Tag Archives: fear

Dealing with fear

I’ve been dealing with fear for years. Here are some things I’ve learned that may be useful. If you want more insights, I’ve written a lot of notes from the journey – search for blogs here about anxiety.

Your fear is not unreasonable. You’ve lived through something, or the threat of something that has taught you to be afraid. If the world seems hostile, dangerous and unkind, this is because you have found it to be so. Your fear is rational. If you are in a dangerous situation, treating your fear like it’s an irrational response will keep you in danger – often an issue in abusive relationships. If you are not in danger, historical fear can make your life hell.

It is really important to notice the fear. If it becomes normal, this may take more effort. Accelerated heart rate, overwhelming feelings of threat, futility, powerlessness and everything going wrong are not normal. If you’re feeling those a lot, or all the time, you are feeling fear.

Risk assess. Sit down, breathe slowly and look at what you’re afraid of. Ask yourself how real the threats are, and try and go through them as slowly and carefully as you can. If you find you are in real danger, seek help. Take it seriously. If the danger is based on past experience, question it. Don’t let it take over. It is reasonable to be afraid if you have been through trauma, but it doesn’t mean you are always in danger.

Breathing slowly and deeply is often a good way to control fear in the body. Moving is good. I find I have to literally run away sometimes to control the flight responses. I get out and walk. If you freeze up with fear, try and coax yourself into some small, gentle movement. Flight, fight and freeze responses are all signs that fear has taken you over.

It is really important to eat well, get exercise, rest and sleep, and to do things that comfort you. Alcohol doesn’t really help. Many of us find herbal interventions like St Johns Wort, chamomile, valerian and lavender to be helpful, and you’re in control of those, which helps. If your body is run down, exhausted or malnourished it has good reasons to be afraid, and that won’t help.

This is really hard stuff to deal with on your own. You are not obliged to deal with it on your own. Fear may tell you no one will help you, or that they will use it as an opportunity to hold power over you. Find the people who also live with anxiety and work with them. It is easier to dismantle this sort of stuff as part of a team. It is easier to think about other people’s experiences than your own. By sharing your experiences, you can help someone else. By supporting each other we can make safe spaces to defend ourselves from fear.

You didn’t get here by yourself. Fear will tell you that people will judge you and think less of you if you need help. This isn’t always true. Some people will do this, but not everyone, and the people worth having in your life are the friends and allies who will not kick you when you are down. Get out as far as you can from situations where people will use your vulnerabilities to hurt you. Find the people you can trust. Even if it’s just some random blogger like me. You aren’t alone, and you can get the fear under control and have some, or all of your life back.


Working with Fear

Fear is a difficult emotion to experience, and is harder to work with. All too often, what we do with fear is to take it out on someone else in the form of anger. When you do this, you get a brief sense of having power and being in control. This can be uplifting in the short term because fear is usually underpinned by a loss of power, or the expectation of powerlessness. However, venting it as anger on whoever is to hand is a quick route to more stress and less emotional support. It also doesn’t solve the original problem.

Unprocessed fear can also turn inwards, and become an anger we take out on ourselves. Self-blame, shame, obsessing over what we can’t change, obsessing over the risks and spiralling into every more despairing thought patterns doesn’t really solve anything either.

Our bodies do a very short term fear response when we need to get out of situations. Fear should kick in our flight/fight responses to get us out of trouble. When we’re dealing with something other than immediate, physical danger, it needs a bit more thought. However unattractive a prospect it may seem to be, the best thing to do with fear is sit down quietly with it and examine it.

Fear is most often underpinned by love and pre-emptive grief. That love may be directed towards ourselves – we are afraid of suffering or dying. We are afraid of what we may lose that we value. We fear for that which we love – be that people, landscapes, wildlife, cultural features… Conscious that we are threatened with loss, we can enter into pre-emptive grief processes. We can go through grief stages over things and people that are not yet lost to us but probably will be. Sometimes this can turn out to be a useful coping mechanism, sometimes it brings the reason for fear into sharper focus.

I think the best way to deal with fear is to get to grips with what you are afraid of losing. What you’ll find there is what matters to you. Your love. And if at first glance what you find seems selfish and all about you, then it is simply your love for your own life and experience that you are afraid of losing.

