May 20, 2015

Fear & loathing & squirrels: What to do when you’re scared shitless

Ask a Metalhead, Rage against the manuscript, Tr00 Metal Life




Let me tell you about a time when I was afraid.

I was in primary school, maybe 8 or so. I’d had some kind of disagreement with a couple of girls who I liked to call my friends although they really weren’t. My mum had suggested I do the grown-up thing and try to talk to them about it and suggest we forgive and forget. We were standing behind the school hall and was shaking with fear but I took a deep breath and said that I was sorry if I’d hurt them and I wanted us all to just be friends.

Their faces broke into smiles. “That’s what we want, too!” They said. We hugged, and then one of them said she had something awesome to show me. “We just found it,” she said, smiling. “You’ll love it.” She told me to bend down and look under the side of the hall.

As I bent down, I felt her head on the back of my neck, forcing my head down. I twisted away, but not before she managed to push my head right into a pile of dog shit.

I was stunned. I didn’t know what to do. I stood up and watched them doubled over with laughter, cackling like the witches of Macbeth. I felt like I was standing behind my body, looking down on myself – this pathetic girl with dog shit all over her face. I ran. I ran from the school, their laughter following me down the road, around the corner, somewhere, anywhere away from them. I don’t even remember where I ran to, how my mum found me, anything like that. I just remember running.

I was terrified of going back. I couldn’t bear the thought of seeing those girls again, of seeing anyone again, knowing they’d all know what those girls done to me. I felt so small, so helpless. I didn’t sleep that night. I think my mum let me stay home from school the next day, but I still sat around with that fear churning in my stomach, like a squirrel running around in there, twisting and burrowing its way deeper into my psyche. All I had done was delay the inevitable – I still had to walk back through those gates and find a way to get through.

This was definitely not the worst thing someone ever did to me at that school. So much of my early school days are actually wiped from my memory. A counsellor I talked to briefly in university said this was probably a survival mechanism on my part. But for some reason, the memory of that fear is burned permanently into my mind.

I have never told this story to anyone except my husband before.

Here’s another time when I was afraid.

In 2003, when I was still 17, I moved six hours from my tiny hometown of 1800 people to the largest city in NZ. We loaded up the car with all my possessions and took it to my home for the next year – a student hostel located a few minutes walk from the university.

I had spent the last five years waiting for this day to hurry up and arrive. University was the great white hope that had kept me going through high school. It was one of the things that kept me from opening my wrists on some of my darkest days. I had so many dreams and so many hopes and they were all pinned on this exciting life I was going to have once I was finally free of school.

So I had been counting down the days, crossing them off in my diary ever since the previous year had begun. Mentally, I’d kind of checked out of school midyear – I did the work to a high standard, because good grades meant scholarships and opportunities, but I’d stopped caring what anyone thought of me or how I dressed or anything I did. Everyone seemed a bit smaller, a bit less intimidating. I was the happiest I’d been in a long time. I’d spent the summer saying goodbye to friends and filling out scholarship applications and poring over the course selection booklet over and over again. But, a few days before I was meant to leave, I was filled with an overwhelming, paralysing fear.

When I’d started high school, I had pinned all my hopes on that being different, but it wasn’t, not really. People were still horrible to me, for no other reason than the fact my eyes don’t work right. I was still the weird, friendless kid for the majority of my time there. I still didn’t fit. And I was suddenly terrified that university would be exactly the same.

Except this time, I was actually leaving friends. I had somehow managed to carve out a little place for myself, and now I was leaving people who enjoyed hanging out with me and who laughed with me, instead of at me. I was going to have to start all over again, in a place where everyone would hate me again and I wouldn’t fit in, and I wouldn’t even be able to come home and give my mum or my cat a hug at the end of a hard day.

Nothing was going to be the same, ever again. It was fucking terrifying.

The day we left I was trying to bring back that excitement I’d felt so keenly only a week before, but all I had left was a great, gnawing lump in my stomach – the squirrel of fear had returned.

I arrived at the hostel amid the chaos of a burgeoning house party. While my mum and I lugged my bags up to my room, students who all seemed to know each other ran around us pouring beer into funnels and shouting lyrics to hip hop songs. I wanted to turn right around and go home again.

I had planned to attend whatever orientation event the hostel had planned that night, but the simple act of getting up to my room had my whole body shaking. What was I thinking? I couldn’t do this! I don’t belong here! Why had I decided to live in a building full of the kind of people who were horrible to me in high school? I slammed the door and, in tears, told my mum I didn’t want to move, I wanted to go home. She gave me a hug, and told me I could do that if I really wanted to. But she knew me well enough to know that wasn’t what I wanted.

