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How to make fear your friend

January 17, 2018

The solitude of hiking, mostly by myself, in the Pyrenees mountains, for 46 days on the Grande Randonnée 10 (GR10), gave me a chance to pay close attention to feelings and thoughts as they arose. I have written about the joy of walking the path, but today I want to look at one of the main barriers to feeling that joy: fear and worry.

 

“Day 14 - Facing fear

 

…I was woken at 4 am by the sound of hiking poles hitting the wet pavement below the window of my room. The first hiker heading out into the dark, guided only by the light of his headlamp. Unable to fall back to sleep, I tossed and turned, my thoughts clouded by worries of the day ahead. 

 

Outside, the pitch black night was calm, but I knew the reason for the hikers early departure. A severe thunderstorm was in the forecast. At nine hours, today’s hike was scheduled to be one of the longest of the GR10, taking me over the highest pass so far, Hourquette d'Arre, at 8100 feet. 

 

My mind was spinning, I couldn’t shake the image of getting caught in the midst of a violent thunderstorm, of getting struck by lighting on an exposed mountaintop. 

 

As I ate my toast, the owner of the bed and breakfast indicated the weather should hold until noon. I quickly did the math, a knot churning in my belly. I would be at the top of the pass at 2:30 pm, right in the middle of the storm. My guidebook had clearly stated the dangers of exposed passes during thunderstorms.

 

The other hikers announced over breakfast that they would hitchhike to the next destination to avoid the storm. I had committed to my goal of walking across the entire length of the Pyrenees and chose to disregard the panicked voice in my head, encouraging me to join them.

 

I set out uncertain and uneasy. Once I left this remote hamlet I would be utterly alone. The only other hiker on the trail today was four hours ahead. Should something happen to me, there would be no help coming.

 

Setting a punishing pace through dark wet forest, I made it to Corniche des Alhas, a narrow pathway cut straight into the vertical rock face. I walked as quickly as possible, aware of the fatal drop-offs on the left side of the narrow trail. 

 

I began my steep 4,500 feet ascent towards the pass, as threatening dark clouds were gathering overhead. I barely noticed the beauty of the valleys below, my mind instead fixated on getting over the pass before the storm. 

 

My ears were on alert, listening for any rumbling coming down the valley from the pass above. But all I could hear was my labored breathing as my adrenaline-fueled legs carried me upward at a grueling pace…”

 

 

In the end my worries were in vain, the feared thunderstorm never materialized. Additionally, my focus on the perceived danger had made me unable to enjoy the spectacular terrain. I had exhausted myself, potentially jeopardizing my fitness, for the coming weeks of strenuous hiking. 

 

How often has life passed you by, while you worried about things that never came to be?

 

Worse still, had I hitchhiked to the next destination, I would have abandoned my goal of crossing the Pyrenees by foot.

 

When has a fearful voice discouraged you from pursuing your dreams?

 

It’s uncomfortable to admit that fear and worry plays any role in my life. But I am not alone. Mark Twain once said, “I have been through some terrible things in my life, some of which actually happened”.

 

Fear is such a pervasive feeling, that we don’t realize how many of our choices it dictates. Back in the days when we were vulnerable to predators, fear and adrenaline were essential to our survival. Once saber-toothed tigers stopped roaming the streets, fear found itself a new role, that of protecting the ego. 

 

Fear of making mistakes, looking stupid, being shunned are just a few ways in which fear keeps us from being uniquely ourselves. It is not the enemy, its just part of being human. But it is crucial to recognize when fear turns to worry, because that directly impacts your capacity for joy. 

 

Pay attention to your thoughts throughout the day. Meditation is a great way to observe how much space worry takes. Sit in quiet stillness for five minutes and you will be amazed at the unending list of worries consuming the mind.

 

In dealing with worry, inquire how much of the “worry story” is actually factual. Our worries are often about fictional worst-case scenarios. Recognizing this, can loosen the tight grip of worry.

 

Ask yourself if your worry is about a problem that is within your power to address. If it is, then address it. But many things we obsess about are not within our power to change. Accepting this is the first step towards equanimity. 

 

To live more (joy)fully it is absolutely necessary to recognize fear. Accept it as an integral part of being human, but notice when it turns to obsessive worry and whatever you do, don’t put it in the driver’s seat.

 

Ready to live with less worry and more joy?

 

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