What are you scared of?
Updated: Jul 14, 2020
Like any woke, full-time-working, city-living millennial would, I recently treated myself to a Himalayan Yoga tr.ek. Hoping to encourage my better habits and shed some of the less desirable ones, I don’t think I was quite prepared for how steep the ascent up to and descent down from the mountains would be…
I know I have a noisy brain (that’s why I seem to want to divulge its contents to anyone bothered to read this blog) but it’s never sounded so loud as in the silence of the first yoga session. You get used to the endless din of the city, where only noise-cancelling headphones blaring chill-out music can protect you from the audiological assault of the outside world and the inner world becomes an auto-escape.
I set an intention that first night to better control the volume of my project manager’s mind and be in the moment as much as possible for those 6 precious days in the mountains. Easier said than done, but by the end of the trek I was catching myself from venturing off the path and tuning back into the sounds around me – the birds, running water, crunching stone.
Here’s a poem I wrote out there:
We walk, we talk, sharing ideas and stories.
We become our stories, they become us.
But then, there is nothingness,
We become empty, full of potential.
For there will be endless stories, and this one of them,
Each of us playing our part, part of the collage of time.
We are more than our stories.
We are the stories untold,
The silence in between,
The sigh at the End,
The gasp at the Beginning
In awe of all that could be and is unknown,
The Wonder, forgotten
In all the time written and planned,
But there, always, waiting,
Patiently, for us to arrive
The first sunrise, 2900m - photo by me
Then, the Descent: a dystopian 8-hr bus ride down from the mountains back into the rapidly developing capital city of Katmandu, along roads lined with burning rubbish, tangled with traffic, covered in smog. My soundtrack: the audio book of ‘Sapiens, a brief history of humankind’, noise-cancelling headphones firmly back on head.
The peace and serenity of the Himalayas suddenly seemed a slither of heaven on an Earth doomed to be swallowed up by the relentless booming of humanity. If I was anxious about ecological destruction before this trip, rather than returning a zen master as anticipated, I was a plane-wreck before I’d guiltily gotten on one.
My response to this sudden, all-consuming anxiety? A strategy: a method for finding and preserving a pristine place in nature for myself, safe from climate chaos, where there'd be everything I'd need to survive and provide for a family that it’d be fair to have.
I drew up a 3-year plan to achieve this tiny goal and thought I might like someone to do it with. So, I made the sensible move of ‘subtly’ asking the un-suspecting young man I’d been seeing for 3 months whether he’d potentially be up for it, thereby, with subconscious cunning, protecting myself from the risk of heartbreak if I were to develop any stronger feelings without assurance. Well, you can imagine how well that went… Cue more anxiety.
The problem is that the impulse to ensure our own survival - the overriding function of the brain, rarely has a necessary outlet in the modern western world. There's plenty of pervasive, yet abstract, social, political and environmental instability, but there are no actual sabre-tooth tigers lurking on the way to the corner shop that we were made to look out for.
We aren't taught how to fend for ourselves in the wild; when to run away and when to pounce. Instead, we're protected as much as possible from any physical danger – knives, electricity, stairs, fire, born into a world of relationship, where what we learn to fear is formed by how others relate to and meet our emotional needs.
These experiences program the parts of the brain that learn fear and sense danger: the amygdala, which stores emotional memories, and the hippocampus, which retrieves them (8). They respond to danger before we’re aware of it, activating fight-or-flight ‘stress’ hormones, cortisol and adrenaline, which, in the wild, ensure our survival, and elsewhere cause us anxiety (6). Rather than tigers, we learn to protect ourselves from emotional predators – rejection, loss, inferiority, 'failure'…
Emotional memories are stored in the left side of the amygdala, which tends to be more responsive in women, whilst their hippocampus (memory) is bigger than a man’s, hence they tend to have more instantaneous and vivid emotional memories (though these tendencies are probably also conditioned by cultural ideas of masculinity and femininity).
Women are more physically vulnerable and protective so also tend to be more sensitive to threats. This can manifest in hyper-vigilance and being less confrontational as self-defence, whilst higher levels of testosterone and adrenaline in men cause bigger reactions, which they've learned to contain within an average of 2.5 seconds (7).
