Monday, August 10, 2009

The Sabre Tooth Tiger And The Gumdrop Tree

In recovery, we talk a lot about Fear. I find fear to be kind of slippery - I know it when I see it, but it is hard to define from a standstill. The technical definition of fear is this: an emotional response to threats and danger. It is a basic survival mechanism occurring in response to a specific stimulus, such as pain or the threat of pain.

When I look at it closely, there aren't many situations in my day to day life that call for a true fear response, like a burglar in the bushes or the house catching on fire. Fear is designed to trigger the age old fight-or-flight instinct humans have used to protect themselves for eons: the caveman-meeting-up-with-a-sabre-tooth-tiger kind of fear. In our contemporary and relatively cushy modern lives, we are buffered from most of the life threatening situations our ancestors faced on a daily basis. But the fight-or-flight instinct remains.

I think of fear as a kind of root emotion, in the sense that a lot of thoughts and feelings are driven by fear, although I process them as something else, like anger, resentment or even sadness. In recovery I have learned that fear drives the bus a lot more than we realize. Anger is oftentimes born out of fear - fear of being hurt or being wrong, for instance. We lash out to protect ourselves from the possibility of pain - either physical or emotional. Resentment also usually comes from fear - we can build monuments of resentment towards people, or places, or even things in order to avoid processing the fear they may instill. For instance, instead of processing bad memories, we create a resentment that we carry around with us like luggage. As long as we're carrying the suitcase around, we don't have to look at what is inside.

Then we have Anxiety -many people use anxiety and fear interchangeably, when in fact anxiety is fear that occurs without any immediate external threat. Fear would be called for if your house was actually on fire - anxiety comes into play when you're worrying that your house might catch on fire. I think of anxiety as the fight-or-flight instinct gone haywire. When we're anxious, we are creating situations that cause us worry and fear, but not in direct response to a threat. We can experience anxiousness over the unknown - like a new job, or a party where we don't know anyone. There is no real threat, but our minds try to process every possible outcome and prepare for any unforeseen trouble - otherwise known as Worry.

I suffered from anxiety on and off for years. Certainly, anxiety was a large contributor to my eventual addiction - drinking or doing drugs is one of the only ways to hide from yourself. As a person in recovery, I am learning the important distinction between Fear and Anxiety. Fear can be an extremely useful emotion, and when I'm experiencing genuine fear it is important to pay attention to it - it could save my life. Anxiety, however, is a different story. Learning to differentiate between a perceived threat and a real one is a work in progress. But just understanding that some of the bogeymen come from my brain, my thinking, has been helpful. It is like I developed two voices in my head - I still react to the world with anxiousness, but I have an impartial observer in my head who helps me understand if this is something of my own creation, or a real fear I need to pay attention to.

All of this came into play the other night, when my daughter woke up terrified. She suffers from night terrors on occasion - but it has been a while since she had one this badly. She was crying hysterically, convinced there were ticks all over her room, and if she fell asleep they were going to get her. First we turn on the light and do a room check - show her that there aren't any ticks, that she is safe. Then comes the trickier part. She can't fall asleep, because her anxiety is in overdrive. So I sit on her bed, rub her back, and we talk it through. We talk about how minds can "play tricks" sometimes, how her mind can create a fear that feels very real, and even though she can see it isn't, her mind won't stop thinking about it.

"So you need to give your mind something else to do, something else to think about," I say.

She sniffs and thinks for a moment. "Something that makes me happy? Like a gumdrop tree?"

I smile, "Yes, a gumdrop tree would work. Or a happy memory, or a place you love to go."

She is quiet for a minute. "But, the problem is that I start out thinking happy things, and my brain starts thinking about ticks anyway."

"Do you want to know a trick people have been using for thousands of years? When they are afraid and can't fall asleep?"

Her eyes are wide. "Yes," she whispers.

"Close your eyes, and start taking deep, slow breaths. Don't think about anything but your breath, the sound of it coming in and out of your lungs. Then start counting your breaths - breathe in deeply, and as you're letting it out, count one. Then two - and so on."

She opens her eyes, looking anxious. "Okay, I'll try it," she says bravely.

I turn out the light, leave her door open a crack the way she likes it, and head back to bed. I count my own breaths to fall asleep.

The next morning I pull her aside. "I'm really proud of you. You were afraid last night, but you were brave and tried something new. You should be really proud - you faced your fear." She smiles quietly.

"How many breaths did you count before you fell asleep?" I asked.

She grins from ear to ear. "Three," she says, and laughs.


  1. Well done, Crafty Mother. Interesting point about fear. I'll have to ponder that a little more.

  2. Hi -
    I've been following your blog for a while and just wanted to drop you a note to tell you how much I appreciate and respect you and your writing. I have suffered from depression and my road to recovery has taken me through similar obstacles and aha moments. I enjoy reading about your perspective and how you integrate what you have learned into your daily life and parenting style. Thanks for your honesty.

  3. Thanks for your comment, Meg. Addiction and depression are similar in many ways, including overcoming fears and facing life on life's terms - you have my admiration and respect - I wish you courage in your own journey.


  4. i know you so often use the tag of "who put me in charge?" but god, your instincts are so on. whoever put you in charge was a wise individual.