Tag Archives: fear

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.


Working with triggers

*this is about triggers, no triggering content*

A person who is triggered, experiences a devastating physical reaction to a situation. This does not mean feeling sad, or scared or a bit hurt, in the way people who like to downplay it will suggest. It’s about finding yourself reliving what happened to traumatise you, or re-feeling it in your body, or feeling the kinds of all consuming terror that go with your body thinking you are about to be back in that situation.

It’s not a thinking process, and as a consequence, it’s very hard to get in control of it, or slow it down, or pull yourself out of it.

I’ve discovered very recently that if I can recognise my response as triggering, I have just a tiny crack into which I can insert some leverage. Rather than getting caught up in the body response, and the horror of the body response, if I can notice the process, I can challenge it. The only way I’ve found to do this is to consciously and deliberately risk-assess the situation I am in, to see how real the threat is that I’m actually going into an awful and dangerous situation. There are patterns of behaviour that trigger me because in another context they would have been danger signs. However, in my current context, maybe those things aren’t as threatening as they seem.

It gives me room to bring conscious thought into play, and that puts me back in control.

One of the things underlying my panic, is the fear that the cause of historical mistreatment was me – that I acted in ways that encouraged, enabled, maybe even caused what happened. For a long time I believed it was what anyone would do, faced with someone like me. To break out of that, I’ve needed years in the company of people who do not see any aspect of who I am as a justification for mistreatment of any sort. I’ve started to trust that.

Which leads me to a very important point: I’ve got to the point of being able to unpick some of my triggers a bit, and I could not have done this alone. What it has taken to get me to this point is the love, kindness, patience, support, affection, generosity and welcoming good natures of a whole of lot of people.

I have said it before and I will say it again – individual mental health is not an individual issue, we do so much better when we take care of each other. Healing wounds to head and heart requires safe spaces and support, there’s just no other way. What’s going on here is a broken sense of trust, a broken relationship with other humans, caused by trauma. To heal, is to feel safe in the company of other humans, and to do that you need other humans who will help you feel safe. Profound thanks from me to everyone (and there are a lot of you) who have played a part in this journey. Some of you have walked through fire with me to get me to this point. I could not have done it without you.


Coping With Fear

In the aftermath of Brexit, I see a lot of people frightened for the future. The feelings of uncertainty, the not knowing what could be lost or how they might be affected. Then there’s the grief compounding it – grief for the loss of the idea of Europe. I admit that what happened with Greece had already left me questioning my idea of Europe. The loss of a dream is always a painful thing.
I’ve been coping with anxiety for years, and I’m finding all the things I have to do in other aspects of my life are just as relevant here, and so perhaps worth sharing.

You have to manage your thoughts. This means noticing what you are thinking in the first place and not letting thoughts run wild and cause distress. It is important to make time for whatever emotions are coming up – fear, anger, resentment, disillusionment – whatever you’ve got. But the trick is to give those feelings time without letting them take over. Perhaps the best way to do this is to watch out for and avoid the idea that how you feel justifies certain actions. I am afraid so I can run away. I am angry so I can lash out etc. Not only does this cause trouble out there in the rest of the world, but it gives power to your feelings. Run away because you were scared, and you’ll stay scared.

There are physical situations that need running away from to stay safe, but that’s about changing your relationship with the rest of the world. If the problem is your own emotions, running away doesn’t work.

Denial doesn’t work, either. Complex mental loops that allow everything to be for your higher good can leave you unable to process, or handle, your actual life experiences and their actual emotional impact on you. Self honesty is best, but self honesty doesn’t have to get so involved with itself that it becomes dysfunctional.

While looking at how you are feeling, it is important not to escalate things. Those of us with more darkly creative minds can see a thousand and one ways to go to hell in a handcart. There’s a technical term for this in mental health, it’s called ‘catastrophising’. If you take how you were feeling and imagine the worst possible ways it could play out, you will feel much, much worse about things. The emotions you were feeling will grow to unmanageable proportions and you’ll make yourself ill. It is possible to control your own thoughts, and if you’re feeling overwhelmed, it is very necessary indeed.
If you can stay in control of your own thoughts, it’s a lot easy to work out what you need to be thinking about. What, realistically can you do? What might be a useful investment against more likely troubles? When your head isn’t full of imagined disaster, it’s easy to get on with reducing the scope for actual disaster.

There’s a fairy tale about a bird who is so afraid the sky will fall on their head, that they aren’t paying attention to other things and end up eaten by a fox. Hold that thought. The sky probably isn’t going to fall, but there are plenty of hungry predators to avoid.


