Fear. What an uncomfortable feeling! Pounding heart, tightness in the chest, a sudden rush of coldness over the whole body, or just the subtle nagging of anxiety. It can linger in the background and slowly eat away at you or come crashing down like a 12 foot breaker on a stormy beach. All of us experience fear. To be human is to be afraid, at least some of the time.
Many of life’s experiences will bring on fear: a close call while driving on the freeway, your child not arriving home from school at the expected time, watching the evening news on virtually any night of the week! There are few experiences, however, that elicit more fear than hearing the words “you have cancer”.
For virtually every person with a cancer diagnosis, fear is part of the journey. While that fear can feel oppressive, even debilitating, it also contains within it opportunities, even gifts. We’re going to experience fear some of the time. The way in which we interact with that fear can have a huge impact on how we progress through life’s challenging experiences. Does fear become a weight that slows us down or a springboard from which to leap ahead?
If we want to benefit from fear, to receive its gifts, it’s helpful to begin by understanding it. Like all emotions, fear is rooted in our biology. And, like all things in biology it is there to serve a specific purpose. Fear’s job, if you will, is to bring our attention to something that is potentially harmful to us and to move us into action to protect ourselves. Fear exists to help us sustain life and wellbeing.
Consider, if you will, the following scenario. You are driving down the road on a beautiful day listening to your favorite music on the radio. Suddenly an object you can’t quite identify appears at the corner of your vision and seems to rapidly increase in size. Now imagine that you have absolutely no sensation of fear at the appearance of this object. It is simply one more sensory input along with the view of the road ahead, the music on the radio, and everything else you are experiencing at that moment. How quickly will you respond to the appearance of that object? How quickly will you determine if it is another car on a collision course with yours or a plastic bag floating in the wind? Probably not fast enough!
Fear tells the brain “pay attention to this. This is really important.” It orients us towards that which is potentially harmful to us and motivates us to take action to secure our health and wellbeing!
So while it is obvious that fear is about about what we do not want to lose, it is less obvious that it is also about what we desire to keep. It is about our desire for life. It is about our desire for health. It is about the people and things we hold dear and our desire to stay connected to them. If we are threatened with the loss of something we have no interest in we will not experience any fear. If we are threatened with the loss of something we care deeply about we will have fear. Fear puts us in touch with ourselves in a very fundamental way. If we respect it and listen to it fear helps us connect with our most fundamental truths and assists us in living a life that is more congruent with them.
This can have many positive impacts on the quality, and even the course of our lives. Being more deeply connected to our inner truths leads to greater fulfillment, serenity, joy and strength and helps us navigate through life with more clarity and purpose. I have often seen it result in a reduction in physical symptoms and an improvement in health. In addition, there is even some very compelling evidence that for people with serious health conditions being motivated by a positive goal (I want to see my grandchild graduate from college) has a more profound impact on health outcomes than being motivated by a “negative” goal ( my main objective is to minimize suffering).
Now, fear in and of itself is never going to be enjoyable (except maybe on a roller coaster or watching a scary movie) but when we respect it and listen to what it is trying to tell us it will shift from being something that burdens or immobilizes us to something that empowers us and actually enhances the quality of our lives. Indeed, when our focus shifts from trying to avoid an unwanted outcome to working to realize a desired outcome, fear often transforms into excitement.
While there is an understandable tendency to want to block or minimize feelings of fear in some way, consider trying just the opposite the next time you get afraid. See if you can turn towards the fear, welcome it in (as best you can) and ask it “what are you here to protect me from?” and see what it has to say. When you have discovered the answer to that question, you may then want to ask “What are you trying to show me that I really want?” This may seem uncomfortable or even silly at first but if you persist, your fear will talk to you. Indeed, the feelings associated with fear are a form of communication in and of themselves. If you do ask these questions, the answers might come right away, or they may take some time. You may find that you think of several answers that don’t really fit before you find the ones that really hit home. Be patient and be prepared, you may be quite surprised at what you discover about yourself.
We welcome Sandro D'Amico at Wellness Within as our October guest speaker: Complementary Care for Cancer Patients