All my life I wanted to learn how to scuba dive. It was just one of those things I felt I had to do, not just to explore the mystery of the deep seas, but more importantly to explore and conquer something inside myself. You see all my life I’ve needed to be in control and hence I lead an overly safe and lonely single life. Once on a lark in teen years I fell off a three story building while climbing a ladder with good friends and barely survived. I vowed never to be reckless again. So I set off to the Caribean to get certified as a diver. The thought of going a hundred feed down while swimming with the sharks sent shivers down my spine. Needless to say I was even less thrilled when I found out that part of my certification entailed taking off all my gear at the bottom of the ocean, lying flat on my back and then putting all my stuff — oxygen tank, mask and snorkel — back on underwater. I asked my very kind and rather attractive diving instructor, “Don’t we do this in stages?” She said, “No we find that people completely overcome all fears of diving by facing the worst case scenario.” I was hardly convinced but was somewhat comforted when she added, “Besides I will be with you every step of the way and I really know what I am doing. I’ve never lost anybody yet.” I thought, “Well, there is a first time for everything.”
But what the heck, there could be worst ways of dying. Her kindness to me got me through the classroom requirements and the basics of scuba diving in shallow water. She taught me how to breathe, how to notice my anxiety in my body and how to enjoy the many beautiful fish in the reef we would see. She helped me see the humor in my previous fall in teen years and the boldness I displayed way back when. So the big day arrived. Despite some initial trepidation I went down a hundred feet with my instructor. She pointed out the colorful parrot fish and speckled eels and we went through having me take off all my gear underwater. To my surprise she left me alone on my back on the sand underwater to put all my stuff back on and then swim to the surface. It all went well without a hitch. I’ll never forget coming up from the bottom in the turquoise water hanging on to the lifeline as the sunlight went all the way to the bottom and I went to the top. At the surface she smiled and said, “Congratulations, I knew you could do it.” I’ve never dreaded losing control again — and I became a certified scuba diver. I also started dating!
Too many of us hide from our fears and are unaware of the steep price we pay for our avoidance. We hold ourselves back from normal life passages and we suffer in our constrained life of excess safety. We may be too scared to change jobs, too scared to have an intimate relationship and too scared to travel in a world outside ourselves. Most of us feel we ought to be able to solve problems all on our own and that there is something terrible wrong with us for allowing fear to control our life. Tragically we don’t realize that all of us need an ally to conquer our fears. It is not something we just do on our own. If we could we would have already done it by now. The real failure with us holding on to fear is the lack of a partner to help us. Some things in life, like moving house furniture or learning to dance, just require a partner.
Why do I need an ally?
What truly scared him was trusting himself and trusting others to care for him in situations that felt out of control.An active helper is someone who can authentically understand our fears and have compassion for us in our struggles. Such support also needs to challenge us to face what we fear and come out victorious. Often, new skills are necessary to learn how to handle our dilemmas. A real ally is someone who kindly kicks our butt, just as the scuba instructor did in the example above, and someone who agrees to be with us in our turmoil. It’s very hard for any of us to map out our course on our own and that’s why an ally is essential.
There is an even more important reason to have an ally. We need an ally to help us mend things. It’s crucial to understand that the chronic fears we have are not about current external circumstances. The man in the example above was not really scared of the sharks and drowning, even though he told himself he was. What truly scared him was trusting himself and trusting others to care for him in situations that felt out of control. The bad results of his fall in teen years needed to be corrected. His own courage and his reliance on his dive instructor made all the difference in the world. You can’t get certified to dive without an instructor.
How do we lessen our fears?
A sign in my office reads, “You already have what you need to handle any suffering sent to you.” If only we all could believe that! With a helping alliance we are each capable of a lot more than we think we are. Typically fears reside throughout our bodies. We get stiff necks and tight jaws, we take short breaths, we hold tension in our chest and foreheads and we feel lightheaded. All of these reactions are part of a flight or fight response system wired into us through evolution. Our brains are warning us based on past experiences, not current circumstances. The control center for such reactions is the amygdala, an almond-shaped organ in our limbic middle brain responsible for warning us of danger by the release of neurochemicals. This organ gets activated by our hippocampus, another brain part that is responsible for emotional memories. These warning systems work all too well and are designed by evolution to not be very discriminating. Thus our body gets tense today because our amygdala cannot distinguish the past from the present. Most of us have anxiety symptoms because of failures in relationships from our past whose neurochemical reactions keep getting activated in the present. We may tell ourselves not to worry but our brains are telling our bodies a quite different story.
