“ACKNOWLEDGING FEAR IS THE FIRST STEP TO CONQUERING IT”
The shark below me was nearly seven feet long. Three more appeared on my left. My blood pressure spiked, and my heart banged in my chest. In my head, I heard the theme of the movie, ‘JAWS.’ I was waiting for the yank on my leg and the sharks to drag me under. My husband was floating face-down about twelve feet away. I was terrified. I saw the netted wall of the shark enclosure and made a break for it. Not thinking, I dove underwater. My too-large face mask and snorkel filled with water. I started choking and thrashing around. I couldn’t breathe. My equipment had been fastened so tightly that I couldn’t get it off.
I knew how to swim. When I was young, I was even on the swim team. Yet, there I was, struggling to tread water, drowning in my face mask. I was so afraid that I could not think rationally. I jumped on my husband and nearly took him under too. My fear was in control. All I really had to do was calm down and remove my mask. I was never in any real danger. I knew there would be sharks. I just didn’t expect them to be so big. That’s why I was really freaking out. I was startled. Loss of control can be terrifying.
In, Learn To Recognize Stress, we explored how our bodies are hardwired to react to danger without conscious thought. The body can’t tell the difference between danger, fear, anxiety, grief; or even excitement. All these things can trigger the amygdala, which is the emotion center of the brain and the reason we are afraid of things outside of our control.
Living with an unpredictable disease like MS can be scary. There are just too many unknowns to not sometimes feel fearful. It’s often hard to feel in control of anything. I spent years turning down invitations and missing out on events with friends and family because I was afraid of what ‘might’ happen. I felt paralyzed by indecision. I was afraid to do anything that might make my MS worse. So, I slowly withdrew and let fear make my world a little smaller.
Fear does not always come from something tangible like a shark. It can be fear of judgment or rejection or fear of the unknown; the physical reaction is the same. The quickening pulse, pounding heart, tense body. When I was first diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis, I would lay in bed at night and think of the uncertainty of my future. I’d worry if I’d go blind or not be able to walk on my own. I’d think about what would happen to me when I was old. After several years of living with the disease, I’d stare at the ceiling all night and think; “What if I can’t walk that far, what if it’s too hot outside and I collapse, what if I can’t keep up with people?” Sometimes, I’d think about doctor appointments and medication and the frustration with the lack of definitive answers. The constant ‘what if?’ scenarios can lead to anxiety and anxiety can cause fear.1 Fear can be immobilizing. It can cause inaction. It can make you feel stuck.
Fear is not just adrenaline and flight. Living under the weight of fear can lead to self-isolation and loneliness. Nobody knows what their future holds, but I knew I didn’t want to get there and have regrets. I needed to choose to take the first step. Even if it was scary. Even if the outcome was uncertain. I made a promise to myself to stop being afraid of MS and to put myself back out there and start doing the things I used to love to do. So, I agreed to the first beach vacation in 14 years.
Then I was full circle, hanging on the net in the shark enclosure wondering how I got there. My legs had been shaking and weak, all week. My balance a little wobbly. I clung to the net trying to focus on my breathing. In through the nose, out through the mouth. It occurred to me the enclosure was emptying of people who were swimming into the next enclosure. It’s spurred me into action because I didn’t want to be the last one left with the sharks. I dove off the net and swam as fast as I could.
Fear can be a good thing. It’s the body’s early warning system and important for self-preservation. We are not born afraid. Fear is learned. We need to think about why we are afraid of something. Is it because of a personal experience, something witnessed, or, have we been conditioned to be afraid of someone else’s fear? Then we need to make the decision to not be afraid and try to shift the way we think to work through the fear. Often, we give fuel to fear by building it up in our imagination and making it bigger than it is. Think of what worked for you before to help you overcome past fears. Visualize ways to modify your behavior and thinking patterns. The fear might not go away but it might diminish enough to propel you forward.
When we face our fears, we knock down the walls that we ourselves have built. Fear makes you hold yourself back and keeps you from opportunities and personal growth. I’m so grateful that I allowed myself the chance to make fantastic memories. Even though I was terrified, that snorkeling trip was one of my best vacation experiences- ever! Don’t let fear hold you back from experiencing life. If you do, you will miss out on amazing things.
I climbed into the new enclosure with a sigh of relief. My husband came in behind me and said, “Check out the stingrays!”
You are stronger than you think!