One of the travel questions I always get asked, especially by women who haven’t visited the tropics, is how I deal with scary things like giant cockroaches or spiders. The short answer is, I don’t really. I have no method, other than to hope I’m not confronted with one, and when (never if) I am, rise to a state of panic and let fear take the wheel.
Obviously, this isn’t a great solution, and I don’t plan on leaving the tropics anytime soon, so I thought now might be as good a time as ever to do something about it. Maybe you want to join me. First I’ll explain why now is the best time…
Stuck in Paradise
During these Covidian times, I am, quite literally, stuck in paradise, which of course I don’t mind at all. Every bright, sweltering morning I ride my rented mountain bike all over the island through skin-quenching humidity, past coconut groves and spectacular beaches, through patches of shade on long stretches of sun-soaked streets. It sounds blissful, right? It is mostly, except on the occasion that I meet a dog lying in the middle of the road. And on one such occasion, a big beast of a dog took pause from eating garbage at the side of the road to bite my meaty calf. It didn’t puncture my skin, but three weeks later it still hurts.
I’ve written about dogs and fear in India before in a ganja-induced exploration called Fear and Taxes in Goa. And here I am, returning to this topic because it seems that fear is something that never really goes away. Why should it? Without fear we die. The stress response that startles my nervous system at the sight of a dog in an otherwise deserted road, is protective, but not always accurate. For example, the presence of a fluffy dog in my path doesn’t cause me the same degree of alarm as a short-haired dog, neither does a cleaner-looking dog compared to a dirty one, though both have equal potential to hurt me.
The same response happens with spiders, and it’s a fear that I’m beginning to get quite tired of because it just doesn’t serve me. The fear of being robbed does because it prompts me to think about my own personal safety a little more than I have in the past. Fear of smashing my head open on the pavement in a scooter accident serves me by causing me to wear a helmet before taking a ride. But fearing a spider, unless I know it’s poisonous and most of the ones that appear in my kitchen are not, is useless. It’s a complete waste of my internal resources that I could otherwise spend creating or imagining. Today, I discovered that fear not only interferes with creativity, it actually competes with it for brain space and energy.
I’m going to be science-y about fear for a moment here because this stuff is fascinating. Fear can change the structure of our brain, which supports the concept of brain plasticity. The brain and all its circuitry grows and shrinks and changes in response to what we experience and think about throughout our lives. The amygdala, for example, a mass of cells in the temporal lobe, grows in response to fear in self-perpetuating fashion. It’s our brain’s central control unit for processing fear. Fear also shrinks the nearby hippocampus, an area of the brain responsible for long-term memory that is also thought to be instrumental in creativity and imagination.
So it seems that past and future events, if such things exist, are neurologically and inextricably tied together through memory and imagination—and fear disrupts both. A neuroscientist named Dr. Suzuki describes that imagination is, essentially, using our memories in new ways, which has future implications. Long-term stress that occurs as the result of fear then is not just robbing us of our memory but our creativity too.
That dog fear and spider fear are superficial fears. They feel real, but they’re just masquerading. They’re not the meat of what’s really going on deep, deep down in the subconscious.
So, what are we really afraid of? To know that is a necessary step toward managing it. The problem is that the very real fears aren’t necessarily a part of our conscious experience, that is, we don’t actually know what they are but the stress is there without us knowing why. An ayahuasca journey might bring it to the surface pretty quickly, if not violently, but without that, there’s some work to do.
I believe most fears have to do with either a lack of something or a confrontation with something to which we’re averse. And material fears, or those frightening run-ins with creepy crawlies, street dogs, and monsters-in-the-closet sort of thing, are a kind of stand-in for something we’re not ready to face. A look at some recent surveys in North America reveals that our fears appear to be directly proportional to current news trends, surprise, surprise. There’s always a scapegoat on to which we can latch.
Most fears seem to relate to loss or the anticipation of loss, whether that be vitality, material resources, confidence in oneself or government, or death. It seems reasonable to suggest that we are afraid to live without, and therefore we assign security to things that provide us with a feeling of abundance, albeit superficial, kicking out any sense of scarcity, absence, loss, or even a lacklustre life. This is probably one of the primary reasons shopping has become a sport, hoarding during times of crisis occurs, and why many of us never feel like we have enough, whether it’s toilet paper, food, time, information, or even gossip. There’s always something to need, because need seems to have become synonymous with want. Yet, we overwhelm our nervous systems with a spectacular degree of excess to the point of feeling like we’ve had too much and we therefore require a material detox, a purging of stuff, a diet, a break from social media, from people, from the weight of the everyday life we’ve created for ourselves. Where’s the balance? Maybe it’s just about keeping this vicious cycle pulsing so we can continue to be afraid, because to be afraid is to be alive.
