Fear is not just in our heads — it’s also in our bodies. What Are You Afraid Of? shows how our bodily postures and habits trigger the anxieties that crimp our daily lives and provides simple, eye-opening exercises to free us from fear’s grip.
We often think of fear as something based in our minds. But equally true — and rarely understood — is that fear is based in our bodies.
The ordinary manner in which we carry ourselves physically, our automatic gestures, and the accustomed comforts of our bodily habits often perpetuate the grip that fear has on our lives. This is true whether we’re thinking of asking our boss for a raise, frightened of diving into a swimming pool, or experiencing sleepless anxiety. The good news is that our fears arise from physical/mental triggers that have been learned over the course of our early lives — and can be unlearned.
In What Are You Afraid Of?, Lavinia Plonka provides step-by-step exercises and informative, engaging lessons to help readers identify the sources of their fears and work with their bodies to move beyond them. Plonka reveals a simple, new paradigm for understanding our fears: they are not intractable psychological demons. Instead, as she demonstrates, they often revolve around repetitive body/mind cues. By teaching the body new habits, the habit of fear can be broken.
Part I. The Roots of Fear
Addicted to Fear
Symptoms of Fear
So, What Are You Afraid Of?
Part II. Facing Your Fear
Fear of Injury or Death
Fear of Failure/Sucess
Fear of Abandonment
Part III. Tools and Activities
Moving the World
Conclusion: Love is Being in the Present
Appendix: What is the Feldenkrais Method®?
Sensing the Unknown
Listening to the Body
Feeling Your Power
Discovering Your Options
Sometimes fear of injury keeps you from trying things – from extreme skiing to going for a walk. Now of course, there’s no reason to court danger, and for most of us, avoiding extreme skiing is probably a wise choice! But some people won’t go in the water for fear of drowning, won’t go hiking for fear of falling off a cliff, etc. Most of these fears come from a need to control.
No one wants life to be out of control. But with maturity comes the knowledge that you can’t control everything. If you try, it will only make you very tense. Whether your need to control comes from a chaotic childhood, memory of an accident or just your personality type, when it begins to limit your choices, you close down the possibilities of a fully functional life. Feldenkrais used to say that in any situation, you should be able to see at least three choices. If you think about going into the city, and the only choice you see for unfolding events is that you’re going to get mugged, you have allowed your fear to control you while convincing yourself that you have control over your destiny. How can you re-introduce choice, how can you let go of the illusion of control?
As with any fear, you can be living in complete denial of your fear of injury, or loss of control. You may have cleverly arranged your life so you never have to go to the city. Or you never go swimming, saying you just hate the water. Not only have you limited your options in the world, you don’t even know you’re doing it. If this is the case, you may want to go back to the exercises in Chapter 2: The First Step. Once you can see that you are afraid, you can begin to work on creating choice.
One year, I was traveling through India. On a whim, I joined a trek through the Southern Indian mountains. After several hours, we came to a river. It was a lovely river. But there was no bridge. There were a few slippery rocks. The group stopped dead. The guide, who was wearing plastic sandals, just walked through the river. Several of the young women hopped from stone to stone, holding on to the guide, laughing as they slipped and got wet. Now, I’ve gone on hikes before where I’ve fallen in the water and had to walk for several hours in wet shoes. I also know I can be clumsy at the most inopportune times. I considered my options. I could walk across the stones without incident. I could walk across the stones and fall in. Or I could take off my shoes and just walk across the river. Which I did.
One young woman stood frozen on the bank. She did not want to take off her shoes. She did not want to fall in. She had only one choice that was acceptable to her, and the odds were not good. Gritting her teeth, she grabbed the guide and began gingerly moving from one rock to another. She gripped him in such a way that it was difficult for him to keep his balance. One particular stone required a bit of a jump. She stood a long time, on the verge of tears. When she finally jumped, her foot slipped. She was so frightened, she fell on the guide, knocked him over, and landed on a rock, spraining her wrist. Her pack weighed her down, so that she flailed like a beached whale in the water. When we finally got her, soaking wet to the bank, she was battered and bleeding and covered with leeches. She had lived out her worst case scenario.
If she had been willing to accept other choices, she might have avoided injury, or even losing her balance. But her fear of injury was so intense, she put herself in jeopardy. When old people feel unstable, they become so rigid that they are more prone to falling and injury. By learning to create choice – physically through improving physical balance, mentally through creating options in each situation, and emotionally by recognizing that nervousness or anxiety is only one choice – the possibility for injury is reduced. You don’t have to leap into the deep part of the water if you are afraid to swim: there are other choices.
Discovering Your Options
We’ll start by exploring choice simply, through movement, and then see how this can apply to your fears. Lie on your back with your legs long. Take a moment to check in with how your body feels in contact with the ground. Now bend one leg and put your foot standing on the floor. Which foot did you choose? Do you always start with the same foot? What would it be like to use the other foot instead? Play for a moment, bringing one foot to standing, let it come down, then the other foot and notice if they feel different. Can you choose either foot?
Now, keep one foot standing. Begin to gently lift the hip of your standing foot off the floor. Several times, just lift the hip and let it come down. Can you notice how you do it? Or does it just do itself? Do you push with your foot? Is your thigh involved? Do you rotate your pelvis? Squeeze your buttock? Tense your back? What does your abdomen do? You don’t have to have answers and you don’t have to move all these parts. These are just some of the many actions that take place when you move your hip.
Let’s look at some other options. No matter how you have been lifting the hip, try lifting your hip only by pressing your foot into the floor. First of all, is it possible? Easy? Difficult? Are you able to not squeeze your buttock? How high do you need to lift your hip to know that you are moving it? Does this affect the direction of your hip movement? Rest a moment. Now try the same thing by adding your upper leg. How do you add it -do you tense your muscle? Do you lengthen the femur downward to the knee? Is this familiar, or weird? Let your leg slide down and rest.
Bring the same foot to standing again. Now raise your hip by squeezing your buttock. Tighten it as much as possible and lift it several times. Is this familiar? Easy? Let it go. Now lift the hip by rotating/twisting your pelvis to the other side. It’s as if one side of the pelvis gets lighter, and the other side gets heavier. Nothing else. Can you do this without tensing your buttock? And rest.
For many people, the easiest choice for moving the hip is tensing the buttock. Tensing the buttock is a very effective way to get instant action, but it’s hard work! If you tense your buttock lying on the floor, odds are you tense your buttock all the time in order to get where you want to go. Or you may notice, when you repeat this exercise, that you tense your neck, your jaw or some other part. This is your body’s attempt to control your movement, just like you trying to control your environment. It’s not only not useful, it can be harmful down the line. Physically, always controlling from the same part leads to postural problems and wears out the related joints. Always trying to control your life by limiting choices makes you less open to change and growth, putting you at risk in the event of any kind of shock. By exploring other choices for movement, you can make your movement easier. Paradoxically, when you see how limiting choices is about the illusion of control, you actually develop greater freedom and safety!
Once more, bend the same knee and try lifting your hip without thinking. Has the movement changed? After resting, feel free to try this on the other side.