Stopping to take a good look at ourselves (and noticing the anatomy of fear)

Human beings are innately curious, reason why a road accident will slow down the whole stretch of road, in both directions. Rubbernecking isn’t what I want to talk about here; but if I can dig to the root of that innate curiosity and redirect it, I always know I’ve got me a power-source. What makes me want to take a look?

Because, when we turn our innate curiosity in on ourselves, this is when things really start to shift. Of course, many of us are deeply afraid to do this and would almost rather do anything else…

I noticed something crucial about myself just last week; something I’ve picked-up on before but this time the metaphor came in clear and graphic. When I worry about something, even a subliminal worry that is more like a dark cloud hovering over a long period of time than an overt crisis to be dealt with, that worry seems to grow and elongate until it looks something like a massively long cobra. The more I spin this worry theme, the longer it grows, so tightly coiled around itself that I hardly notice how massive it is becoming, day after day. Yet still it grows and grows in length and I never get a proper moment’s ease, a good night’s sleep, across all these days, weeks and months with it just sat there as though it might pounce, my thoughts somewhat strangulated by it so that I’m simply not as expansive as I might otherwise be, its shadow cast around my life.

Then, one day, once the worry is at some sort of conclusion, the immediate anxiety dissipated, I’m left with this massive thing as long as a sizeable snake because it doesn’t just go away, as if my magic, once its not needed anymore. I’m left with yards and yards of this bizarrely elongated thing, likely longer than at least twice the circumference of my house stretched out, and by now is so real to me it that it has its own texture and hue, a familiar bedfellow, a heavy feeling, that has been the constant shadow of my days. Part of me, I recognise, has become accustomed to the feeling of it being there…and wouldn’t quickly know how to transition to where it wasn’t there, such is our innate attachment to familiarity!

This, of course, is how the feeling of trauma gets lodged in our bodies, the reminder and the placemarker that keeps us on our guard, long after the “cause” has removed itself.

So, the days and weeks afterwards can be tricky because this thing is just sat there, looking for the opportunity to do more of what it does…worry, fear, be anxious or on-alert….and, for my part, I don’t really know how to send it packing, my feelings subtly torn by the craving for continuity over sudden change. So, its as though I become an attractant to things to worry about for a while, my mind thrashing all-about in search of more of “the same” to sink my teeth into. The longer the “snake” has become, the more it seeks to attract equivalent worry to itself, like a long strip of fly-paper will attract more flies.

Your fear might not “look” like mine but visualing it can be a powerful tool, especially if you are a visual thinker (in which case, you probably already are…so dragging it from the periphery and bringing it fully into focus can be a powerful way of expunging its rule over your life). You can then start to use other visuals to transform your fear…bathing it in a bright white light, a loving glow, wrapping it in a container, a conversation with it to ask what it wants, whatever works for you and it will be different for each of us. There are many tools “out there”by way of resources if you look around but I have always found my own intuition works best in these matters. Using a powerful technique such as Havening to defuse the fear as soon as you have brought it into focus can rid your system of it, right at the root of where it is stored in your neurology, once and for all (if only I had known that technique 30 years ago but it is just as powerful on old fears lodged in the psyche, hence its compelling track-record for treating PTSD).

This very week, as a period of general worry about something, thus more like a hovering “concern” stretched out over an elongated long period of time (whereby I expected to be, and was, called to high alert a handful of times), came to its inevitable conclusion, nothing more to be worried about or done… and I felt, at first, huge relief and release; a feeling of celebration. I realised, in actual fact, this had been something I was expecting to have been a worrisome period, a sort of finale, for many years and now it had passed. So, I noticed the presence of this now obsolete “worry thing” as I woke on what should have been, by contrast, a worry-free morning filled with the joys of spring. I noticed it there…and I noticed its size, or, the size of the gap it was now trying to fill with new concerns (nature abhors a vaccum). I noticed what it was trying to do as it urged me to comb the air for anything else that I could possibly spin some concern about, any more things that could possibly “go wrong” that I could brood over. Its still hovering and yet, in noticing this, I’ve managed to keep it in check, though I also confess myself to be fascinated by its undulations as it keeps trying to rise up and do what it does best, day after day. My week has had an undeniably “snakey” quality. I’ve also found I have to keep busy, to keep my hands occupied, to rebuff it. When I notice that its stirring again, I sit with the trend and that simple act of stopping to observe dissipates it, most effectively. A little laughter or even just a wry smile at how persistent it is, can do wonders!

