand-holds into the valley. At the end as I looked up, I felt triumphant, liberated to enjoy the landscape of the valley’s riverbed and continue my journey into a more open and greener environment.
Through the support of a teacher in groups or one-to-one work the AT builds an awareness of the self in action. Awareness of how we do whatever we do. This provides a first and critical insight into habitual responses to everyday stimuli. Without this we have no information upon which to base any change. Over time we learn to experience ourselves within a wider field of attention (thereby inhibiting the habitual firing of old neural pathways in the brain) which allows us to interrupt learnt patterns and choose our response. We are enabled to face ourselves, to acknowledge our ‘old friends’ fear and anxiety and respond in a more expanded and centred way.
A view from the ledge of some of my companions climbing down into the valley below
(photo by Emily Carroll)