Anxiety. Agitation. Alarm.
These are concerns that regularly bring people to seek support from a counsellor and, for many, are a part of everyday life.
They also present us with a dichotomy.
In a world where bumper stickers promote “No Fear” and adrenaline pumping recreation continues to rise in popularity, anxiety and other related mental health diagnoses are also on the increase. If you are one of the 45 million people in North America (and that’s only counting adults who are accessing health services) living with the impacts of these struggles, you likely worry that you worry too much.
Which probably doesn’t help.
The emotion of alarm, which we often refer to as anxiety or fear, is a core emotion experienced by all mammals. Yet so often we perceive and approach fear as something negative, something to be eliminated; and if that doesn’t work then at least hidden.
Are we – as individuals, within families, as a society and as a species – responding to this emotion and its various impacts in a healthy way?
Is ‘No Fear’ really what we should be aiming for?
I turn, as I often do when I have these questions, to the animals, to search out what nature intends.
Skye, a 27 year old Arabian gelding and our herd leader, provides a great example of what alarm looks like in a non human mammal. When something unexpected happens, he notices immediately; his head comes up, his ears and eyes are alert. Skye stops whatever he was doing and assesses the situation. If he decides a real threat exists he runs, and his herd usually follows his lead.
Skye’s body just produced adrenaline and cortisol, which he uses to move himself to safety.
If instead he calls the alarm false, as is often the case, I will usually see him releasing that adrenaline and cortisol, often through licking and chewing, and he is able to return to whatever he was doing before.
The emotion of alarm has been experienced, processed and released, and calm is now restored.
Occasionally a third outcome is required, when a threat is real, but there is a good reason to move towards rather than away from that threat; to ‘feel the fear and do it anyway’.
I witnessed this response to alarm in action in the animal world on a recent trail ride. A coyote approached our group of horses and, knowing that our cat, Galileo, had followed us out into the field, we shouted at it to move away. Coyotes usually quickly retreat in these situations, as this one did. But then it approached our group again, hackles raised. After a few moments of confusion, and frantic searching for the cat, I realised this coyote likely had some pups nearby. She wasn’t experiencing or showing us ‘no fear’. Her stance, body language and repeated retreats, told me she was very scared of our large group and all the noise we were making. But she had something to protect, something worth facing her fear for. We found Galileo and quickly left the courageous coyote – and her pups – in peace.
Like Skye and the coyote, all humans experience alarm. Ideally, we should feel that alarm, assess the situation and then choose to either retreat to safety, find the courage to face the fear, or call the alarm false, as appropriate to each situation.
Sadly, I don’t believe this is what we usually do.
Instead, we may be inclined to dismiss or minimise the feeling of alarm; to prematurely tell ourselves or others, ‘don’t be scared’. Or we may hold on to the feeling; ruminate, agonise and relive our fears, often over and over.
Sometimes we do both.
If we face too much alarm, either chronically or acutely, our emotional alarm system may become overloaded and dysfunctional. In these cases, while we still experience the emotion of alarm we may no longer consciously feel it. ‘No fear’ may have become our defense, our survival mode and our reality. How and why that may have happened, and the differences between feelings and emotions, will need to be the subject of another article; but suffice to say, ‘not feeling’ does not usually help us make the right choice when facing a cause of alarm.
When a person has reached this defensive place of ‘not feeling’ they will likely need some help and support, from someone who understands the true nature of alarm, to gradually and gently come back towards a place of feeling safe to feel again. With a child this is ideally done through supporting and guiding a parent, or other caretaking attachment, to invite that child into a place of emotional safety and feeling.
The animals don’t always get it right either. There are times when they make similar mistakes to us, and yet these too present us with opportunities to reflect and learn.
Galileo, the young cat who likes to come with us on trail rides, often seems fearless. If cats could drive cars I’m quite sure he’d have that bumper sticker! As well as accompanying us on the trail, Galileo loves to follow me out to the pasture to hang out with the horses while I do chores. Unfortunately, he often decides that in between the horses’ legs is a good place to nap, or that it may be fun to jump up on a horse’s back. After a few close calls, I now know to keep a close eye on him. His ‘no fear’ puts him at unnecessary risk and, for now, he needs me to keep him safe.
Pickle, on the other hand, a pony who came to us from a show barn home with lots of performance expectations, seems to hang on to his fears. Long after Skye has called an alarm false and the herd has gone back to eating grass or snoozing, content that all is well, Pickle is still staring warily into the trees. And when he come in with a group of people, especially when he is presented with anything unknown or new, you may very likely find him chewing agitatedly on his lead rope.
I believe balance is the answer.
Alarm is not an enemy or nuisance factor to be eliminated; it’s there to keep us safe. Sometimes we need to respond to that alarm, and use the adrenaline and other chemicals it creates for us, to move ourselves to safety. Other times we use those same chemicals to help us face the source of fear and take action to protect ourselves or others, as the coyote did that day. There are many times we can call the alarm false, but we then need to allow ourselves to release the chemicals our bodies produced. We can do this through a physical release, by fidgeting like Pickle does with his lead rope, or through talking it out. In some cases our bodies will do this for us through shaking, tears and even sweating.
Regardless, I believe the answer is always to feel our alarm, as it is very challenging to assess and respond to an emotion we are unable to feel. Feeling afraid is not usually pleasant but, as with many things emotional in nature, the more space you make for it the less it usually takes; and the healthier you are likely to be. Not feeling may lead us to be reckless like Galileo, which puts us at risk of being hurt; or to holding on to and getting stuck in the alarm, as Pickle frequently seems to, which hurts us in different ways.
My role model, in how I respond to and guide myself, my kids and my clients in this area, is Skye. When he experiences alarm he recognises it and assesses:
Does he need to move to safety?
Should he find the courage to face the source of his fear?
Or can he call this one false?
And then he responds accordingly.
I plan to keep trying to follow his lead.