As it happens, my daughter is also at such a point as she has just finished her high-pressure degree, something she has given blood, sweat and tears to around the clock and is now in the awkward phase where she is still waiting for clues as to what will happen next, supposedly having a rest. The reality is, she is struggling with having a completely unnatural (to her) amount of time on her hands, so that she almost feels spooked by the lack of pressure and is, thus, finding all manner of things to worry about and blow out of all proportion. When we spoke, it was clear she, too, is in this bizarre place of “let down” from worry, where the mind would do almost anything to find itself something else to chew on, anything to turn into a crisis. I know she will get through it because, like me, she is very quick to notice these behaviours in herself and others and is “onto” this one, which is why she needed to talk…because, sometimes, talking our worries through before they develop can be an extremely quick way of throwing water all over them!

When we are unconscious of our own traits, its all too easy to play them out on repeat, to take the worries seriously (even when they’re not), to self-medicate with whatever supposedly works for us (drink, drugs, overeating, various forms of excess consumerism or high-adrenalin “sports”) to take our minds off it all. Or to sink into hopelessness about a world that only ever seems to deliver new things for us to feel stressed and fearful of, feeling resentful and powerless, buried by a rigid belief in our “inevitable” state of victimhood, as though there are no other things to which we can possibly turn our attention.

If we can gain perspective, the overview, then things can start to look different. Its not that we have a quick solution for the mind’s tendency to worry but, in seeing how it develops, how its often in the phase right after a particularly long phase of worrying (and haven’t we all been through one of those lately…?) that we are at our most vulnerable because we seek to plug the gap with more reasons to worry (rather than face-up to the feeling of emptiness it leaves behind…) we can start to get a handle on this existential human fear we all seem to have, of emptiness, nothingness, full-stop-ness, that point when everything returns to source and is still. Of course, nothing in existence is ever truly still, we can be sure of that (and can only hope aproximate stillness for a moment, in the ceaseless push-pull of opposite factors) yet we still fear it, as though it may happen by accident one day and gobble us up!

Why we fear this is one of the longest-running unfathomables humanity has ever faced, and will probably continue to ponder over forever, yet I suspect it is something akin to the fear of death. Without constant friction in our lives, the feeling of there always being something there that makes us feel we are in a fight for our lives, we can start to catch glimpses of the stillness, the nothingness, out of which all existence arose…and will one day, inevitably, return…and so it panics us the same way that imagining our own demise fills us with terror. Our entire biological structure is geared towards this one fundamental urge for existence, an inbuilt cellular impulse to assert the will for life at all costs, and when we cease to enact that struggle and strife, the reach for life, even for a moment, we start to feel as though we will back-peddle or slip backwards into non-existence, the blackness, the void of nothingness…which is somewhat the same as death, as we see it, thus we fear it.

Photo by dominik hofbauer on Unsplash

It takes a significant shift of gear for a person to realise they can be still and still “be”….in fact, they can be at a whole other level of experience compared to when they are rushing around doing so much they simply hop from one thing to another, leaving no gaps at all. Its a version of existence that opens up dimensions, that elevates, affords perspective and TRANSFORMS everything. Yet we shrug it off and struggle with it, with all our existential might!

As someone with ADHD wiring I “get” this more than most because when I am not “doing” or “thinking” something my brain chemistry goes haywire and it feels as though I am in crisis. We are all affected by dopamine but, without those regular fixes, my brain seems to stall and, before I know it, I’ve gone too far the other way, into the place where I almost can’t motivate to do anything at all, even to breathe. I slip into the kind of inertia that feels as though it might swallow me whole and the only thing to get me going, sometimes, is the sense of there being enough friction, sufficient lumps and bumps in an imperfect life for me to grab a hold of, to climb back up!

Believe me, I am more than aware that this has likely played a part in my chronic health issues; have noted, in myself, the abject fear that can swoop in at the thought I might not have a problem to solve anymore if I woke up to find I was perfectly well one day. This isn’t a conscious thought, so I can’t just switch it off in myself; but it potentially lurks there, right at the source of the very cells that misfire to create the array of problems I have to deal with, day after day. Brain retrianing can certainly help with these hidden mindloops that sabotage us, as can getting back into touch with our bodies (I mean cultivating a real, fully aware, closely listening mind-body relationship whereby we remember how to use our bodies as an inbuilt guidance system) to rebalance the modern propensity to live so fully in our head, where all these unhealthy glitches we have formed in our psyche reside. Sometimes, returning to the relative simplicity of the body can help process the unprocessable and with far less of the drama.

