Two Opposites of Fear – Brave and Safe
I remember the light bulb moment: fear has two opposites – to be brave and to be safe. Both are true. Somewhat like the Serenity Prayer:
God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference. – Reinhold Niebuhr
I came to that intuitive wisdom before I knew the importance of the stress hormone cortisol to get us moving to protect ourselves from danger – “Don’t just sit there! Do something!” And the power of the rush of dopamine to settle us back down when we act quickly to solve the problem and feel proud in our competence to do so. Nor the role of the stress hormone oxytocin in prompting us to reach out to others in times of danger – for safety, protection, reassurance – and its power to turn off the cortisol, even repair the damage done to the heart by the cortisol.
Brave and safe. All neurobiological; all evolutionarily hard-wired in. Sometimes culturally conditioned as well; men are often admired for their courage, perhaps less appreciated for their honest human vulnerability. Woman are often praised for their caring compassionate “tend-and-befriend,” perhaps less appreciated when competent and assertive.
Also true: fear is a signal to act. To move toward, against, away to protect ourselves and those we love from danger or life threat. What’s needed is the wisdom to know which to do when.
The body-brain’s innate wisdom to reach out first – that’s our evolutionary preference. To seek safety, comfort, protection, reassurance from other people around us. That’s instinctive – our built-in social engagement system that brings our nervous system back into equilibrium. (And may actually help in solving the problem!) [See Recovering from One of those Panicky Moments]
If reaching out to others doesn’t work or isn’t available, we will try to solve the problem by taking action, hopefully wise and skillful, sometimes impulsive but still effective, sometimes going in the wrong direction and we have to realize that and change course. But our courage, our bravery to try, shows up to guide our behaviors.
If neither reaching out nor taking action resolves the situation, we are vulnerable to giving up, not trying. Sometimes that’s taking refuge until we can re-group, which is another way of seeking safety; sometimes it’s avoiding coping and we need others to reach out to us or help us see how we/they can act effectively.
The key to having a choice about how we respond to fear is to practice noticing how we do respond to cue of fear, how we interpret the signal to pay attention to potential danger and how we choose to act in response.
1. Identify five different moments of experiencing fear in the last week. Small moments are fine to practice with.
2. Identify your style of responding in each moment – reaching out to others for safety or help, taking action immediately to solve the problem, hesitancy, uncertainty, not acting, avoiding acting.
(No shame-blame! Just honest awareness.)
3. Identify one of those moments when you hesitated, didn’t act, and begin to imagine responding differently, either reaching out to others, what that might look like or feel like, or taking some action more quickly that might be effective in solving the problem. It’s your imagination – what you’re imagining is real to the brain.
4. Notice how you feel when you imagine yourself creating safety or being brave. Notice any difference from the experience of not reaching out, not acting.
5. Practice with new moments of fear in the coming week: noticing, choosing, reflecting on the feeling of the experience. Celebrate new moments of feeling brave, feeling safe.
And celebrate that you are strengthening your resilience.