A Lesson on Fear and Its Impact

The week before Thanksgiving, my husband and I played cat-sitter for our son’s two pets while he went on a business trip. The older cat, Teela, had lived with us before and was chill will the whole arrangement. She basically exited the carrier, looked around, and said, “I’ve been here before and I know you. Where’s dinner.”

The younger cat, Fry, had never been here and didn’t have much contact with strangers. She disappeared in the first five minutes out of the carrier and hid behind the sofa. If I looked in at one end, Fry would turn and race to the other. I don’t know how she did this in such a narrow space, but she was motivated—by fear.

Hiding Behind the Sofa

In fact, Fry spent the entire week behind the sofa, coming out only at night to eat and use the litter box. We saw her a couple of times, once when she emerged by mistake, looked around, and beat it back behind the sofa. No amount of coaxing or calling could get her to come out.

Never let fear get the best of youI couldn’t help thinking about what Fry had missed on her little vacation with us, which must have felt more like being catnapped to her. She missed:

  • Lying in the warm sun
  • Getting patted (a lot)
  • Exploring a new place
  • Looking out the sliding glass door
  • Curling up on a warm bed
  • Watching the birds at the feeder
  • Getting patted some more.

Her week with us was cold and dark and lonely, all because she was afraid.

When Fear Rules

Fear is a terrible thing. In his great novel, “Dune,” Frank Herbert says, “Fear is the mind killer.” And it is. Fear robs us our ability to think rationally and logically. When in its grip, we can be manipulated by others in service of their own agendas. Fear has made people commit terrible, inhuman and horrific acts. Like a frightened horse that runs back into a burning barn, we do stupid things out of fear, things that harm us, harm others, harm the world.

A Cancer That Spreads

In his book, “Otherwhere,” author Kurt Leland says that “Fear is like a cancer that spreads throughout your mind and body and distorts how you view your life and how you make decisions.” Think about it.

  • Fear keeps people from acting on a creative impulse, making a leap of faith, or moving ahead with a visionary idea. That impulse might lead to a great relationship, the visionary idea may become a new technology, a leap of faith could become a successful company.
  • Fear keeps many women from accepting or applying for a new position when men step forward with confidence and take it.
  • Fear leads millions to follow leaders who are corrupt, divisive, morally bankrupt, and self-serving.
  • Fear keeps some women in relationships that are physically, mentally or spiritually abusive.
  • Fear often prevents people from listening to that little inner voice—paying attention to intuition—that gives you good advice.

The Brain-Body Connection

Fear, anxiety, depression, PTSD, fear's effects on the brainIt’s not all in your head—because your mind drives physical reactions. Fear affects:

  • Physical Health: Fear weakens our immune system, can cause cardiovascular damage, gastrointestinal problems and decreased fertility. It may decrease your libido, upset your stomach, exhaust your body, raise your blood pressure and make your muscles ache.
  • Memory: Fear can strengthen or weaken memory, depending on the situation. Traumatic events can increase memory and cause vivid recollections and details. Ongoing fear can impair formation of long-term memories.
  • Brain processing and reactivity: Fear can damage parts of the brain, such as the hippocampus, making it more difficult to modulate the effects.
  • Mental health: Fear can interrupt processes in our brains that allow us to regulate emotions, read non-verbal cues and other information presented to us, reflect before acting, and act ethically. This impacts our thinking and decision-making in negative ways, leaving us susceptible to intense emotions and impulsive reactions. Long-term consequences include fatigue, clinical depression and PTSD. It can also give you headaches and increase your risk of depression as well as cause irritability and panic attacks.

Those are good reasons not to let fear take over your life.

Unintended Consequences

Buddhist monk, meditation, overcoming fear, controlling emotionsHere’s one consequence of fear that even doctors don’t understand. A spiritual friend warns that “Fear attracts the object of fear.” That means, if you let fear take charge, you will draw to yourself whatever frightens you.

Think of someone whose job is threatened and comes into work every day terrified of losing his livelihood. Day by day he becomes more frightened, less productive, and less functional until his performance finally justifies the termination.

Those are all reasons why Buddhist monks strive to “do nothing out of fear.” They stick to that even in the face of Chinese torture. While I admire their steadfast adherence to this principle, I don’t think I could ever emulate it.

When Fear Takes Charge

One can fear many things in life and we tend to remember them long afterward. I remember being all dressed up to go out on stage in a school pageant but being too frightened to take a step. I was six, maybe seven. I once climbed up the high board of a swimming pool but was too afraid to jump off. Climbing back down that ladder felt like a relief and a humiliation at the same time. Maybe that’s why I decided to stop being afraid to ride a roller coaster and made myself do it over and over until the fear had been replaced by joy.

I’m sure every reader can come up with similar memories of giving in to or overcoming fear. I hope there are more of the latter than the former.

Overcoming Fear

There is a way to overcome fear and keep it from controlling your life. It’s simple, but not easy: Laugh at your fear. Yes, I know, one has trouble even imagining a way to find humor in terror. But it does work. If you can control your fear, you can often use it to grow mentally and spiritually. Fear can either prevent growth or motivate you to grow. It’s your choice.

Psycom offers six tips for overcoming fear:

  1. Allow yourself to sit with your fear for 2-3 minutes at a time. Breathe with it and say, “It’s okay. It feels lousy but emotions are like the ocean—the waves ebb and flow.” Have something nurturing planned immediately after your 2-3 minute sitting period is completed:
  2. Write down the things you are grateful for. Look at the list when you feel you’re in a bad place. Add to the list.
  3. Remind yourself that your anxiety is a storehouse of wisdom. Write a letter, “Dear Anxiety, I am no longer intimidated by you. What can you teach me?
  4. Exercise. Exercise can refocus you (your mind can only focus on one thing at a time). Exercise is good for you and it will ground you and help you feel more capable.
  5. Use humor to deflate your worst fears. For instance, what are some ridiculous worst-case scenarios that might happen.
  6. Appreciate your courage. Every time you don’t allow fear to keep you from doing something that scares you, you make yourself stronger and less likely to let the next fear attack stop you.

Out on the Catwalk

On last day our son’s cats stayed with us, he arrived and we all looked for Fry. She wasn’t behind either sofa. She wasn’t under the beds. We could not find her anywhere. Finally, Morgan looked out from the loft and found Fry at the far end of a beam that stretches over to the wall. We call it the catwalk. She had pressed herself against the pitched ceiling, probably certain that no one would get her there.

Fry on Catwalk, Cat, Fear

Fry on the Catwalk

He had to climb over the railing and scrunch himself along the beam until he reached her. Then Morgan scrunched his way back, pulling the cat with him all the way. She’s home now and I hope she is no longer afraid. At least, until next time.