Yet its also been at those times when my health has joined my chemical inertia in its enforced stillness…or, perhaps that should be the other way around and its really my struggling health that enforced the stillness I otherwise resisted with all my might…that I caught some of my first, most compelling glimpses of my own non-linear existence and it transformed me, many times over. Now, to make room for those moments without the need for a health crisis…

Coming to understand this about myself (rather late in life…) has been so major for me as it helps me to observe my behaviours even more closely and with more information as to what is happening in my brain. I’ve always been so fascinated by my own brain and the consciousness that seems to reside inside of me; I can clearly recall pondering these things as a surprisingly young child and such thoughts have never abated, so you could say I had a head start on self-observation, long before I came across the idea of “mindfulness”, which is that very thing in a action. I continue to be ceaselessly fascinated by my own consciousness, impulses and habits, and by other people’s behaviours too. I’m fascinated by the process of people waking up to a much deeper self-consciousness than they used to have, as so many people are these days, and am equally fascinated by those who don’t seem to stir, at all, in their self-observation abilities. It’s all equally fascinating and this keeps my mind occupied enough to keep me happily chewing the cud of my own ponderings and, mostly, out of a place of worry. In fact, I have never worried less in my life than now (not because there is less to worry about but because I choose not to expend all my energy that way) and am far better at pushing worry to one side, these days, at times when there is no action I can take to allay that worry…“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference”.

I would much rather spend my days in quiet observation of the human condition than join it in the fray!

Thankfully, this fascination has become my own safety zone, the thing to which I can turn my mind when I feel those pressing dopamine cravings coming over me because the thrill I get from considering these abstract things, studying them, writing about them, reaching a point of deeper understanding about myself and the human condition, is more than equal to any of the kicks I could get from a material “fix” or even the bizarre kind of kick I notice I get out of worrying about something simply because it keeps me fighting and focused on something.

The fact that so many of us, perhaps all of us, get some sort of kick out of worrying is one of the most fascinating things of all. It explains a great deal about humanity, how we are driven, what motivates us, why we mess up (repeatedly) and seem to get stuck. In my case, the understanding I have gradually gleaned that being neurodiverse means I am simply not motivated by the typical things that motivate people (money, prestige, fame, validation…) has explained an awful lot as this is so true of me; I never have been motivated by those things and the closest I ever got was to pretend I was, in order to fit in with everyone else. Therefore, I have been in a lifelong quest for motivators of my own and I seldom join in those that are “mainstream”, preferring to get my kicks out of a quiet, creative, appreciative, nature-oriented, philosophical life that would leave many people cold at the very idea. Some would consider it a kind of death, I have no doubt, but it works for me!

The more I have got real and honest about myself, and got to truly know myself, over the last few years, the harder it has been to find motivation to do the traditional sort of things that people do (sell all their precious time for money, socialise, compete, network, cultivate their public profile, seek ever-increasing prestige and status, accumulate posessions, play power games, dabble in personal and public politics etc). I don’t seem to do any of these things for “typical” reasons and, in the case of some of them, I simply don’t pursue them at all because they just don’t appeal to me and I don’t see the point. This lays me wide-open to the use of “fear” as a prime motivator because, when you have very few things to get you going in the morning, pure-and-simple existential crisis is often the only thing to get you moving!

On days when my philosophical and ever-curious thoughts dry up, my creativity escapes me or the lousy weather keeps me indoors…these are the days when I find myself most vulnerable to fear as an alternate motivator, so I strive to fill myself up with plenty of the above (an ability to change the weather being the one exception) to keep this at bay.

Perhaps this default to fear as a prime motivator is the case for a lot of people these days, neurodiverse or not, as the meaning starts to fall out of a lot of traditional behaviours and therefore the very reason for doing things the way, and for the old reasons, we used to do them. People are becoming more aware and therefore much more savvy, on a grand scale; they are noticing more trends and patterns of human behaviour as behaviour in general gets ever-more exposed via the internet and thus they are starting to question and wake up from the old habits and previously unchallenged assumptions about what life is all about. In the interim phase, this amount of dismantling and exposure of old belief systems is bound to create some fairly widescale instability in whether, and for what reasons, people feel motivated to do anything with their lives. When fear becomes the prime motivator (for lack of other obvious contenders) we become reactionary rather than proactive…like one giant knee-jerk reaction to each other, on a mass scale, and it can get really messy!