Both men and women counteract cortisol with oxytocin, the calming hormone associated with bonding. The effect of oxytocin is enhanced by oestrogen, but reduced by testosterone, whilst verbalising emotions helps overcome them and vulnerability creates deeper connections (2), both of which are discouraged by traditional ideas of masculinity.
If men are more likely to suppress emotions as a coping mechanism (flight), women tend to resort to organisation and planning (fight) - another antidote to cortisol. Both attempts to control and conquer ultimately fail; women are twice as likely to have anxiety disorders (5), clinical depression and PTSD, whilst men are twice as likely to become addicts (1) and account for 75% of suicides in the UK since the mid-1990s (3).
I’m not going to explore all the reasons why these statistics might exist - no doubt they are many, crossing cultural and biological boundaries, only to say that men may have seemingly less intense emotional reactions but being an over-emotional, over-sharing woman sometimes is perhaps worth it in the long run.
Responses to stress and anxiety may differ between genders and individuals, but usually we're all reacting to a non-physical threat in a physical way through the nervous system and then internalising it. The survival instinct is supposed to cause a physical reaction – to put ‘em up or run away! – so in staying still we repress it, causing a spiral.
When we’re scared, defending ourselves from pain we subconsciously remember, holding on so tightly to what we’re terrified of losing we risk squeezing the life out of it, or else running away, we run towards the tangled, gnarly old trees we’re trying to escape from, fear breading fear. So, how do we get out of the woods?
Art can communicate feeling in a way that can help us to understand it symbolically and feel understood. ‘Social networks, community, family, trusting relationships can help people to develop the capacity to reflect and overcome their experiences’ (9), whether playing in a brass band (10) or campaigning... At an XR funeral procession and critical mass bike ride, I found a space to feel emotional about the climate crisis, and not alone; 40% of 16-24 year-olds feel ‘overwhelmed’ by climate change and like they’re suffering in isolation (11).
Extinction Rebellion, Buenos Aires - photo from The Guardian
Climate change is a physical threat but not an immediate one for many of us and it's hard to have a physical reaction (outside of protesting). 33% of people also apparently feel that Brexit uncertainty had a negative impact on their mental health (13). It's important to balance between scaring and caring when setting off our alarm bells too often without an outlet, so knowing when to switch off and look at something else is key.
Fear is going to happen, and we will respond knowingly or not - we’re designed to, but we have a choice as to how. We can ask ‘Am I safe right now?’. If there is real danger - react, but if the fear is of something that hurt before and still hurts, that wound isn’t healed yet and needs your love; so remedy it rather than amputating.
To myself and others who strategise to cope with fear of the unknown: life doesn’t fit into a plan and trying to make it can be a dangerous exercise. We risk missing the moment, the magic, and feeling even more out of control when things go their own way. It’s the decisions we make in the moment that matter, for ‘courage is as contagious as fear’ (12).
It has to be ok to be scared, we're all just trying to be the best mess we can be. Trying to protect ourselves from pain risks shutting out all the feelings. And death is the worst thing that can happen, so why wouldn’t we take risks, live the dreams, love with all our heart? Be afraid of not doing that. Be brave, jump in (16), it might hurt, but it's worth it to feel alive.
Photo by the incredibly talented Laura Lee Wade
1 Bruce Goldman, 'Two Minds', Stanford Medicine
2 Jack Fischl (2013), 'Strong Men Don't Hide Their Emotions, They Show Them', Mic
3 Office for National Statistics, Suicides in the UK
4 Kendra Cherry (2019), How the Flight or Fight Response Works, Verywell Mind
5 Mental Health Foundation, 'Mental Health statistics: anxiety'.
6 Mind, Anxiety and Panic Attacks
7 The Female Brain (2017), movie on the flight back from Nepal
8 Regina Bailey (2018), 'The Limbic System of the Brain', ThoughtCo.
9 Bibi van de Zeer (2019), 'Is trauma handed down through generations?', The Guardian
10 Jessica Carpani (2019), 'Playing in a brass band can help people overcome depression and anxiety', The Telegraph
11 Eleanor Busby (2019), 'Climate change activism ‘reducing mental health symptoms among young people’, The Independent
12 Susan Sontong, 'On Courage and Resistance', Brain Pickings
13 Natalie Morris (2019), 'How to cope if your mental health is suffering because of the election result', Metro
16 Brene Brown (2019), The Call to Courage, Netflix