While out on the lake yesterday, I stepped out of the comfortably sized launch. That may not seem like much. But to be clear, we were out on the lake, I was in a boat, AND I GOT OUT OF IT to get into a different boat.
As I’ve mentioned, my greatest fear has everything to do with water – but in this moment of navigating from one boat into another boat and completely surrounded by deep dark water, I was not afraid.
How is this even possible?
Fear is a protective response to a threat or danger – and threatening situations come from life experiences. We are only born with two fears, I wrote about them in this blog post. All other fears, whether it be spiders or small spaces, are learned fears. Water is not one of the two…
A small part of the brain, the amygdala, captures sensory information and elicits immediate behavioral responses. Interestingly, it is considered the part of our brain directly involved with emotions. So, fear is an emotional response.
Fear triggers physical reactions that are specific and predictable AND happen before we have fully assessed the source of danger. This is because the amygdala is part of the limbic system, located in the middle of our brain, and processes environmental input *before* the awareness centers are piqued. Fears are stored in our memory, having been formed from two vital components: A deep emotion attached to an experience.
Because the amygdala can be triggered well before our rational mind even has a chance to analyze, we can steer clear of fear inducing situations without us evening knowing or recognizing we have a fear. This describes my behavior for years and years. I wouldn’t go into the deep end of pools unless I could touch the sides. I wouldn’t swim in lakes or oceans past where I could touch the bottom. I somehow justified that I wasn’t afraid of water because I had no trouble playing with my cousins in the shallow end as a kid or later, playing in the shallows with my own kids.
Our brain has the incredible capacity to hold within it many details of a bad experience. These impressions serve as the ‘ingredients’ that cooked up to make the bad experience. If in a later situation, our brain recognizes the ingredients from the bad experience ‘recipe’, the amygdala sounds an alert of the ‘pending doom cake’.
The telltale signs of the recipe for our fear are immediately recognizable: Our heart begins to beat faster shunting blood to our muscles, we may sweat, our eyes dilate to take in more visual information, and our reflexes become heightened. This is our brains way of getting our body prepared to take an action dependent on its survival.
The experience of being on a boat rocked by shuffling bodies and lapping waves, wearing a life vest, and surrounded by rowers are not items from the ingredient list for my fear. This is a different recipe. A recipe for ‘move your body better cake’.
Taking a float test in deep water, floating on my back, eyes open and looking up *is* on that ingredient list. My amygdala definitely knows I’m baking ‘pending doom’.
This is a practice in observation. Investigating the source of my greatest fear, I’ve come to realize:
1 Fear is a normal, natural safety mechanism
2 Fear can completely paralyze both physically and mentally
3 One may never be rid of fear
Yet, fear can be a sort of prime to getting the engine started, to taking forward moving action. Using it in this way can improve your presentation to that large crowd. It can get you to make that difficult phone call to your family. It can get you to sign up for a class requiring a float test.
I’m living my life more fully now that I ever have before. Understanding my fear has demonstrated where I have fear in other parts of my life. Identifying how fear shows itself in my thoughts is permitting me to make different choices. Seeing my fear in an open light, allows me to help my children to handle their own fears.
How will you use your fear?