Fear isn’t a simple thing. It isn’t a ‘negative’ emotion to try and avoid. It can teach us about what matters most. It can show us the truth of what we value. It’s easy to lose your real values under layers of social conditioning, but fear can cut through that bullshit at a terrifying pace to tell you what is most important, least bearable and in that insight, is the scope to find your heart.

In the end, we all die, we all lose everything. We’re all on that trajectory together and there’s not much point being afraid of our unavoidable destination. But along the way, we can take care of what we love, make the most of it, cherish it while we can.


If you respond by freezing

We normally talk about fear in terms of flight or fight responses. There are a lot of things we have evolved to deal with either by trying to punch them or trying to run away. However, in some circumstances, there’s a third response available – freezing. It’s less talked about and can be more confusing. Terrible things are happening and you just shut down, and do nothing.

Freezing is what we do when we’re overwhelmed. It’s a response to situations in which there is nothing we can physically fight off, and nowhere to run to. Unsurprisingly, a lot of people are experiencing freeze in response to the virus.

If you can’t focus your mind, can’t figure out what to do, are panic-scrolling on Twitter, half asleep all the time or feeling distanced from everything, this is the process you are in. Rest, time and distraction will help you move past it. This is a natural and reasonable response. It may feel confusing right now, but the answer is to be gentle with yourself and wait it out.

People who have already experienced trauma can find they are prone to freezing responses. Brutal lessons about your own powerlessness will do this to a person.

Hopefully there is a lesson we can all learn here for the longer term. Freezing is a normal response to being powerless. It is why many victims of violence, and especially of rape, do not fight back or manage to escape. Sometimes our bodies just shut down – it can have a protective function, helping us mentally distance ourselves from traumatic things. Understanding how this works will help us be more compassionate with ourselves, and with each other.


Dealing with fear – some advice

For many people who already feel marginalised, the current political situation is causing a great deal of fear. I’ve lived with anxiety for some years now and I’ve learned a lot about what helps and what doesn’t. This post is primarily for people encountering someone else’s fear and wondering what would be helpful.

Just because you aren’t afraid of something doesn’t mean it is unreasonable for someone else to fear it. They will have reasons. Dismissing the fear doesn’t reduce it for the other person or help them at all. Taking them seriously will mean they feel validated and supported, which will help a bit, and in the meantime, you can learn how things impact on them.

You may want to offer comfort. The trouble is that when someone is deep in a state of fear, attempts to jolly them along, or make light of it don’t help. It just feels like being ignored and dismissed. Ask yourself if you want to make them feel better, or if you want them to seem better so that you could be more comfortable yourself. That’s not an easy thing to look at, but, it makes a lot of odds if you can. You may be trying to protect yourself by not wanting to take seriously the things they fear. This is understandable, but likely it won’t be helpful.

Many people are afraid not simply of what will come, but of what’s already happening. This is important stuff to hear. It is often not speculative fear, it is coming from a place of things being awful already and being afraid simply of it carrying on, not changing. Whether we’re talking about lack of mental health provision, climate change, poverty, lack of jobs, cost of housing, work insecurity, pressures on the NHS, (or medical costs if you’re somewhere that’s an issue) social breakdown, racism, threats to minority groups – these things are all happening. It’s not irrational to fear they may get worse, but there’s plenty enough to fear in just keeping the current levels.

If you are better resourced than average, you may feel more secure and more insulated. You may be confident that you have the skills, intelligence, education and opportunities to keep you and those you care about safe. That’s nice for you. But, most of us are in reality only a paycheck or two from disaster at any time. Most of us could be put on our knees by the misfortune of a serious setback. It may be more in your interests to stand in solidarity with people who have been unlucky and to sympathise with their fears.

There isn’t much that can be done to alleviate fear right now because there truly is a lot out there to be afraid of. What we can do is take each other seriously and show each other care and respect. We can have different anxieties and priorities and still be on the same side – wanting things to be better and more hopeful than they are.


Druid community and anxiety

Yesterday was full of interesting challenges and unexpected opportunities. I spent the day at Druid Camp in the Forest of Dean. I missed the previous 2 years, because there had been a lot of painful drama – accusations that I had bullied someone, that led to said victim trying to get me removed from the field, prohibited from being a speaker there and fired from my day job. I had evidence of what had actually happened, and was not fired from my day job, but it was a scary and stressful time. It was also deeply emotionally loaded for me because I feel very strongly about taking bullying accusations seriously.

