In the last couple of weeks, I found myself:
- Holding my kids’ hands on a crocodile bridge with “minimalistic” barriers.
- Having horses taking off with my kids on them.
- Encountering a boa constrictor, Latin America’s largest snake.
- Drifting away by the wind deep into the sea on a paddleboard.
These events inspired me to explore the tension between our desire for aliveness and safety. At the core of this tension is our ability to deal with fear.
What is fear? Fear is an unpleasant sensation when we think of an undesirable future.
The only use of fear
When I saw that the crocodile bridge was unsafe, a momentary flash of my kids falling into the crocodile-infested river crossed my mind.
I held my kids’ hands tight and warned them not to go close to the edges. Then, we went on to enjoy spotting the crocodiles.
The momentary negative flash and the fear accompanying it were useful. They informed my plan of action: hold the kids’ hands.
It would not be helpful if I had gone into panic mode. That would make my situation less safe as a panicked person has less balance.
Now, let me share five of my strategies to manage fear productively.
Five Strategies To Manage Fear
1. Focus on what you want instead of what you don’t want
I had been paddling for more than an hour, but I was getting deeper into the sea instead of closer to the shore.
When we are afraid, our blood gets redirected to our extremities, preparing us to fight or flee.
I was thankful for that energy boost. My arms were tired of paddling, but I knew the wind would push me further away from the shore if I stopped.
As I was standing on a board carried away further deep into the sea, I considered panicking.
It was tempting but would have been unhelpful. I needed all my cognitive functions to get me out of this pickle.
I pushed away negative scenarios from my head and focused on positive ones:
- The wind might calm down.
- I might end up on a different beach, and I can walk back home.
- I may find a boat to help me.
As I focused on positive scenarios, my nervous system calmed, and the prefrontal cortex of my brain started working properly again.
It was then that it occurred to me that I needed to kneel rather than continue doing stand-up paddleboarding.
My body was acting like a sail. I needed to minimise the surface against the wind.
Half an hour of paddling later, I was safe at the shore.
Our brain’s job is to make our thoughts reality. Make sure that the thoughts you feed it are the things you want.
2. Focus on the now
When our guide said there was a boa constrictor on our path, I stopped in my tracks.
“Come closer!” the guide said. His calm body language and voice reassured me. If he was cool, then it must be safe, I thought.
I came closer and admired the enormous snake as it moved away.
There is nothing like a meeting with a boa constrictor to make you become real present, and connected.
Connected with the animal, nature and the moment.
What an incredible feeling of aliveness!
If fear is an unpleasant sensation when we think of a negative future, a great way to deal with fear is to come back to the present.
When you focus on the now, your fear disappears, but your ability to deal with any danger increases.
As I was looking at the boa, I felt no fear. Just presence, awareness and awe.
Mark Twain said: “I am an old man and have known a great many troubles, but most of them never happened.”
Many people make fear their emotional home and experience all the pain of negative imaginary futures.
When you notice this happening, bring yourself back to the present.
Can you spot the boa in the photo?
3. Let go of fearful ruminations of the past
When my kids’ horses took off, I trusted that our guide was the best person to go after the rogue horses and save my kids.
It was the second time in my life I was riding a horse. As much as I would have liked to be a hero and save the kids myself, I did not have the skills to be a cowgirl.
My intuition was right. Our guide calmed my kids’ horses and helped the kids come off safely.
Unfortunately, my son was convinced that his life had been in danger. The horse ran through tree branches; his parents were not there, and he got scared.
What was worse was when I realized our guide got terrified, too!
Our leader’s reactions influence us. My guide’s response to the boa reassured me, while his reaction to the rebel horse scared me.
There is one instinct that is stronger than our survival instinct, and that is parental instinct.
I realized this when I lived in Thailand and had to face stray dogs all the time. I noticed that if I were walking with a friend and a stray dog charged towards me. I would instinctively hide behind my friend (sorry, friends, it was instinctive!)
But, if the stray dog charged towards me when I was with my kids, I would instinctively go in front of them to protect them.
It is no surprise that out of all of the last week’s events, my son being in danger is the one that affected me the most.
Interestingly, all my fear came after the danger had been avoided.
I saw in a documentary that when the zebra escapes the lion, she continues her life like the chase never happened.