The good news is that our brains can be rewired to change these reactions and can learn to distinguish the past from the present. This happens by having us return to a past trauma and having a more positive outcome. We actually have to face our worst nightmares. To do so we need a positive relationship to support our resilience. In the example above, the scuba diving student had to confront a risky situation by relying on his alliance with his dive instructor to overcome his fears. He did not freak out when he noticed his bodily reactions and he did what he needed to do. This positive outcome taught him that feelings of success could be associated with loss-of-control situations. He was then more confident when he encountered challenges in his life and it made him take on the world.
Why do we resist change and hold on to old patterns?
Cultural factors cause us to resist facing challenges even when we know it would benefit us to do so. In our society of exaggerated individualism it is quite shameful to ask for help about emotional issues. We are told we should be able to solve our own problems on our own. So we run away from fear because we don’t want to face it on our own. Also, our living in an abundant society causes most of us to feel entitled to never feel any pain, especially when there is a pill that can spare us from it. The whole idea of embracing suffering and making the most of it through our internal and social resources is a foreign concept for most of us. Finally, most of us are way too sedentary and have lost touch with our bodies which register and regulate anxiety. Most of us have lost our grit and toughness and we don’t use our bodies for the several hours of physical labor that they were designed to do by evolution. We lack palpable experience of our own grit and find it hard to believe that we can do more than we think we can. Make no mistake. We may think that culture doesn’t affect us but in fact we’re often brainwashed by it.
Some of us have hidden personal reasons to resist change. Perhaps we have lived so long with our unhappy patterns of handling stress that to lose these patterns and have a truly happy life would engulf us in such deep sadness for all the missing years that we would fear drowning in it. Some of us are way too scared to be happy and thus we resist change. Many of us need help with the unfinished grief in our lives that underlie our symptoms.
How can I jump start my efforts to overcome fear?
Let me give you some practical tips on beginning to overcome old fears. They are:
- Don’t try to do it all alone. Moving a piano requires two people. You’re not a failure for being unable to move your piano on your own. Consult a competent professional who works relationally in body-sensitive ways to help you manage anxiety. You could ask trusted friends for the names of able helpers or consult the MN Clinical Social Work Society (www.clinicalsocialworkmn.org) for helpers who specialize in anxiety issues with body-centered techniques. There is a free and very capable support group in the Twin Cities for people with anxiety issues called the Open Door (Phone: 651-645-2948).
- Work on your diet. Generally avoid high fatty foods and foods with trans-fats. They make the brain cells more rigid and less able to process stress hormones. Notice when you’re hungry and not hungry. Don’t eat when you’re not hungry as excess weight also makes brain cells too rigid. Eat a variety of healthy foods, especially foods considered to be part of a Mediterranean diet. You can actually learn to enjoy such foods even if your initial response is negative. Once you experience the higher energy and sustained appetite satisfaction you get from the micro-minerals in such foods you will not go back to unhealthy eating.
- Get at least six hours of restful sleep per night. Go online and read about sleep hygiene — what you need to do without drugs to have a good night’s sleep. Generally it’s best to avoid screen time, especially violent TV shows, two hours before going to sleep. Do simple walking for 30 minutes after dinner to become fatigued but don’t eat or exercise too close to bedtime. Keep your bedroom dark and cool. Shun caffeine and cola drinks in the evening. If your sleep is restless during the night get out of bed and distract yourself with some light reading, a boring old western on TV or beautiful music. You may get heavy eyes right away and then go back to bed. Forgive yourself for being restless by realizing that something unconscious is likely bugging you. Your sleep debt will eventually put you to sleep. Postpone worrying if you can, to the day time.
- Exercise, exercise, exercise. Try 30 minutes of aerobic exercise per day. There is plenty of clinical research that says that brisk walking three times a week for 30 minutes will lower tension and keep tension lower for longer than any medication can. It’s best to move your body for shorter periods of time just to get started even if you don’t feel like doing so. After you start moving you will be glad you did as exercise is a natural mood elevator and regulator. Don’t wait until you feel like exercising, do it now, preferably with a friend.
- Read about how to lower anxiety by facing your worst fears. Susan Jeffers’ book Face the Fear And Do It Anyway is a good resource. Realize that what you’re most scared of is something you’ve already faced once before and survived. You can certainly face it again but this time by your own choosing as you triumph over it. You are a lot tougher than you realize.
John H. Driggs, L.I.C.S.W., is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in private practice in St. Paul and co-author of Intimacy Between Men (Penguin Books, 1990). He can be reached at 651-699-4573.