So, back to Druid Camp I went, but only for one day because I didn’t know how that was going to work out. I felt welcomed and supported. There was no residual stress or drama. I did a talk and it got all the sorts of responses I had hoped for, especially getting other Pagans thinking about the transition towns movement. I sat as a model (entirely clothed) for some of Tom’s life drawing class, and I spent some intense time with a number of people I am deeply fond of.

Sometimes, the only way to deal with fear is to try again. It’s hard to see what’s a reasonable response and what’s out of date, and what never was that big a deal in the first place, without testing things. Testing things is scary. But, without that, nothing can change. Fear wins. There are issues of picking your fights and assessing what information you have – not all anxiety inducing things will turn out to be fine if you go back and give them a second chance. If something was genuinely wrong and hasn’t changed, it will be as scary as it was before.

If there are reasons to think things have changed, going back can be the best way of dealing with fear. Having support also makes worlds of difference. I know I could not have done this on my own. I had considerable support for making the journey and people around me I would trust with my life. I knew I had a number of very good friends who would be on site, and that helped. They were my incentive for having another go. The organisers were supportive and encouraging – particularly Bish and Fleur who went to some lengths to reassure me, and make things as easy for me as possible. This all gives me space to consider what I might do next year.

The measure of a community is not what it does when everything is fine. The measure of whether a group of people even are a community comes when something is difficult, or broken, or on fire. How people treat each other when there are problems says a lot more about who we are to each other than anything else. It is a very big deal to me to feel safe and welcome.


Cherish Diversity

One of the ways Molly Scott Cato identifies to resist fascism, is by cherishing diversity. Within the Pagan community, how we do and don’t do this is rather interesting. We like diversity in so far as it applies to us – as a minority community, our safety depends on an inclusive majority that embraces difference. Many of us are old enough to remember what it was like before EU laws gave us some legal protection.

On the whole we’re pretty good at diversity within Paganism as well. We’re good at accepting the idea of polytheists and animists, we’re doing better with our atheists too. We cope just fine with people following pantheons other than our own, or following paths other than our own. Put a God and Goddess honouring traditional Witch in a room with an animist Druid and a polytheist Heathen, and an ancestor honouring Shaman, and the odds are all will be well.

We are at our least good with diversity when the differences are at their smallest. It’s people who identify as being on the same path or honouring the same deity who are most likely to get into arguments about the right way of doing things and who is really real. It is at this point precisely that we find diversity threatening. This kind of diversity suggests that our personal gnosis about a deity might not be absolute truth, or the only truth. Our vision may not be for everyone. We are validated when other people back this stuff up, but if someone else has been chosen by the same God and told something different, we struggle to embrace that. It inclines us to try and invalidate each other, or prove that our way is better.

Key to cherishing diversity, is to understand why we, and other people find diversity threatening. The problems come when you need the validation of everyone else to feel ok with your thing. With straight people who need to make everyone straight it’s easy to wonder if fear of personal queer feelings may be the root issue here. With monotheists who want to make everyone follow their religion, it is clear that their religion has no room for the idea of other Gods. We are no different. We argue most with those closest to our beliefs because we also need validation and reassurance.

It’s not irrational. When you are the only person who believes something, or experiences something in a particular way, you may feel mad. Everyone else may decide you are mad. Solitary belief can be dangerous. Belief shared with others feels safer. We all want to feel safe and none of us want to feel mad. Owning that fear, it becomes easier to look at personal discomfort with diversity. We are afraid of being isolated and socially shunned. We can deal with that by trying to make everyone more like us, or we can deal with it by undertaking to accept each other regardless of difference. The first option is impossible and can only create tension, resentment and conflict. The second option is perfectly doable if we can square up to our own fears.


Living with fear

I’ve had some years now in which to study the mechanics of anxiety as they manifest in my own life. There are things I’ve learned about fear that I think have a wider significance at the moment. We live with many things that cause anxiety – massive uncertainty and insecurity about jobs, money, the political future, climate change – even for people in relatively secure, relatively privileged positions, there’s plenty to feel uneasy about.

Anxious people do not make good decisions. If you’ve been locked into fear for any length of time, it will be easy to frighten you into doing things. Fear of it getting worse becomes a motivator, so threats have more impact. If people, especially people with power tell us there are threats, we are more likely to believe them.