Then we can get really down into the meat of it and see that much of our fear is conditioned by the perpetuity of our own fearful thought response, which has been bred into us throughout life. Everything we’ve experienced, seen, heard, or felt has the potential to drive fear into the marrow of our bones. But to blame our present fearful, stressed-out state on Big Brother, or to play a victim in our own lives is to shirk responsibility for our day-to-day experience, and in doing so, make our lives very small.
So how do we manage fear in its necessary, inevitable presence? Some experts and gurus suggest that the offset to fear is love, which is said to be the offset to every contractive emotion. All ya need is love after all. But honestly, I think that’s a bit fluffy. We need love and a more hands-on, what-are-we-gonna-do-about-it strategy.
So I wonder, how about curiosity?
Fear arises when we don’t know but expect the worst, or when something is unfamiliar and therefore strange or scary. Approaching deep-seated fear with curiosity can recalibrate our programmed response to it, thereby transforming it into something to be examined, studied, pulled apart, teased out, made sense of, maybe even figured out for once and for all. The underlying problem, however, is that for many of us, fear itself becomes the object of our fear, rather than the original fear stimulus. So it’s not even irrational fear stimuli, like spiders, that send us over the edge. It’s the anticipation of them, and that can be applied to anything with enough practice. Our brains soak up association after association until we can’t separate what we’re really afraid of from what we’re really afraid of. We’re literally scared of our potential to be scared so we protect, protect, protect, with avoidance measures that distract us, ultimately, from ourselves. It’s like pain science explains that over time, our conditioned response to pain is anticipatory, it occurs way in advance of the body’s measurable physiological response. We think we’re in pain well before it can actually harm us. And we’re scared when there’s no real threat to our survival.
When we catch sight of this and properly understand how our own minds are working against us as it relates to fear, we can take a couple of approaches. This is what I am going to experiment with for the next little while and you are welcome to join me. I am going to test out the effectiveness of two approaches using compassion (call it love if you want) and two types of curiosity on my irrational fear of both spiders and unpredictable street dogs. My goal is not to conquer those fears but to better understand them by noticing how they impact my immediate experience.
I’m also curious about whether this exercise will even help me recognize fears I never knew I had but that have been impinging on my life in some way, like making decisions, being alone, becoming incapacitated, going broke, or others I have yet to imagine because my brain is too bogged down with subconscious worry about harmless stuff.
To be curious is to discover something new every day, and to discover is never to feel bored a single moment in your life, in even the most boring circumstances. Fear can be fascinating if we approach it the right way. And based on what we know about fear and imagination suggests that the mere practicing of this exercise can offset the impact of fear on my brain, which if we remember, disrupts imagination and creativity.
I’m okay with the rightful limitations that fear imposes, but not the ones that cause me to worry incessantly about something that may never happen. Those fears are the ones that interfere with my freedom and power to be an active decision-maker in my own life. Maybe they won’t dissolve into thin air, but at least I’ll have a better understanding of them. And when we understand something, it’s much, much less scary.
Curiosity 1: Analyze the internal situation.
Every time I encounter one of said scary beings, I’ll perform a little mindful self-inquiry. What is happening physiologically in that moment? Do I feel panic or a threat to my well-being? What thoughts swirl around my mind? What is my reflexive response and is it helpful? Can I manage to maintain my composure in the presence of big scary spiders that appear, quite suddenly, in places they’re not supposed to be, like my shower?
Curiosity 2: Analyze the external situation.
What is the actual threat of seeing a dog luxuriating in the middle of a quiet road? Does it really have a bloodthirsty hunger for my meaty calf or is it just minding its own business? Will any possible aggression be a response to the smell of my own fear, which I can control once I’m conscious of it? In the case of the spider, is there any real threat or is it just the stark contrast of black legs scuttling up white walls that causes my skin to prickle with fear?
Compassion 1: For the self.
Have patience with myself. Aggressive, derogatory self-talk isn’t productive or self-loving. So, I will notice my fear and accept it for what it is, without admonishing myself for it or trying to change it. I will recognize that my body’s inherent protective mechanism is properly oiled up, and that’s a good thing, even if it’s overactive or inaccurate.
Compassion 2: For the other.
Send out loving kindness to this dog lying in the middle of the road who probably has very little defense against the horrible things done to dogs in this world, other than its own incisors and aggressive bark. In the case of the spider, I will imagine it as a little baby spider, the ones I see all the time, that don’t bother me at all, that never feel threatening. How can anyone be afraid of a baby anything?
If you want to give this a try and wish to share your experience, post your fear battle in the comments.
“Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one’s courage.” ~ Anais Nin