When is the proper time to face our fears?
A few weeks ago, I wrote a blog about a bad back injury I suffered and how I worked through it. You can read it by clicking here. In that blog, I described how I severely injured myself while in the midst of a boisterous crowd of people at a local university basketball game. Thankfully, I was able to get through the episode and recover from it within about a week, but for that week and a little bit after, I was really worried that I might hurt myself again, so I was being very tentative about my activities.
Something also on my mind was the fear of going back to the place where it happened, worried it might again. There were two opportunities for me to go to another basketball game within 2 weeks of hurting myself, both of which I declined. I had other things going on that took precedent. However, I cannot lie and say there wasn’t a part of me that was worried I would hurt myself again, so I was in protection mode and hesitant about going to another game.
However, I knew that if I continued with this mindset and avoided going to another game, worry would turn to fear, fear would turn to panic, and panic would turn into complete avoidance (something I have experienced on many occasions in other areas of my life, one in which I describe further below).
I wouldn’t allow this to happen, so I took advantage of the next opportunity to go to a game, which happened to be this past Saturday (below is a photo with my Dad at that game). Lucky for me, the team had one last home game, so if I didn’t go to this one, I would have to wait a whole year wondering and worrying if I would have the courage to go to a game next season. This much time allows our minds to get creative, often thinking things that are not true or real. In other words, our mind is really good at making things worse than they really are. Not wanting to experience this, I knew it was important for me to go to this game.
Before sharing my experience at this most recent game, I want to relate a similar story about anxiety and panic in another area of my life; that being my long-time fear of driving and how I made it worse… then better. For the better part of 10 years after developing dystonia, I had a brutal fear of driving; to such an extent that I had to have someone drive me just a mile or two from my house for an appointment or something else.
The way I finally worked through this was first accepting that I had a problem that needed attention before it got more out of control, and then making myself go out on my own as often as I could and drive around town. The more I drove, the easier it was to expand my driving boundary with comfort. Being in heavy traffic or at a red light was especially scary for me and it would cause panic attacks (racing heart, sweaty palms, full trembling body, etc.). So, after getting more comfortable driving in mild traffic, I went out at rush hour and made a point of getting stuck at red lights. The panic was there, but instead of running, I sat with it.
After a couple of weeks of doing this every day, the fear soon dissipated. Consistent exposure along with practicing mind-calming activities daily which included meditation, relaxation breathing, and visualization, were the tools for me to work through this. The important point is that I set an intention for a desired outcome and I stuck to it, which was my recipe for success.
My next step was dealing with bridges, which terrified me. There is one bridge in my town that I avoided like the plague. I wrote an article about this experience that you can read by clicking here, but suffice to say, I was tired of being afraid of this bridge, so I spent two weeks driving over it every single day. For more details about this story and many strategies for coping with and managing anxiety and stress, see Chapters 7 and 8 in my book.
I still experienced anxiety, but the more I drove back and forth over the bridge, the more comfortable I became to the point where I barely flinch now when I drive over it. There was a time when just looking at it caused me to experience great fear. The picture below is “the bridge” that I took and made into a canvas to put on my wall so I never forget my accomplishment.
With this previous experience (and other similar ones) in mind, on Saturday I went to the basketball game. I was of course a little nervous and cautious, but I am happy to report that I got through it without a problem. I actually felt good at the game and afterwards, and I felt more confident by realizing, again, that one or more bad experiences does not mean all future experiences will yield the same result. As I mentioned, I HAD to go in order to gain the assurance and confidence that the back injury incident was a unique experience and that it would probably not happen again. I had to do it so I could trust that I would be okay.
This is the thing about fear. It has a sly way of sneaking in the back door and paralyzing us from doing things because it rips our confidence away in an instant. We MUST not allow it to take us over, and instead move on and face our fears when they happen, or shortly thereafter. Before anyone challenges me for robustly making this suggestion to boldly face our fears because they believe in a different approach, I completely understand that there is more than one way to skin a cat. I also understand that facing fear is VERY difficult to do and it takes time and lots of practice and patience, and there are many techniques. Just the title of this blog alone will bring fear and panic to some people, so I totally get how hard it is. I just want to offer some ideas and strategies that helped me and might help others when they are ready.
I think the most important thing to understand about fear is that we all experience it. What we do with it next is the most pivotal point, because often when we experience a painful incident, anxiety, panic attack, or some other uncomfortable/painful situation, we tend to avoid that particular place, event, or whatever it might be. This creates more anxiety in our lives, which then creates more overall fear in other areas of our lives, which then creates more overall stress that can potentially create more physical symptoms of whatever it is that we are suffering from. In my case it is chronic pain from dystonia. I think the sooner we can face whatever we are afraid of, the easier and more quickly we can exercise that fear out of our body and mind, specifically our memories, which is often subconscious and can lead to anxiety disorders if left unattended.
The long and short of my message is to not allow fear to linger. This will more than likely worsen the fear and give it more power over us, which may keep us stuck in the fight/flight/freeze mode where we become immobilized. You can read more about this in a blog I wrote called “Fight, Flight, or Freeze Response: Health Implications.”
A well-known quote that I believe is attributed to Eleanor Roosevelt, says that we should do one thing every day that scares us. I agree. The Dalai Lama has a similar quote with a line added that says, “you have nothing to lose but fear itself.” I believe in this as well.
In no way have I overcome all of my fears. I still have plenty, but I understand them differently than I once did so my relationship with them has changed, which has provided me with more peace of mind. I know for a fact that this has a direct positive impact on my physical symptoms of pain and dystonia. For those of you who are familiar with my story and the many things I have written about, I suffered from severe anxiety and panic attacks to the point where I rarely to never left my house for almost 10 years. It got so bad that I forgot what it smelled like outside! Hard to believe, but true.
My life is very different now from that overly anxious, panic ridden person, but it took a lot of work that goes much deeper that what I shared in this blog. I encourage all of you to do something every day to help you get out of this horribly uncomfortable, helpless place. One baby step at a time, and for anyone who is in this dark place, you know that a “baby step” is actually a giant leap.
Releasing ourselves from fear is an unbelievably liberating experience. If we don’t appropriately manage our fears, they will come to surface over and over in all areas of our lives. Please don’t be like me and became so isolated and secluded that you forget what it smells like outside!
Tom Seaman is a Certified Professional Life Coach in the area of health and wellness, and the author of 2 books: Diagnosis Dystonia: Navigating the Journey (2015) and Beyond Pain and Suffering: Adapting to Adversity and Life Challenges (2021). He is also a motivational speaker, chronic pain and dystonia awareness advocate, health blogger, volunteer for the Dystonia Medical Research Foundation (DMRF) as a support group leader, and is a member and writer for Chronic Illness Bloggers Network, The Mighty, Patient Worthy, and The Wellness Universe. To learn more about Tom, get a copy of his books (also on Amazon), or schedule a free life coaching consult, visit www.tomseamancoaching.com. Follow him on Twitter @Dystoniabook1 and Instagram.