We are more readily persuaded to run when we’re frightened. The good old fight or flight impulse will be holding our inner steering wheels. For some, this comes out as fight, for a redirection of anxiety into violent action. It’s easy to hate and blame when you’re in fight mode, easy to be persuaded to hate and blame. Flight mode make it easy to persuade you to run, and as running away isn’t always an option, that can be subverted into other kinds of running hard. Working flat out. Never daring to stop and draw breath.

Exhausted people don’t make good decisions. Fear itself is exhausting. Fighting mode is exhausting. Flight mode is exhausting. After a while, any apparently easy solution looks tempting. We don’t have the resources to scrutinise, to consider alternatives, to think about nuances. We just want someone to tell us where the quickest, easiest path out is. Fear makes it hard to think straight, or to see the lie in the apparent easy option.

On a domestic scale, these issues are all part of what can keep an abused person in an abusive situation. We’re seeing it at a country level. It makes us easy to manipulate, and anyone offering an apparently easy answer – however empty and stupid that answer is – seems far more persuasive than they should.

We can stop this, we can turn it around. It won’t be easy. We have to not feed into each other’s fight and flight reflexes. The idea that hard work will save us needs to go, just as much as the idea that hating the ‘other’ will save us. Hate can be just as much a panic response as running round in little circles.

Our government has had periods of talking about the country as though it was one big house. In the austerity household, there’s been a lot of suffering for ages. Like a domestic abuse victim, we need to recognise it isn’t our fault we’re in this mess. We need to see the tactics of our abusers. They say they are helping, only doing it for our own good, that it is necessary, and the only way. They lie, as all domestic abusers lie. We need to stop letting them persuade us and manipulate us and control us with fear. But, be warned, in a domestic abuse context, leaving is the most dangerous time, and there’s no reason to think this will be any different.


A bit worried or suffering anxiety?

A bit back I wrote about the differences between depression and sadness and the problems that arise when people think that their brushes with melancholy mean they know what depression is. You can read that here – https://druidlife.wordpress.com/2017/05/15/depressed-or-melancholy/

The issues for anxiety are similar in that an experience of fear is not the same as anxiety as a condition. Humans have fight and flight reflexes, but in the anxious person, the urge to flight can be overwhelming and irresistible. A panic attack is a really physical experience. How it impacts may depend on the severity of the situation for the person experiencing it. It may cause numbness and temporary inability to move or react. It may accelerate the heart rate in ways that are also alarming. Breathing can be affected – loss of control of breath as the body hyperventilates is also distressing. Chest pains as though you were having a heart attack. Gut pains leading to voiding of the bowels. A panic attack is a body issue, and all the person experiencing it can do is try to get it under control. It can also impact on a person’s ability to go out, deal with other people, hold down a job – any aspect of life may be made more difficult by it.

You can help someone who is experiencing a panic attack by helping them to feel safe, asking what they need. Little things – a glass of water, a seat, help to move away from the trigger… these are good. Telling the panicking person to get over it, pull themselves together, stop making a fuss it really isn’t that big a deal… will make it worse. If you have an option on doing those things, don’t assume everyone else does.

This brings me round to triggering – a word too often used to indicate mild discomfort. Specifically a word used to indicate mild discomfort by people who don’t have issues and wish to ridicule and denigrate those who do. Triggers do not mean you are some kind of pathetic. Triggers are a consequence of trauma and the experience of the trigger – typically something that in the sufferer’s mind connects to the trauma – take the sufferer back to the experience of their trauma in an immediate, uncontrollable way. The shell shocked soldier will have flashbacks in response to sudden loud noises. Victims of rape and other physical abuse, victims of torture and anyone coming out of a war zone, and people coming out of long term domestic abuse are the kinds of people who have triggers. You can’t see by looking and many of us are not self announcing because one of the worst things to do with trauma is revisit the memories of it.

This is why trigger warnings are so useful, because they allow a person chance to brace themselves, and a reminder you were prepared for is much easier to handle than one that comes unexpectedly, and you get the choice of whether you’re feeling up to it right now. Trigger warnings are not about protecting wimps from reality as is so often claimed. Trigger warnings are about protecting victims of child abuse, torture, rape and violence from reminders that may send their minds back into living those experiences again. It tends to require details – which is why I’ve not put trigger warnings on this blog, for example. If I was talking in detail about specific experience, I would start with a trigger warning.

