Overcoming Fear After Injury
This is part three of my Healing Journey. Read the other entries here.
In recovery, there are two dimensions to address: the physical healing and the emotional healing.
Physically, I am recovering slowly. I am adjusting to activities that are well below my pre-accident state of wellness. But it feels good to keep moving in the right direction and slowly regain mobility, inch by inch.
However, the emotional recovery fluctuates more and is a greater challenge.
FEAR IS GOOD – SOMETIMES
In its purest form, fear is a life-preserving emotion that automatically warns your body of impending danger and activates defensive responses to maintain safety. In the case of physical threat, such as a motorcycle accident, fear is the correct state of being. The sensation of fear and the consequent release of adrenaline results in the flight or flight response, enabling you to overcome normally overwhelming obstacles. In my case, I was able to identify the driver, in case it was a hit and run, through the pain of the broken spine before collapsing on the pavement.
The emotion of fear served its purpose well, to enable me to remain cognizant and prepared me for additional action if necessary, at the time of the accident.
FEAR IS BAD – SOMETIMES
While I’ve done many extreme athletics in my life, being sideswiped by a moving 6000 pound metal boulder all my injury experiences. I discovered that my fear took on three forms:
- Spontaneous Fear: fear that I experienced at the moment of the accident. “Good” fear.
- Past Fear: fear that the accident would replay itself at any moment while I was driving. “Bad” fear.
- Future Fear: fear that I would not recover from my injury and remain physically limited by the accident. “Bad” fear.
But doesn’t fear help me be cautious for future accidents? Shouldn’t I hang on to fear so that it protects me?
Yes. And no.
TRANSFORMING PAST FEAR
The emotion of fear, as applied to preventing future accidents or mitigating risk, is fairly ineffective. Recall that fear heightens your body’s responses in either flight or fight. While your capacities to run or attack may be increased, your ability to notice detail, dose response correctly and strategize is greatly diminished. In the moment of fear, you may end up using a sledgehammer to pound in a tack. The third response to fear that is not included in “fight or flight” is “freeze”. Fear can lso paralyze you, rendering you vulnerable to the consequence of the stimuli (car accident, gun shot, sabertooth tiger…)
Fear can serve you by acting as a pointer to preventative and strategic action. When you feel fear as a result of a traumatic event, don’t deny it, don’t give into it, but instead use it to remind you of the necessary actions you may need to deploy to get yourself out of hot water. Denying, suppressing or giving into any negative emotion (fear, sadness, guilt, shame) inhibits your ability to use these very powerful energies to your advantage.
If another accident is what I fear most, then my preventative action and strategy is education: I should study the origin of my accident. For example, I learned that cars turning left into motorcycles is the most common type of crash between cars and motorcycles. I discovered that the driver of the car is actually looking for a large object, not a small one, like motorcycles. The brain literally does not perceive the motorcycle. For example, count the number of times the letter “f” appears below:
Finished files are the result
of years of scientific study
combined with the experience
How many did you get? 3? If you only counted 3, then your mind is conditioned not to see the other 3. Try again 🙂
By educating myself on the biological process of perception, I am able to diffuse the emotional impact of car accident fear. I can use knowledge as a tool to decrease my experience of fear and simultaneously mitigate risk. The sensation of fear can be used to remind me of this fact or to propel me to continue learning more about how accidents work.
TRANSFORMING FUTURE FEAR
Future fear has a different quality than past fear. Fear that a situation will replicate itself, like a replay of the past, technically is also a fear projected into the future. However, the fear of suffering from a limiting or frightful condition indefinitely, is a clear projection of worry into the future. The transformation of this fear requires a different approach.
Future fear is experienced as a suffocating panic, in extreme cases, and more commonly as the process of worrying, as most of us endure. When you worry, you’re unconsciously projecting negative conditions into the future. The act of worrying is a shade of the emotion of fear and it’s likely the most debilitating over time, emotionally and physically. This is the state of stress and there are many validated studies to illustrate how stress negatively suppresses your body’s immunity response.
So what do I do with the possibility that I may never again have the physical ability to flip, run, jump or play with my son in ways that I once had? Like a dark cloud, contemplating this future can shroud even the brightest enthusiasm in shadows. After a good conversation with my friend Frank, jiu-jitsu expert and emotional ninja, I was reminded of the often elusive state of being that rescues us from the darkness.
THE ANTIDOTE TO FEAR
The antidote to fear is courage. When faced with chronic future fear, the state that counters worry most effectively is courage. So what is courage?
The state of courage is accessed by a simple, but not easy, process. You choose the most vulnerable thing you can do, and do it. Or you begin making steps to do it. Once you identify your vulnerability and even if you only begin to make plans to do it, you’re already moving into the state of courage.
For example, I worry that I will never run again like used to. My greatest vulnerability is pain and a stiff restricted range of motion in my back. The feeling of hurting and being stuck makes me afraid.
So my vulnerability is to slowly push that edge of pain backwards and gradually increase my range of motion. The fear of physical failure persists: either it will hurt or feel extremely uncomfortable. The fear of psychological failure persists: maybe I won’t succeed and will never again enjoy the mobility and pain free body I once enjoyed.
Either way, only courage will overcome fear, particularly future fear, or worry. And courage is not something you “psyche” yourself into, get pumped up and do erratically or trick yourself into. It’s a strategic, deliberate and intentional choice to place yourself in greater and greater states of vulnerability.
THE ROAD FORWARD
The metaphor of the road is used often for life’s journeys. In my case, it’s a literal analogy: I need to continue putting one foot in front of another to overcome my fear and current physical ailments. When I’ve succeeded, I’ll actually be further down the road! Use spontaneous fear for immediate risk mitigation, then overcome past fear with education and future fear with courage.