Lessons from the PTSD cat

I’ve been living with this cat for about six months now, and she’s taught me a lot about fear, and about healing. She’s a long haired kitty, and when she first came to us, the sight of a pair of scissors made her panic. She gets tufts and knots, and she sheds a lot of fur so sometimes a little cutting out is in order. At first she fought us, clearly really distressed by any attempt at tidying her up. Even in the first few weeks we saw a lot of changes, as she became less fearful. We weren’t hurting her, and that knowledge started to replace the evident fear that she would be hurt. We used cat treats and fuss to reinforce the idea that she’s safe, and all is well, and she’s responded to this.

She’s evidently anxious about being left. Early on we had frantic responses to absence – and we’re talking a few hours here. She’s usually waiting by the door when we come in, although she’s calmer about it than she used to be. We never leave her unattended for long enough to cause her physical problems, but even without knowing her history, I could easily infer that she has abandonment issues.

At the moment, we’re working on going outside. She’s been indoors for six months, and I know before I got her she’d lived outside for months. She’s clearly afraid of going out – she seems anxious either that she won’t be able to get back in, or that she’s being kicked out. I take her to the front door, and open it. The first few times she just ran away. She’s now venturing to stand there and look outside. Treats and cuddles for positive reinforcement always follow, and I think by the summer she might be ready to sit out in the sun.

I can’t reason with her or tell her she should feel differently – she’s a cat. The only way to overcome her fear and help her live a fuller cat life, is to help her feel safe and secure and in control. She doesn’t have to go out, she can come back at any time, she won’t be hurt with scissors, she won’t be left for extended periods. The only way to have her feel this is to keep presenting her with a safe, supportive environment and wait for her to learn to trust this.

I think about my own patterns of damage and healing and the parallels are obvious. No one has ever helped me by telling me my reactions are wrong, or that I am silly. I’ve not coped when new situations seem to mirror old ones. It has taken time, patience and learning to trust a new environment to get me not to panic as much. With me it isn’t scissors and the front door, but the patterns are the same.

When fear becomes your state of being, it isn’t a consciously held thing, and it can’t readily be reasoned with. Learned fear is a body thing, an issue of the animal self, and if we want to heal ourselves or other people who are damaged by fear, then we have to heal them as creatures first and foremost. A safe space and the time to relearn how to feel safe is essential. Damaged people need the same patience that rescue dogs do. The only way to break the conditioned responses to the past (cowering before the dangerous scissors) is to replace it with a different reality (after the pain-free scissors, the treats). Recovery is so much easier when someone is holding that safe space for you, and healing is so much more viable when it isn’t a solo project.


Accidentally Evil

One of the things going on in my gothic webcomic, www.hopelessmaine.com is a meditation on how evil functions. Most of the characters are not evil. All of them would tell you that they do the best they can with what they are up against. They have tough choices to make. There was no other way. It was for the greater good. They all have reasons. We all have reasons.

Most people are not evil, and yet evil thrives in the world, and does so because the majority let it. For a start, like the islanders of Hopeless Maine, many of us are wilfully oblivious. We don’t want to know about the nasty things, so we avoid them, tune them out, ignore in the hopes it will go away.

We believe we’re too good, hard working or lucky to have it happen to us. Like attracts like and I am good so what is in my life is good and I don’t have to wonder about its motives, or side effects.

We are afraid of change, afraid to challenge, afraid to be different, afraid to be the victim. It is safer to be silent, or to go with the flow, and so we go with the flow all the way to the killing fields and the concentration camps, telling each other we have no choice, no power. Wringing our hands as we facilitate death and suffering.

We don’t care. We’re not evil, just selfish and oblivious and easily persuaded that it’s no big deal, or the victims deserved it, or some other idea that allows us to carry on feeling comfortable. Our illusion of comfort is more important to us than truth, justice or other people’s lives. We know when they come for us there will be no one left to speak for us, but its more comfortable to imagine it will never get that bad.

We don’t want to believe the worst of people. They seem ok, they’d never set out to destroy us, or wipe out the disabled or slaughter the Jews, imprison the gypsies or torture the gays. They tell us they aren’t doing that. They tell us no one is really dying in their prisons, at the hands of their police officers, they haven’t tortured anyone. We want to believe them, and so we undertake to believe them. Anyone who tells us otherwise is scaremongering.

We walk to the shower block, telling each other it is a shower block and not a gas chamber. Because we’ve learned from history and we know that couldn’t possibly happen again. Not here. Not to us.

And anyway, it was only a small infringement of rights, and he was a criminal, and the police are on our side, and the corporations wouldn’t be so irresponsible as to poison the water and the politicians only have our best interests at heart, and no doctor would ever murder their patients and she was always polite to me in the street so I never thought about her child stealing from birdfeeders, and if they bring back the death penalty and take away the right to protest they won’t actually kill me for protesting, will they? Will they?

And so in our fear, our apathy, our disbelief, we cower, and do nothing, and trust that those we have given all the power to won’t hurt us even as we know they have hurt others. Thus there is evil unechecked. If we ask the awkward questions, if we bring our doubts and anxieties to the table, if we refuse to sit down and shut up while accepting that someone else knows best, if we take care of each other and consider kindness essential, we can change this.