Untreated anxiety has the habit of infecting other aspects of your life – the process is called conditioning, we’ve known about it for more than a hundred years. If a bell rings when you feed a dog, the sound of the bell ringing will eventually be enough to make the dog salivate. If there was a soundtrack to your abuse, or certain key phrases were signs of danger, if there was a behaviour pattern that went ahead of violence in your home, then things that look like it will start to feel dangerous too. It won’t make sense to anyone else, it’s not the sort of thing anyone expects to get trigger warnings about, but it still needs taking seriously.

If someone tells you that what you do is triggering them, they are in an awful place and trust you enough to ask you to do differently. That’s a lot of trust. They could have just run away. The gift of helping someone feel that bit safer is a huge one, and helps with recovering from the trauma. Failure to take seriously the apparently irrational triggers can contribute to making things worse. Triggers are so easy to dismiss if you aren’t the one experiencing them.


Hoarding and Gifting

We live in a culture where wealth is expressed through hoarding, and through the ownership of prestige things – big houses, yachts, aeroplanes etc. However, this is not the only way to express wealth and power. Many of our Pagan ancestors were much more into the idea of showing off your wealth by ostentatiously giving it away. The underlying psychology of the two positions is fascinating.

Hoarding is what you do when you fear scarcity. You create a big pile to sit on, so that you, and you alone can benefit if things get tough. Hoarding is the response to an unfair, unkind world that will turn on you and take away your good fortune. The pile is never big enough to let the hoarder feel truly safe.

Gifting assumes that you have the power to generate more resources. You can give away everything, because there will be scope to make new. It assumes your own prowess is equal to whatever the future throws at you and comes from a place of optimism and confidence.

There are things about both stances that create feedback loops. If you hoard, then you will generate jealousy and resentment in those around you. Your bigger pile may increase their feelings of scarcity. Hoards invite theft, and in an every man for himself scenario, people won’t help if things go awry. The gifting approach by contrast creates loyalty and support. These are the people who will cheerfully go on the next raid with you, plant the next season’s crops for you, pull out all the stops in an emergency because when times are good, you share it around. When it’s their turn to be the one who can give ostentatiously, the odds are that they will. And thus the person who can gift well and reliably has every reason to expect help when they float some crazy new project out there.

Hoarding takes resources out of use. Gifting keeps them moving towards where they are needed. Hoarding leaves the hoarder fearing the jealousy and theft of others. Gifting lets the gifter feel bountiful and in control.


Habits of the anxious mind

We all see reality through the filters of our beliefs. We interpret experience in-line with what we already believe, we pay attention to things that fit with what we already think, and ignore or explain whatever doesn’t fit. This is often necessary because there’s too much information coming into our little minds, and this helps us deal with it. Obviously there are downsides.

A mind suffering with anxiety filters all experience through the assumption that things are dangerous. It will see threats where other minds would not. It hears criticism and setback, hazard and risk. This is often because the anxious mind has previously been overloaded with stress and/or trauma and is acting in a perfectly reasonable way to try and protect itself. It cannot see the world as anything other than hostile.

Anxiety may well have shattered a person’s ability to believe in themselves and have confidence in their skills and abilities. This means that the slightest setback or criticism can look like disaster to an anxious mind. It’s also why a response that tells off the anxious mind for overthinking and panicking actually makes things worse. It can simply confirm to the anxious person that they are stupid, over-reacting, useless. The anxious mind can latch onto that criticism instead and see themselves as a failure.

It is not easy for an anxious mind to consider the evidence in a non-anxious way. However, stopping and having a good look at a situation – however scary that seems – does help. Affirm to yourself that you are not irrational – there are perfectly good reasons why you feel as you do. From there, it’s that bit easier to just consider whether your perfectly good reasons are totally applicable in this situation. A tiny margin of uncertainty can make a lot of odds, and thus can allow a bit of reconsideration. Was it meant that way? Is it definitely doomed? Well, maybe not, and the uncertainty allows a tiny step down from the panic.

When any single way of relating to the world becomes normal, it’s really hard to challenge and change it. Be that fear, or depression, entitlement, arrogance, or a belief that your positive thinking will make everything magically come out for the best. It is not an easy thing to notice the mechanics of your own thinking, much less to change them, but it is possible. If you can’t make reasonable predictions about what’s happening around you, the odds are you have a dysfunctional filter of some sort. The emotions you most often feel will indicate what sort of filter you have running.