The Terror and the Wonder of being Alive


Bit of a longer one this morning as I sit here drinking tea waiting to leave in an hour to see my therapy clients. I’m experiencing fear, even though everything is going well. I’ve been pondering on this.

“The aim is to balance the terror of being alive with the wonder of being alive”. Don Juan Matus said to Carlos Castaneda.

This quote always helps to remind me that to feel the terror is as natural as experiencing the wonder.

And to live along with these two and everything in between is an exercise in allowing a near constant tension. Perhaps this tension is an intrinsic part of the balance.

The terror is never far away and neither is the wonder. And I can lean one way or the other in a blink, even though they both seem to exist at once all the time within me. It depends on how I choose to direct my attention. That I can control.

Learning to ride and experience the feelings without interpretation is a journey that continues to this moment. Face the fear of not interpreting and stay with the experience is my ongoing experiment.

Our minds are designed to identify threats, we have a whole area of the brain, the amygdala which has evolved to alert us to danger. It is primitive and it can be trigger happy. And it is bombarded by messages every day from the media that we are under threat from everything from terrorists and immigrants to pesticides poisoning us in our food, and pollution, crime, increasing prices, the planet is dying and so on. There’s money worries many of us deal with that directly threaten our deepest survival needs. And advertising that tells us we are not good enough, not beautiful enough, not lovable. Compassion for us all having to deal with is!

It’s a lot to contend with, and we do deserve self compassion as well as the compassion we feel for others. The compassion we easily feel for others in suffering can be directed towards our own suffering. Self soothing is a tool we have been given, and it can soften the effect of the terror side of being alive. A metaphorical self hug. We can reduce our suffering by being kind to ourselves. And watch out for the inner critic that we have been encouraged to develop, perhaps by early parenting and certainly by the advertising industry which depends on our sense of inadequacy to fuel their industry.

The key to keep the interpretation of feelings from magnifying and multiplying negative feelings is to be aware of the thoughts that arise which interpret the feelings.

These thoughts are very often inaccurate and untrue. I am grateful to mindfulness for teaching me to recognise these thoughts and interpretations. It is a long training and one for me that still continues. Here are a few tools I use regularly:

  • Mindfulness is at the top of the list. Bringing the unconscious inner dialogue into conscious awareness gives a choice about which thoughts to believe
  • Breathing from the stomach. So often in anxiety breathing is shallow and sometimes I even hold my breath which adds to the fight flight response. Breathing deeply low down below the diaphragm soothes the threat system and gives the message that we are not under threat.
  • Walks as regularly as possible away from the human world in nature. It’s the local park and woods for me. A place I can experience being part of a larger ecosystem in relative silence where thoughts are more obvious as I’m not busy. It also helps to reconnect with childlike wonder and exploration of the beauty out there. I lose the sense of me me me land and losing that sense of self in something much larger than me is an expansive experience.
  • Exercise. Our bodies are designed to move more than many of is move. The daily walks help with that. I’m considering going back to swimming as this body is asking for more movement.
  • A creative outlet of some kind. I take photos when I’m out for walks and started an appreciation page on FB where others also post photos and enjoy mine.
  • A sense of community. Even little pockets of that go a long way to mitigate a sense of isolation. I have my community Facebook group for the local park, a community of regular dog walkers I bump into and have chats with, the team who work for me that I’m part of I show and feel a personal interest in their wellbeing. And the peripheral suppliers that are part of this business. My crisis therapy centre I attend each week as well as the therapy course on Thursdays. And of course there’s family and a few friends, though there’s not so many of those these days.
  • Self compassion. How to feel self compassion? Generate the feeling for someone you know who is poorly and then turn it towards yourself when you are suffering, simple as that. It can develop into a habit and be a constant source of wellbeing and healing.
  • Therapy – I turn to this is I want an additional supporter and to work through ways of mitigating anxiety. Cognitive behavioural therapy is excellent, though the most important part has been shown to be a good therapeutic alliance with the therapist.
  • Come back to the present moment and witness that you are actually safe and well and alive in this moment.

I regularly find myself suddenly feeling painful anxiety walking in the park or driving along, only to realise that I have let some automatic semi conscious thought enter of impending danger.

When this happens my body reacts and adrenaline cortisol and other fight flight hormones that create stress are released. Fight flight or freeze. The brain is doing what it has been designed to do, protect us, though based on inaccurate or false information.

Alternatively, and what mindfulness training teaches us, is that I am aware of a thought of impending danger, I can instead say, “hello scary thought, thanks for your alert, bye for now, I’ve got this”. End of story. No stress response. The thought arises and it is let go of, and gently. It knocks at the door, I invite it in, and show it gently through to the back door, it does not get invited to tea to create a further story.

Our ancestors could make one of 2 mistakes walking past a bush. They could feel fear and find there’s no tiger hiding behind the bush. Or they could walk past the bush and not feel fear and get eaten. So you can see why developing a primed threat detection system made evolutionary sense for our survival. Is means experiencing unnecessary fear though.

It is natural. It’s not something to get rid of, it’s trying to help us. We can learn to manage it. Navigate with it on board with the help of self compassion and awareness of our tendency to catastrophise. And this can be especially recurring if our early experiences were not full of safety reassurance and wellbeing, or if we have had trauma experience, it can take a time and determined application to learn to self sooth. The tools are right here and now to pick up and use and eventually become our new habit. We can heal.

I am feeling anxiety right now. I’m not interpreting it, going into future possible threats or making an analyses or a big story about it. It’s just here and yet I’m safe. I am well in this present moment. Cosy and warm.

Here’s an exercise I use to send positive feelings towards myself and us all

May We be well

May We be safe

May We be at ease

May We be happy

Freedom beckons!

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