This whole Covid-19 experience is unprecedented in your lifetime and it is normal to experience fear. I know I do. If I catch the virus it is likely I would die. Fear is normal. Fear is an evolutionary habit, it is nature’s protector. The oldest parts of your mind provide the fight/flight response that is designed to enable you to function at your physical and mental peak, in order to save your threatened life. So, when you are in the midst of major change – like right now, this evolutionary habit is in full play. Do you want to run away and hide? Or do you want to rage and fight against the injustice of your difficulty? That is fear at work right now.
Fear becomes suffering when it oversteps. When there is a repeated perceived threat and it is not processed. When you are in the midst of living through your difficulty, still processing and not understanding. Fear then locks in, the fight/flight response kicks off and the sympathetic nervous system locks in. Your body’s response is made up of the physical response (flight/fight response, leading to a developing bodily tension, tightening in the body, causing blockages) and your thoughts (worry, planning, controlling, obsessing, imagining) which combined dictate your behaviour.
Your behaviour in this response may be not to look for what is wrong, but to distract yourself, to try to diminish the feeling of fear. You may look to distract yourself by eating, drinking, doing things, acting out with others or withdrawing. This state is almost a trance. The limbic system, from the flight/fight response, has hijacked your access to another part of your mind, the frontal lobe. This is the part of your brain that provides your capacity to be present in the moment, to notice what is happening and be mindful. The fear squeezes out your capacity to be present and loving as part of something bigger. Instead you are locked into the smaller part of yourself, your ego self. Everything is centered on that limited self perception. Everything is about how it is for you right now. Everything is about how you are suffering. You lose your connection to the moment and you are hooked into a reaction. This fear drives your addictions and your habitual behaviours. It brings you into conflict with yourself and others. You become more controlling and more manipulative, as you try to bend the world to your will. Deep into this process you may become less intelligent, act stupidly, your creativity becomes limited, you lose spontaneity and your heart closes. Hard to hear? Do you recognise any part of it?
Your intention has to be to evolve from this re-activity. To know that it is happening. To move beyond this fear response and to move towards befriending the fear. How can you do this? Is it possible for you to learn how to notice and then befriend the fear? How can you begin to just be with the fear and not react as you normally do? There are two key stages: Physical Awareness and Mindful Action (with thanks to Tara Brach).
Resistance to change
1) Physical Awareness
If you are to move onto stage 2 and take some Mindful Action to support your ability to soften the fear you have to be completely in the moment. Unfortunately, being completely in the moment when confronted by rising emotion, fuelled by fear, is not always possible. It is very difficult because all of your resources have gone into that old part of your brain. Fortunately, there are cues you can follow to raise your awareness that you have moved into this fearsome state. And if you know what is happening, you are moving towards being present with your experience.
Firstly, you can note those physical symptoms: these tend to be in throat, chest or belly. You can investigate them gently, with curiosity not judgement. Notice the churning in your stomach, the shallow breath, the quivering in your chest. Just be with the physical experience.
Secondly, pay attention to your mind. What thoughts are present? Where do they take you? Notice them and where they try to take you. Hold back from following the thought rabbit down the hole. Stand on the edge and breathe, come back to your physical symptoms, they are the foundation of your present experience and the gateway to a more mindful response.
There you are in the midst of your fear response. If you have noticed it and are trying to stay with the physical then there is another physical action you can follow that can support the movement of your resources back into your frontal lobe, where you can take Mindful Action. Now, stay with me here. This may sound a little crazy, but I promise it does work. This trick was shared by an author who successfully writes books that explain how you can harness your mind and emotions to improve your health. You are going to move in a certain way that tricks your mind into thinking that all is well. If your mind begins to think that all is well then some of your resource will move back into your frontal lobe and away from that fear response. You do not have to believe it will work; you only need to move. The movement itself will cause your mind to believe that all is well. What is this movement, you ask? Dance. You are going to need to dance. To dance like you are celebrating the birth of your first child, the success you have always dreamed of, the dance of a person who has just had the first kiss off the person they love. Can you dance like that? Of course, you can. It doesn’t need to be great dancing, but it needs involve moving your hips, your feet, your arms, hands and head. Your whole body has to dance in celebration, even if right now you feel terrible. Get on your feet, sway those hips, put your arms up in the air and move like you’ve won the lottery.
I know this all sounds a little crazy. But trust me. Physical movement like this reminds the body and mind of happiness. Other chemicals get produced that offset the fear based ones. Other neural pathways begin to fire up. Slowly as you move, you move back to yourself. Back to that part of your mind that holds all your wisdom and kindness for yourself, back to a place where you can take Mindful Action.
Dance, dance, dance!
2) Mindful Action
The Mindful Action you will take is to begin to redirect your attention in a way that builds upon some of your strengths in what you love. Remember that you are connected by love to a bigger world than the small one you find yourself trapped in now. Remember your strengths. Remember who you love and who loves you. Remember what you love. Find access to a positive mental state. How do you do this? You need to train your attention to go where you want it to. You do not have to use the familiar neural pathways. You need to forge new pathways, new ways of thinking. The great truth is that you can do this, we all can. Forging new neural pathways is something you can do the whole of your life. You can teach an old dog new tricks!
You know that these habitual thoughts are the motorways of your mind. Re-training the mind to think differently means forging new off road tracks. This is not the easiest route though. It takes practice and commitment. However, it is possible to, “train your attention to have a different experience. ‘Neurons that fire together wire together.’ If you consistently learn to pay attention a certain way, a way that reminds you that love is here, even when you feel scared…..then every time fear is triggered you get a little more access to remembering that, you get a little more space to be with the fear. Where the attention goes, energy flows.” Tara Brach.
In the midst of noticing that you are in fear, ground yourself. Feel the gravity: your feet on the floor, your bottom on the seat. Slow your breath, breathe deeper. Put a hand on your belly or heart. Breathe. Remind yourself of your qualities, of your strengths. Remind yourself that you are loved, that you love. Remind yourself that you are part of the whole. Reach out to wholeness. No matter what you call it. Can you accept that the fear is here and soften with it? Just allow it to be here. Breathe. Every time the fearsome thoughts arise come back to the physical and then think of something or somebody that you love. Remind yourself of the truth that you are loved. Slowly the fear will dissolve.
“Your path is to meet your edge and soften” Chögyam Trungpa
This blog post is an excerpt from Mindful Photography 2: How to use photography to explore your life