Her fear helps her run and escape in the moment, but once she is safe, the parasympathetic nervous system kicks in, and she forgets about what happened. She just chills, eating grass.
That is not the case with humans. We tend to replay the dangerous event in our heads long after we are safe. We marinate in the chemicals of stress all the time.
I kept replaying an imaginary negative scenario that never happened: my son falling off the horse and getting hurt.
One of the definitions of trauma is that we are not able to live in the present. We get stuck in a past incident. We become overvigilant.
The mental replay of a negative event might have had an evolutionary purpose. Learn the lesson and recognise similar dangers in the future.
But replaying a tragic event that never happened was not helpful in my case. I had to let go of the unhelpful thinking.
My son is safe. We are all safe. And we have an adventure to remember.
4. Embrace fear as part of the experience of feeling alive
Joseph Campbell said: “I don’t believe people are looking for the meaning of life as much as they are looking for the experience of being alive.”
Maybe the meaning of life IS the experience of being alive.
What makes us feel alive? It is a sense of connection. To other humans, to nature and to the moment.
Being alive is waking up from our constant thinking and becoming present.
Novelty helps with that. Seeing something you have not seen before. Beauty. Feeling your emotions, including your fear.
We were designed to live in the midst of danger. By overprotecting ourselves, we increased our survival rates, but we lost some part of our aliveness.
We watch thrillers, go to roller coasters and play video games to regain some of the thrill. We fake having adventures.
I have been feeling more alive in the last few weeks than I have in a while.
I heard in a podcast that when we are young, we look for aliveness, and when we are old, we look for safety.
As we grow up, we collect small and big traumas (that happened or did not happen) that keep replaying in the background, making us overvigilant.
I always desired aliveness more than safety.
That is why I have lived in eight countries and visited more than 40. That is why I left corporate life and became an entrepreneur. That is why we moved to Costa Rica and keep having adventures.
But, after I saw my child’s fearful experience with the horse, I thought to myself: “Have I overdone it? Did my decisions put my kids in danger?”
Then, I remembered growing up in an overprotective, sanitized, restrictive environment. My parents wanted to keep me safe at all costs. This resulted in me becoming a rebel daredevil.
The colds our kids go through in toddlerhood strengthen their immune system. Similarly, calculated risks improve their ability to handle danger.
I am talking about taking calculated, enriching risks here, not being reckless.
We hire a guide when we hike in unexplored territory. We wear long pants to protect our legs from aggressive reptiles. And we learn to be present in the moment to deal with whatever arises.
Danger is a part of life. It is the animals in Costa Rica’s jungle; back in London, it is the cars.
I cannot put my kids in a box. I can only teach them to be aware of dangers without holding their lives back.
Because the biggest risk is not taking any risk at all. And the biggest failure is not having lived.
5. Learn to feel your emotional pain to stop being afraid of it
A lot of my coaching work is helping clients deal with their fear.
The fear that stands in the way of knowing and experiencing what they want.
Most of us hold ourselves back from living the life of our dreams out of fear that we will experience an unpleasant emotion in the future.
It is triggered by thoughts like:
I will fail. I will be rejected. I will be criticized. I will lose money. I will make a mistake. I will be embarrassed.
Our brain cannot distinguish between physical pain and emotional pain. When we are rejected, the same part of the brain lights up as when we get punched in the face.
If any of your imaginary scenarios of failure and rejection happen, you will feel emotional pain.
So what? You can handle that.
The best way to deal with the fear of emotional danger is to become OK with feeling your emotions.
Rather than trying to avoid feeling a negative emotion at all costs and suppressing it when it arises, we can feel it and let it go.
Once we learn how to feel our emotions, we know not to be so afraid of them.
And then we can make our moves towards our dreams untethered.
My recent adventures in Costa Rica have highlighted how, sometimes, on the edges of our perceived safety lies our deepest aliveness.
Each event was a lesson in confronting fear, from encountering wild creatures to drifting out at sea.
While awareness of danger is helpful, it is the management of fear that keeps us safe.
We enhance our safety by focusing on desired outcomes, staying present, letting go of past ruminations, and embracing our emotions. Those same strategies also enrich our experience.
What is a risk you have been considering taking? Is it time to make your move?
Here is to coming out unscathed out of more adventures that make us feel alive:-)
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