I didn’t have to stay, but at the same time, it was imperative that I stayed. It was one of the best decisions I ever made. I did it because even though the fear felt overwhelming, and I was sure things would never get better, I knew that I had been given this amazing opportunity in my life, and dammit if I was going to leave before I got a chance to really experience it, scary hostel parties and beer funnels and all.

So I took a deep breath, and I did what I always do. I found a way to survive. I realised there was no way I could handle a party like that – it wasn’t how I felt comfortable or made friends – so we went to a funky restaurant for dinner instead. I found a few orientation events that were less intimidating, made an effort to talk to people in the common room one-on-one, and started to take meandering walks around the campus and the city. And things did get better – the city stopped being large and frightening once I learned my way around, I didn’t become a party girl, but I met a few people on the fringes – my kind of people – and we made our own fun. And I even made friends with two amazing girls who I went flatting with the following year.

In our lives, we often face situations that leave us feeling literally paralysed with fear. Our feet are glued to the ground, our hands clenched into fists at our sides, our mouths dry, unable to cry out. We look at other people and think, “How do they do it? Why do they not feel like this?” Well, they do. Everyone does. They’ve just come up with a way of pushing through.

Here are some of my tips for pushing through.

Why are you scared?

Fear is our body’s way of telling us that we should probably not do what we’re about to do if we want to avoid unnecessary trauma. Our bodies like to take things easy, and they have a terrific memory. Neuroscientist Dr. Benjamin Libet discovered that we don’t control the thoughts that first show up in our minds – our brain gives us those thoughts based on our conditioning and our previous experiences. So our mind looks at a situation and thinks, “You’ve been here before, and it turned out badly. It’s going to turn out badly again.”

Not necessarily so. While you should obviously listen to your body in the case of, say, “Don’t touch that hot element or you’ll get burned,” or “you’ve been in trouble with that guy before. Perhaps you shouldn’t get in a car with him when you know he’s drunk”, when it comes to pushing through fear to get to what you really want, you have to tell your brain to shove it. You’ve got to rewrite the script, and trick your brain into acknowledging that things are different this time. How do you do that?

  • Talk to yourself or someone else about your fear. Try to understand why a particular situation makes you feel afraid. Where in your life have you faced a similar experience before?
  • Logically lay out what is different in your life now, than what was going on before. I find my brain responds well to logic, even when emotionally I feel completely different.
  • Give fearful experiences new meaning. This means, instead of focusing on a bad experience, reframe it as something else, something positive. For me, all that fear I experienced moving to Auckland has been refraimed into something overwhelmingly positive, because I know all the awesome things that came as a result of it.

Run Your Worst Case Scenario

In high school, there was this guy I really liked. I was so certain that he would never give me a second look that I never asked him out. The fear of his rejection was what really stopped me, although I’d never even really articulated what that rejection meant.

Now, chances are very high had I asked him, he would have said no, but I never got the chance to find out, because of that fear he’d say no. And that’s the worst-case scenario – I’d have asked him out, he would have said no, and then maybe he would have told a ton of people and they would laugh at me. But so what? It’s not like they weren’t already laughing at me. The worst case scenario wasn’t really that earth shattering.

In a little over a month, I’m getting on a plane with my mum to fly to Peru, where we will be hiking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. My mum is not very fit, and no longer the sprightly young thing she once was, and she is terrified of the trek. So what we’ve been doing over the last few weeks is running the worst-case scenarios – what’s the procedure if something goes wrong on the trek? What happens if we arrive in Cuzco and she realises she can’t do it? It turns out, there is a solution for everything, and now we can see that whatever happens, she’s going to be OK. The worst case scenario is still pretty good.

Ask yourself what could really go wrong? What is the worst possible thing that could happen in any given situation? Will you die? Will you lose your home? Will your – what can you live with if it all goes wrong?

We are remarkably resilient creatures, and there are so many steps between the awesomeness that could happen, and the absolute worst, that chances are super ridiculously high you’re going to be OK. Running the worst-case scenario is about realising that you, as a person, have the strength to endure the worst the world throws at you. Once you’ve run that through, the fear of leaping into the unknown doesn’t seem so bad at all.

Take Power From Every Small Victory

Break down your fear into tiny action-steps. When I was trying to push through my fear of starting university, I would give myself little goals to do each day. So maybe I would walk into the city to buy a laundry basket, so I would . Everything was new and daunting so simply figuring out how to check books out of the library was a success for me.

