Wading Into Your Fears

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A woman came into Sage for a pedicure this spring. A bubbling brunette named Rita, with four children ranging from age eight to eighteen, and a successful interior design business buzzing her phone throughout the treatment. She was getting ready for a family trip to Zihuatanejo, on the Pacific coast of Mexico, and wanted some coral toenails to accompany her into the ocean. Easier said than done for Rita. You see, she’s checked a lot of boxes in her life: wife, mother, successful business owner, endurance athlete. But on the underside of that wide breadth of success and confidence, is a deep blue fear of the water, and her perceived inability to stay afloat in it. Not only was she unable to swim, she was terrified by the thought of ever having to try.

Fear. It can be a nasty little word. Just reading it, your heart rate may have jumped a bit. Fear has a way of doing that. Its roots are the most primal components of human evolution: protection, competition, quick decision. Today, fear has come to occupy a slightly different realm within us. It can still be a good - even necessary - thing, but more amorphous fears seem to rule our modern lives, now that death by saber tooth tiger is no longer a viable catalyst of fight-or-flight.

Fear can be a good - even necessary - thing, but more amorphous fears seem to rule our modern lives, now that death by saber tooth tiger is no longer a viable catalyst of fight-or-flight.

Our modern fears take shape in a vast range, from nagging anxiety to downright crippling. Air travel, playing the guitar in public, or even striking up a conversation with a stranger in the coffee line all qualify these days.  But it’s within these softer fears, those that live just beyond that edge of our comfort zones, that we have an amazing opportunity to change the role of fear in our lives. When the perception of fear is shifted, it’s possible to use it as a catalyst for our own personal evolutions. And those personal evolutions give back to our bodies in surprisingly beautiful ways.

Rita’s fear of deep water had been a work-around her entire life. But when her kids all agreed that they wanted to go to Mexico and learn to surf for spring break, she found herself at the place we all do from time to time: on the edge of a fear, confronted with a choice to step into it or recede. Rita’s fear of the ocean was paralyzing, but she was more fearful that she might not be a part of family memories. So, she signed up for swim lessons.

At her first lesson, she stood at the edge of a fitness club pool, flanked by preschool-aged classmates on each side. To start the class, each small human plunged into the deep end, popping up to reach back for the edge in turn. The larger human, Rita, stood frozen and dizzy, staring down at the happy, bobbing heads until she turned on her heels for the locker room. After class, the swim coach asked her what kept her from jumping in. “Well, what if I jump in and just sink to the bottom? Never come back up?” Rita responded. “I sink. My body just doesn’t float.”

Her coach explained the physics of a body in water. “A stressed, stiff body does sink,” she said. “If you can train your body to relax in the water, with time, it will float. I promise.”  

When the perception of fear is shifted, it’s possible to use it as a catalyst for our own personal evolutions. And those personal evolutions give back to our bodies in surprisingly beautiful ways.

Of course, the promise of jumping into your fears and defeating them is never guaranteed. What can be guaranteed, regardless of the object of fear and the voracity with which it’s met, is positive change within your body. Fear, in manageable doses, does all sorts of fantastic things physiologically.  Fear releases a cocktail of hormones and neurotransmitters in your body, including adrenaline and serotonin, which can get your blood pumping and sharpen your senses. Fear has also been shown to be linked to bonding. Say you and your friend are both petrified of singing in public. Go to a karaoke night together and cue up some Bon Jovi. Sharing the experience of stage fright will release a little oxytocin in both of you, the same hormone that bonds new mothers to their babies. Engaging with these safer versions of fear can also set a new bar for stress management, giving you more confidence in future sweat-inducing situations.

Bottom line: stepping off the edge into your fear can bring new people, new passion and a refreshed outlook on your life. Those changes will show in your energy level, your skin’s glow and your smile. So, whether it means taking your two left feet to a dance class or starting the business that has been brewing in your heart and mind, it’s worth exploring the spaces beyond comfort.

We checked in with Rita when she came back from Mexico, tanned and smiling, phone still buzzing. She told us that on a hot Mexican Tuesday in March, she hesitantly waded into the wave-break of the Pacific. There were still the rip tides of her mind. We won’t sugar coat this and say she was suddenly swimming with dolphins. She was scared, salt water lapping at her chin and the sand beneath her toes gradually giving way. But there was also the laughter and praise of her children and husband splashing around her. So she focused on that instead. Then she spread her arms wide, leaned back into the blue, and floated.

Recommended Daily Ritual

A generous dose of uncomfortable, as needed. Pet whatever your version of the modern saber tooth tiger is. You’ll surprise yourself in a good way, and glow from within while you’re at it.

When's the last time you stepped off the edge? Join the conversation below.

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