As more and more people start to question why they do certain things, why are they putting their energy into them, why they go through the motions year after year with traditions that have no real substance, and as they start to question all the unhealthy habits too…the abject consumerism, the search for five minutes of fame, for attention and validation, for external love when they have none for themselves…then more people will start to lack the motivation to get up in the morning, at least until they can find new motivators to fuel their fire. Perhaps, having something to worry about is the only thing that electrocutes them enough to sit up in their beds, at least for now, which could be why we seem to be in the midst of a veritable fear-factory at the moment. It’s as though everyone is generating more fear and anxiety for themselves and others than ever before; as though all the other motivators have started to slip away, in which case lets hope we start to find healthier and more authentic ones, soon!

We will, as more people start to wake up to what truly makes them tick, beyond the fear, and as they start to dare to go after that, refusing to acquiesce with the old fear-driven motivators any more!

Unfortunately, fear is a game that has been played, for such a long time, as a way to motivate human beings to do other’s bidding and now the feeling of it has become ingrained in most of us from birth; can take some real time and a sort of purging to get it out of our systems once we pull away from that system (as happened to me when I left my corporate job, where fear was endemic). When under immense stress, or in abject pain, its well-known that a human being can rise to unnatural levels of performance. We can lift cars off trapped people, we can carry more than our own body weight, we can run from a fire with a broken leg. Does it really take that much motivation to get us going any more, and is that where we have got to collectively…as in, needing to feel an untenable amount of stress to perform our jobs, to meet the deadline (why do we, so liberally, use such an abhorent word?), to keep doing all the disjunct things we are expected to do without examining them too closely or questioning them.

In more than one context lately, I’ve heard about such an untenable, almost inhumane amount of pressure being put onto an individual in a work context that it made me feel sick with anxiety for them (another peril for the empath is that we can easily plug our fear-gap with other people’s worries!), and all just because that is the way “things have always been done”, I suppose. In both cases, the person in question almost buckled under the immense pressure and one of them has gone from being a bright and optimistic young individual, eager to learn and to give of his best, to someone with considerably mental health issues…and all for what reason? What good does it do to treat hard-working and eager people like that, when the deadline and pressures doled out are just there for the sake of it, to give someone in authority a power-kick, perhaps as some sort of rite of passage used to force people to prove themselves before earning their stripes (“I had to do the same thing in my day…”), and when the job in question could have been done far better, with far fewer repercussions to all those other people in support, and all without so much heartache and stress?

Hearing such stories makes me just so very grateful that I have been able to pull out of the world of working for others and that I have long-since become my own “boss”, with a take-it-or-leave-it attitude to dealing with others, but I have most assuredly been there (around the time my health crashed) and it played a massive part in the downturn of my health as I went from a state of abject stress to none at all and yet still watched my health implode for another few years as I sifted through all the considerable rubble it left behind. It has been a cathartic, and insightful, journey as I picked up all those tiny broken fragments of myself and put them back together, this time in a far more authentic way.

Again, when we stop to observe these patterns, notice the links (to our wellbeing, our health), when we start to question “what really motivates me, where do I really get my kicks, get to use my talents?”, we start to shift. Maybe not overnight, but inch my inch, we withdraw our consensus with all the faulty behaviours of old and start to rebuild them anew, which is how we get to be part of a paradigm shift, one person at a time.

About Helen White

Helen White is a professional artist and published writer with two primary blogs to her name. Her themes pivot around health and wellbeing, expanded consciousness and ways of noticing how life is a constant dance between the deeply subjective and the collective-universal, all of which she explores with a daily hunger to get to know herself better. Her blog Living Whole shines a light on living with high sensitivity, dealing with trauma and healing from chronic health issues. Spinning the Light is an extremely broad-based platform where she elucidates the everyday alchemy of relentless self-exploration. A lifetime of "feeling like an outsider" slowly emerged as neurodivergence (being a Highly Sensitive Person with ADHD, synaesthesia, sensory processing challenges and other defecits overlapping with giftedness). All of these topics are covered in her blogs, written from two distinct vantage points so, if you have enjoyed one of them, you may wish to explore the other for a different, yet entirely complimentary, perspective.
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