And every time I successfully completed a mission, I got a little jolt of happiness, of pride. I had done it, and by myself, too! That little jolt propels you to the next challenge, and before long you don’t see some big, overarching fear anymore – you just see some shit that has to get done.

I hate the idea of networking, and having to walk up to people in a room I don’t know and try to talk to them makes me break out into a cold sweat. It always seems to me that everyone already knows each other, and I’m this weird person standing in the corner (you’ll notice this is a common fear of mine). So if I end up at one of these events, I give myself a little goal – say, talk to one new person, and then, when I’ve completed that goal, I can go home, and consider the event a success. Becoming goal-oriented instead of fear-oriented has really turned a lot of my fears around.

Expose Yourself, Instead of Escaping

To a certain extent, I think fears exist because facing them is a vital compenent of living. I never feel more alive when I’m doing something that’s exciting but also a little scary, whether it’s speaking in front of a room full of people, driving a steam engine, trying to find my way around some new, exotic place, or publishing my fiction where everyone can read and critique it.

People who have anxiety tend to try to escape a fear, but it’s much better to expose yourself to it. It’s harder, but better for you in the long run. Over time, the fear stops being such a big deal. Find ways to face the fear that allow you to take slow, simple steps. Practice facing your fear in a safe environment where the chance of hurt is minimal. I started doing drama in high school, and there was such a feeling of safety in that room – because the only audience consisted people who also had to get up and perform – that I found I could participate with ease, and I was actually quite good at thinking on my feet. From there I went to some competitions as part of our school theatresports team and even performed stand-up comedy in front of 300 people.

Remember Who You Are

I have spent a lot of my life desperately wishing I could be like other people. I looked at other kids who met in the hallway outside their rooms and said, “Nice to meet you. Let’s go drink.” and wondered how they did it. I held myself up to the standards of success I saw – measuring myself against these social norms that I actually found strange and unappealing – and found myself always wanting.

But the truth is, I could never be that type of person. It’s not in me, and trying was pointless. I was never going to be the life of the party at the hostel, or the girl every guy wanted. And I didn’t want to be – I just thought that was what I was supposed to want to be. None of the things I placed value on had value in the wider society that I was part of, so I assumed they had no value.

But this was false. I just didn’t have enough exposure to the “outside world”. You don’t understand how small your high school and your small town truly are until you move somewhere else. University – and the city at large – was a melting pot of different cultures, backgrounds, races, and viewpoints, and I was able to hunt out those that fed my own fires.

I enjoyed university a lot more after the first couple of weeks, when I finally jammed it into my thick skull that there was so much to do and experience I didn’t have to fall into the mould of being a “party” girl. I joined the gym, and getting stuck into a fitness routine helped me get my bearings. The gym ran all these classes in different things and I signed up for a few. I joined the rock-climbing club. I started attending Archaeological Society meetings, even though I was usually the only person below third year in the room. I sat at the front of class and talked to all the other people who sat at the front – all the history geeks and hieroglyphs nerds and mature students with fascinating stories. And now, at age 30, I am doing more partying and adventuring than ever, but it’s on my terms.

Find bravery through others stories

You are not alone.

You may truly believe you are, but it is not the reality. Every fearful thing we do has been overcome by someone else before. We are not the pioneers of fear – it is a well-trodden road, a vital part of the human experience. Reach out to others with your fear – friends, family, a counsellor or health professional, random people in a Facebook group … ask others about their experiences and how they coped. Seeing that others have conquered the same fears can help you to feel like it is much more achievable.

When I feel afraid, I often listen to music. Loud, angry metal music filled with larger-than-life characters marching into battle, heedless to whether they live or die. I love to read true stories of remarkable people, and channel their fortitude into my own life. I talk to friends and find solace in their own tales of similar situations, and how they coped. If you can’t get yourself there under your own steam, then allow others to help you along the way. You don’t have to do it alone, even if your only companions are the faceless warriors on album sleeves.

I’m creating a playlist this week, on songs for bravery, which I hope you’ll enjoy!

Nothing changes in your life unless you make it happen yourself. If something isn’t working for you, you have nothing to lose by changing it, even when that change is the trigger for a lot of a fear and anxiety. Fear can be a crippling, paralysing force that stops your life in its tracks, or it can be the catalyst for amazing, wonderful, unforgettable things. The choice is yours.


The Sunken, my dark fantasy novel, is now available on Amazon.

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