This week I got a great reminder/kick up the arse from the universe regarding the relationship between physiological stress and fear. My partner and I were in Mount Shasta, on the way from Portland to San Francisco. On our one full day in town, we decided to take a walk on the mountain. We were a bit late starting and eventually set off at around 11am for what we thought was an easy hike to Panther Meadow. Turns out I got confused about which trailhead we started on and we walked instead to South Gate Meadow – a longer hike, mostly above the tree line through a fairly surreal expanse of shale that reminded me of some of the desert scenes from Star Wars.
When we eventually got there, the meadow was completely gorgeous…
and I was tired. A combination of altitude (almost 8000 feet) without enough time to adjust, sun exposure, a longer-than-expected hike and a nervous system still fairly toasted from a lifetime of overload (more on that later) had used up most of my energy reserves. And we still had to hike back… no choice. You can see I look a little less than ecstatic here, because I’m already worried about how hard I’m going to have to push to make it back.
The walk out was tough – sunnier, hotter and harder than the walk in. I had to chant mantras to keep going. By the time we reached the car, I was done. The noise in my head – which had started with a mild breeze of anxiety in the meadow – now amped up to a Category 4 fear hurricane.
“Why didn’t I plan better and take better care of myself today? Why am I still pushing through exhaustion? Why is my body – after I’ve thrown 4+ years worth of healing at it, not to mention most of my life’s savings – still so broken that I can’t handle a little walk? What if I never feel completely better?” And then fear’s trump card… the big one: “What if I end up broke, alone and begging on the streets?” My friend Sam Nolan-Smith calls them the old bag-lady fears. I’d run headlong into a nasty gang of them.
I probably don’t need to tell you that a Category 4 fear hurricane is pretty draining. It sucked whatever I had left and I ended up a hollow shell of myself for a little while. Such a familiar old story – “there is something wrong with me” – and so completely fucking unhelpful.
And… then I saw something important. The impulse to push harder is a pernicious, sneaky fucker and I keep uncovering new, more subtle layers of it. First insight – that impulse is actually fuelled by the “something wrong with me” story. There’s a big clue in the phrase “I’ve thrown 4+ years of healing at it”… because are those really the words I’d use to describe a loving, caring relationship with my body? Sounds more like going to war, which is exactly how it feels when I’m trying to ‘fix’ something about myself.
Second insight – when I am physically tired, it’s exponentially more difficult to a) notice the spiral and b) pull myself out of a Category 4 fear hurricane by c) maintaining the level of presence required to feel beyond the surface level fears. I’d seen some of this before, but I got the lesson differently yesterday. It felt more visceral. And it led to a couple of resolutions.
First, the tiny change – work inside my physical capacity, rather than pushing the envelope (eg. plan a shorter, easier hike than I think I’m actually capable of finishing). Second, the brave decision – spend a little time today (but not too much) sitting compassionately with the old bag-lady fears and find what’s really true.
So that’s exactly what I’ll do. Because there is nothing wrong with me… and the only way around fear is through.