Observations on breaking

I am fascinated by the limits of my mind and body and what happens when I get there. Because I am a bit shattered, my concentration is shot and I’m having trouble holding clear lines of thought. Forgive me if this is a less coherent post than usual.

Aspect one is pain, of which I have a lot just now. I know why, some if it will improve in the next few days, which may help sort the rest. But, yesterday, I hit the kind of pain levels that mess with my brain. I can tune out small pain, cuts, blisters, etc barely register. It’s funny because I haven’t lost my thinking to pain this way since the early stages of labour. Watching my mind fragment, my lines of thought disintegrate. Today is a bit better, but blogging is hard work. I’m stopping more to pick up my threads. The words are not flowing.

Aspect two is panic. I’ve spent years with fear. I’m better than I was in that I no longer start every day waking into a full blown panic attack, but small panic bursts are still a daily occurrence. It doesn’t help that post remains a panic trigger. I’m working on that. Something for another day, perhaps. So the adrenaline fear spike is part of my inner landscape. Was that a mixed metaphor? Not sure, keep pedalling… fear is part of what I get. Only I seem to have broken the adrenaline side, and this may not be a good thing. Fear, since yesterday, has been arriving more like a slap in the face with a wet sock. I experience something, but not what I normally get, and it doesn’t feel like healing because the fear is still there. Early days, and only a suspicion that you can burn out an adrenal system. No insight really.

So on a normal day, my sense of self owes a lot to my emotional responses. How I feel about things is part of what makes me recognisably me. That’s not working properly. The pain and fear responses are… weird. I know I’ve been hit by a bout of depression – that at least is behaving in a normal way, unfortunately, ‘normal’ for depression tends to include a deadening of self in the first place.

The other key thing for me is that normally I have a very clear and coherent flow of thoughts. The inside of my head is normally like narration in a book in terms of coherence and clarity. This is a defining feature of my sense of self. I usually know exactly what I am thinking and why, and I think my way through and round everything I encounter. This is intrinsic to my sense of self. The absence of it is disconcerting. Wandering about with no coherence, not feeling like someone I recognise. Disorientated, lost. Not knowing if it stays like this or how things go from here. Needing to work, needing to be functional, and everything is so much more difficult than it ought to be.

Odd, finding that my identity was made of a few flashes of brain chemistry and my ability to hold an inner monologue. No idea who I am without that, and surprised to realise how fragile and barely real I was all along, and how easily that sense of self falls apart.


The open heart

Fear of pain is an important trick we’ve learned, and it does a very useful job in terms of keeping us alive. Aversion to the experience of bodily pain encourages us not to take stupid risks, to learn by observation, and to avoid things likely to hurt us unless they confer some necessary benefit (like not starving). However, the useful fear of bodily pain also predisposes us to a fear of emotional pain. It doesn’t help that heart wounding is often worse, torments us for longer and takes longer to heal.

Emotionally speaking, we are most at risk of pain when we care. The person who doesn’t care, doesn’t hurt, but they miss out on a lot of other things, too. The person who protects themselves simply does not pour heart and soul into anything – not human relationships, spaces, communities, or work. Being deliberately mediocre can be very unchallenging and comfortable, but it is also an unrewarding and meaningless state to be in, and I consider that too high a price to pay for ease.

I get seriously hurt on a regular basis. I take risks, throwing everything I have at unwinnable fights, work that is beyond me, and people who are threatened by excess care. If you’ve battened down the hatches, determined not to give a shit, then someone turning up with a passionate, open heart is a real threat to your quiet stability. I take on the impossible, but just occasionally, it turns out that my madness and ferocity are enough to turn the unfeasible into the achievable. That’s plenty of reason to keep trying.

What I have to learn to do now, is manage not to be afraid of the inevitable breaking. If I can accept that what I do makes heartbreak inevitable, I can learn to cope better. I won’t hit those dreadful walls of impossibility and rejection with the same devastating force. I can perhaps learn how to melt on impact, and to accept and forgive the people for whom I really am too much. Critically, perhaps I can forgive myself for being too much in some situations.

Recently, someone elfed me. Elfing is a magical practice, and refers to all those fairy stories in which pixies turn up in the night and magically do an impossible task and save the day. Usually I elf other  people, but recently someone elfed me. It was a small, sudden, potent gift, a piece of work offered because a thing needed doing. Pure elf magic. I was stunned, a bit overwhelmed, a bit in awe, and it took me about five  minutes to realise this was fine. An amazing thing had happened, and it was utterly right to be unsettled and a bit intimidated by the grace of that small piece of magic.

And so I learn that perhaps I do not need to apologise to anyone for giving too much, doing too much, and scaring them by being willing to care in ways that they do not. Maybe unsettling people a bit in this way, is actually a good thing.