In the “fake news” that is my internal dialogue, the voice of fear has historically been the most pronounced pundit. This may be true for most of us. As stated in previous posts, fear is an evolutionarily adaptive emotion, intended to detect and evade threat immediately. However, in the context of contemporary culture, in the absence of literal predators to threaten our survival, that overly keen fear response can become a maladaptation.
Still, my body continues to react to less dire situations, like walking into a job interview, with the same urgency as it would if a hungry, vicious beast was chasing me across the savanna. Humans are particularly prone to making what scientists call a “Type 2 error” when detecting threat. Basically, we tend to mislabel nonthreatening situations as dangerous, and we are quick to expend physiological and energetic resources in an effort to protect ourselves.
I would venture to say that I make this error a lot more frequently than the average person. Why? Unfortunately, I spent a lot of time practicing fear in my youth. Many people are familiar with the basic idea of neural plasticity, the discovery that the brain changes in accordance with behavior and experience. Every time I immediately get defensive, run away, or shut down (i.e., “fight, flight, freeze”) in the face of something that scares me, I am strengthening the neural connections or pathways that comprise my behaviors and habits.
So, I’ve had a lot of practice. Fear is a well-worn groove in the record of my mind. My parents, like many well-intentioned parents, wanted to protect me from any outside threats. But, like many well-intentioned parents, they got carried away sometimes. My mother would worry if I stood too close to the sliding glass window in our second story apartment, even though the potential that my tiny body could break through the glass window such that I would fall two stories to my death was highly improbable! There are many more experiences and events that added up to create an overall sense of fear and distrust for me.
At some point, I had to revisit these assumptions and habits. I would either live a very trivial existence, safe in the “comfort” of my home, or I would have to override the fight, flight, freeze pathway and choose another action in the face of my fears. I chose the latter. This required me travelling to unchartered neural territories. How about I walk up and pet that giant pit bull that looks like it could eat my entire arm, instead of running away? How about I smile at someone who doesn’t seem very welcoming at all, instead of averting their gaze? Almost every day, I get a chance to face one of my many fears. I get SO nervous speaking in public, but as a college professor and yoga instructor, this is what I do for a living! I still hate heights and speed and falling and losing control, but I just so happened to fall in love with aerial dance and rock climbing, which require me to embrace all of these things regularly. I still get that pit at the bottom of my stomach, especially when I take it another step beyond my comfort level, trying something new. But, every time I feel that fear welling up in my gut and I choose not to back away, I am carving a new groove in the record of my mind.
Over the course of facing my fears, I have learned that the fear itself will never fully be eradicated or “conquered”. The moment I overcome one obstacle, another will soon arise in its place. This is the process: feeling fear, and still choosing to move forward into the places that scare me. Sometimes I fail; I fall back into the default behavior pattern of running away from something that scares me. Sometimes, I prevail triumphantly. But, I do not expect to wake up one morning and suddenly feel fearless. Fear is instinctual, and courage requires a constant practice. Every time I choose to act in accordance with the neural pathway less travelled, I am creating a new habit, a new narrator. Her name is Courage, she might not be as loquacious as fear, but when she speaks, she does make quite a riveting statement!