Fear is an inhibitor.
It serves to keep us from doing things that may cause us harm. There is a biological need for it, and we wouldn't have survived to this point without it.
Sometimes the fear wins out causing us to not do the thing we want to do, stopping us from leaving our comfort zone, and other times our motivation can be stronger than the fear we are facing and we easily extend out past our previous limit to discover something new.
But what actually happens when we are afraid?
And what can it teach us about the limits we have on reaching our own potential?
The key to understanding fear is in the response of our muscles.
When we are afraid our muscles tighten as a response to the adversity, they close up in order to protect the parts of ourselves that are most vulnerable.
The threat may be imagined, psychological or real, but our physical reaction to it is almost the same regardless, our muscles respond to either deal with the threat or protect itself.
We tighten our stomach muscles to protect our vital organs, we clench our jaw, stiffen our breathing and rib cage to brace for impact, we tighten our eye muscles, our throat muscles and even our hands and feet contract.
This type of muscular contraction is a normal response, but if our body doesn't know how to relax and recover afterwards, then the contraction can become a habit.
Physical habits can limit our potential.
If we live our lives within that contracted state, we never come to know the full range of what we can do and who we can be.
Habitual tightening of our muscles becomes a self imposed limit, that stops us from being able to do the things that we would like to do.
The solution to this is learning how to recover, to come out of the contracted state and into one of increased freedom and possibility.
However we often feel we have to push through this restriction, the inner sense of inability, only to be met with the same habitual contraction that stopped us in the first place.
Forcing ourselves out of our comfort zone.
Sometimes forcing the issue makes the original contraction even tighter, as an example, when we stretch trying to impose length on the body, we activate the flexor response which sends a signal to the brain telling that muscle to contract more to keep it from the danger of over extension.
When feel we have to push ourselves outside our comfort zone, it's a similar principal, in some way our body is not prepared for the new situation and we find ourselves less able than we would be if we went in to it willing with an element of comfort and poise.
So how can we find comfort outside of our comfort zone?
What could help us is learning about the ways we hold ourselves back in our physical state and seeking ways to understand it rather than overcome it, then working to find safety in the first instance which allows us to relax and recover so that we are not bringing the same contracted reactions into all the things we would like to do.
So the question is how can we feel more comfortable in ourselves, even when we start stepping out into the world, even when we find ourselves in difficult situations, even when we find ourselves outside our comfort zone.
About 7 years ago I was suffering from anxiety attacks, each day I would get up to go to work and try to hold myself together, trying to put on a brave face and keep going, but eventually the pressure mounted and I was at the point of breaking down.
It was during this time that I came across a movement practise known as the Feldenkrais method. The lessons began simply, they would ask you to lie down, do some small movements while paying attention to the sensations and changes that you were making in your body.
I could feel the physical changes that were occurring during the lessons, but it was the mental, or psychological changes that meant the most to me.
Through doing these lessons on a daily basis I began to feel as if I could recover from the anxiety I was experiencing, and while it often came back the next day, knowing that I had a way to make myself feel better had given me hope.
I was gaining confidence from knowing that I had a way to recover from it.
Not because I had learned a method to stop it, but because I was less afraid of it happening again. I could recover.
I have come to think of this as a system reset and I think it is such a valuable tool that I would like to share it with you.
Lying down as a form of self regulation.
A short exercise:
Stop what you are doing and lie down on your back. Go on. Take a rest. Spend enough time down there for your muscles to loosen a bit, your breathing to change and your mind to settle down.
This is a way to find safety.
Lying down unwinds your muscular contractions, giving your body a chance to let go of the tension that it uses to hold itself upright, freeing your diaphragm from the fear response, allowing your eyes, throat, belly, hands and feet to fully relax into the floors support.
Spend about 5 minutes lying there, breathing naturally, feeling the support of the floor and then come back up to standing and see if you feel different.
This short exercise provides a chance for you to check in with yourself, to re-calibrate, to adjust the amount of effort you are making, and to move forward with just the right amount of muscle tone for the tasks you want to complete.
Knowing the way back.
But we can't lie down forever, we need to be able to move forward, to act, and try things out, to make mistakes, and to learn from our mistakes.
We need to be able to explore our personal limits, to get to the edge of our comfort zone and even step outside it. This is fundamental to how we grow as people.
But when we do this we should always know the route back to safety.
So that when we do move out of our comfort zone, we do so with the knowledge that we can always re-find comfort in ourselves.
Life is complex and constantly changing, it is inherently unstable and how we find inner stability to help cope with the external turmoil is key to our continued success.
As Moshe Feldenkrais says:
"Stability is nice. It also means difficulty to initiate movement as well as difficulty to be moved. Stability (when one is protected) increases the feeling of safety. Instability means risk but easy mobility. Both are biologically important. Becoming addicted to one of them makes one unsafe for lack of choice."
The Elusive Obvious (1981)
In other words, our ability to move dynamically between instability and stability is what makes us a successful human being.
The ability to respond to life's challenges is what we currently know as resilience, being able to bounce back from set back and also being able to respond to challenges in the present moment.
When we can move dynamically between the two states of stability and instability, between these two modes of the nervous system, sympathetic and parasympathetic, between stimulation and regulation and between being active and resting.
Only then are we truly resilient.
Stepping outside our comfort zone.
We need to be able to step out of our comfort zone, to take risks, to learn and to fail, this helps our growth, but if we don't invest time in how we can recover we risk loosing our ability to react, to change course, to have freedom of choice.
Our muscular system needs to be able to expand and contract, across it's whole range in order for us to be at maximum efficiency and effectiveness.
Living with a habitual contraction in our muscles creates a physical limit to our ability, and it is only through engaging with how we recover and how we find safety that we endow ourselves with the full range of responses we are capable of making.
It is our responsibility to work on this aspect of our mind-body connection if we want to become the person we are capable of being.
Take it step by step.
It is always appropriate to take smaller steps, to find the outer edges of your comfort zone before you step out, to practice your ability to recover and find safety so that it is a skill in your tool belt.
There is no need to rush this process and if you try and force yourself outside your comfort zone before you are ready, your body will react appropriately to stop you. It will inhibit your action to protect you from unnecessary harm.
So take it slowly, be kind to yourself, spend time getting to know yourself and your own limits so that you can develop a feeling of comfort in as wide a range of situations as you possibly can.
If you make comfort your priority your system will reward you with all the tools you need to learn, to explore and to grow as a human being.