I was invited to try out a zip lining and high ropes course this weekend. Participants are strapped in to harnesses and the harnesses are tied in to cables. People are led through the trees to navigate obstacles and slide down long lines, many feet in the air. From beginning to end, you are attached to a cable. Barring some horrible accident, the chances of injury are slim. Even though I knew this, my childhood fear of heights kicked in, and I had to take some very deep breaths and let out a few loud noises to talk myself in to completing the course and not calling for help to somehow get me down.
This experience got me thinking about mindfulness and fear. Just like when we are feeling overwhelmed and stuck, fear can be paralyzing. Whether you’re standing on the edge of a platform about to trust a cable to safely carry you to the ground, or you’re sitting with your loved one in a doctor’s office processing a diagnosis, fear can show itself in one of two ways: fight or flight.
Sometimes (often) it can feel easier to escape the situation you’re in than to work through it. Although it conjures up visions of flying away, flight isn’t always a physical reaction. People can escape by hardening themselves to a situation, by using substances to numb difficult emotions, or by avoiding or procrastinating things that are causing fear (paying bills, calling health care professionals, etc.). Flight is not always a bad thing. Sometimes fleeing a situation or checking out for a little while can help us cope with trying times and renew our energy so we can better face challenges. In tense situations when emotions are high, sometimes it’s better to walk away and plan a response than to react.
Flight becomes a problem when we are avoiding problems, people, or experiences that need our attention and energy. It becomes a problem when it’s our immediate response to flee and when we lose the ability to think rationally about fears so we can tackle them. A flight response rarely makes obstacles go away.
The word can have negative connotations if we imagine a heated argument or a boxing match, but this is the drive that can prompt us to face challenges and work out plans to address problems and get the support we need to keep going. As mentioned, it can also cause problems. If fight is causing us to react, we may not have the perspective to best face tough times. We might say things we regret and we might not know when to walk away and give ourselves a break. Constantly being in “fight mode” can cause burnout.
How do we know when to fight or take flight?
There are many ways to talk about and interpret the flight or fight response that is so ingrained in us. One of the most useful ways it can be used and thought of is in reaction to situations that cause a lot of fear. If you are feeling paralyzed by fear, here are three questions to ask yourself to help you decide what to do next.
First, ground yourself.
Try taking a few deep breaths to stabilize your breathing and connect to your emotions. If you’re having trouble staying calm, try my favourite grounding exercise. Now that you feel grounded, ask yourself the following:
What is my fear?
When we’re scared, emotions can be intense and we may lose track of what we’re really scared of. Identifying the root of the fear can help us address it.
Is my fear rational?
Often times the fear you’re feeling will be rational, but sometimes it is not. Sorting out whether you’re feeling a rational or irrational fear will help you answer the next question.
What do I need right now?
This is the question that can help you decide whether to fight or take flight. Maybe what you need in your moment of fear is answers from your health care professional or to express what you’re feeling. You might also some time to give yourself a break and work through your emotions.
If you’re choosing fight or flight mindfully, either response can give you what you need. When we ground ourselves in moments of fear, we allow ourselves to make decisions rather than to simply react.
What do you do when you’re feeling scared? We’d love to hear from you!
Cassandra Van Dyck