Fear or Gratitude?

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“Aren’t you afraid you’ll get the virus if you travel now?”
“Don’t you have more pressing health concerns that you need to take care of?”
“Have you really packed everything you need?”
“Won’t your boyfriend break up with you if you go away now?”
“What if you get robbed?”
“Mexico isn’t a safe place!”
“If you lose your stable job now you won’t be able to find another one in this economy!”
“You don’t know what’s out there!”

I could keep going. These are just a few of the fears that other people put on my plate to digest in the few weeks before I left. Well-intentioned? I’m sure. Not helpful? Undoubtedly. A rather inhibiting perspective for my desired lifestyle and the path I have chosen. Can you see the restrictions? If I listened to all these fears, I would never step a foot outside my door, let alone willingly maneuver myself into a place of discomfort (for myself or others), upset the status quo, and make space for growth and new opportunities. And I happen to like doing all of those things.

Don’t get me wrong, fear is neither good nor bad. It’s just a tool, a gift to us from evolution. (Thank you, evolution!) It triggers our brains to project scenarios into the future and learn from negative outcomes. A healthy and life-saving asset when it comes to learning that bushes can hide sable-tooth tigers or certain berries can be poisonous. Extinction helped us outgrow our fear of the former, supermarkets and government regulations the latter. In our rose-colored-glass-world we now fear different things than our ancestors. Things that are no longer life-threatening (at least for people of privilege in first-world countries). We are afraid of losing our jobs, our loves, possessions, failure, rejection, too much success, you name it. Since our brain, in cooperation with our hormones, does its job really well we still feel this fear as intensely as if e.g. losing our job could kill us. So, we’d like to be rid of fear. No thank you, uncomfortable emotions!

Like with all emotions, the connotations we add to fear begin with the thoughts in our mind. Any experience is initially actually free of judgement. Then our brain kicks in. We choose to think something positive or negative. We judge.

For instance, when someone touches your arm to comfort you, you feel the warmth of that hand on your skin, and you think “A loving gesture, how nice”. Cue emotional reaction of happiness and love. That’s just one possible interpretation, albeit a common one. For months after my operations when someone (absolutely anyone) would touch my arm for whatever reason, I would spiral out of control, reliving my trauma. You see, I could not remember such a gesture, that warm touch, meaning anything other than a doctor’s hands about to poke me with needles or some such thing. Cue fear and memories of hospitals and pain. The gesture, the touch, is the same in both scenarios – disregarding for a moment its intention – and even with context (e.g. someone is obviously not a doctor) we still automatically interpret good or bad based on our past experiences. The more we think certain things, the more we use distinct neuronal pathways and consequently the more we interpret and perceive in a specific manner. Experiences reinforce feelings, which reinforce thoughts and thoughts reinforce feelings and experiences. A spiral begins. Either an upward spiral, or a downward spiral. The good news is, we can intervene and begin to interpret in ways that serve us.

Since fear happens in our minds and is mostly a projection of the future or a memory from our past that we have “learned” from, I often see no point in listening to it. I don’t wish to be stuck in the past, nor do I wish to live in maybe-scenarios of a future that in all likelihood won’t come to pass – especially when these thoughts and emotions don’t help me achieve what I dream of doing, while at the same time keeping me from the present moment. Honestly, I’d rather think about sipping cocktails on amazing beaches than about being cut up and stuffed into a body bag, wouldn’t you? Or better yet, experience it first hand. Happiness lies in the present moment. Being in the now is equivalent to experiencing life at its fullest – no matter the moment, no matter the situation. Staying present is living. That is one of the essential lessons that life has to teach.

So, what can we do to bring ourselves back to the present-moment awareness? I’m sure there are many methods. What works best for me, specifically to counteract fear, is gratitude, because in many ways it is the opposite. Gratitude is an experience of the present moment and leaves no room to ruminate on what might go wrong at some point in the future because it leaves you fully content with what you have in the now.

Let me give you some examples:
I’m extremely grateful to have health insurance,
a currently functioning immune system,
a credit card that works worldwide that enables me to buy the things I could forget,
a partner who supports me and my dreams 100%,
knowledge of how to contact the police and copies of my most important documents,
knowledge of which parts of Mexico to avoid because of drug-trafficking,
platforms and connections to get a new job,
and a brain that will guide me when I’m confronted with the new and unknown.

You get my point. We can release our fears by being grateful and bringing awareness to what we have right now. Perhaps most importantly, we always have the power of conscious choice, the power to choose how we interpret our fear and whether or not we listen to it.

Knowing that, what do you choose to do with your fear, any fear you’re experiencing right now? My piece of advice would be to let it go and turn it into gratitude for all the things that are.

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