Life is a constant journey through variables we cannot control, however well prepared.
Learning to tolerate uncertainty is the key factor in building great self confidence. Unfortunately fear of “what might happen next” – the feeling of uncertainty – can be very unpleasant.
Tony Blair, Driven by Fear
“On 2 May 1997, I walked into Downing Street as prime minister for the first time. I had never held office… my predominant feeling was fear.”
Tony Blair, Prime Minister in the U.K. for 10 years until 2007, published his memoirs (“A Journey”) earlier this year. I haven’t read them, probably never will, but found it impossible to avoid the discussion they provoked. What has startled many has been his candid admission that the principal driver behind many of his decisions was fear. In a excellent review psychologist Geoffrey Beattie sums up:-
“Blair became a master at masking his true emotional state, hiding his terror with that masking smile.”
Yes, that “masking smile” – but hiding terror! What is most amazing is that Blair was always perceived as very relaxed and a great communicator. Yet, as he states, he “never relaxed for a moment.” Even when he “kept a strong grip on himself” during the day
“I would wake in the morning with the hair on the back of my head damp with sweat. What I could control when awake was overpowering in sleep.”
Why does our body do this?
The feelings and body responses Tony Blair attaches to his fears are things we can all empathise with as have all evolved the same way. The anxiety (or fear) symptoms we all experience are part of the bodies defence system. Its what is know as “fight or flight”, getting ready to deal with threats.
Going back a few thousand years, when humans first roamed the earth, life was a bit more simple. But also more dangerous – man was as likely to be a prey as a hunter. If danger was spotted – and the brain received that message – then there were two simple options:-
1) Fight that danger
2) Run away!!! (or Flight)
If you think about it, if you do either of these actions your body is working in the same way. It will be moving fast at in heightened state of arousal. It will need to make full use of its arms and legs, whilst not want to waste energy or non important factors (such as processing the last meal in the stomach).
Lets just reiterate what happened to the body to trigger this fight or flight response.
Danger > Message to Brain > Prepares to Fight or Fight Danger
Now, in modern life we can relate to this if we think about how we would react if confronted with a real physical danger. If walking down the street and we did see a charging bull heading towards us, we wouldn’t just stand and stare! Without making a conscious decision we would run to safety. Once safe we would be aware of our pounding heart, fast breathing, sweat pouring off us, heightened sense of arousal….
Why do we start sweating, or feeling sick?
This list gives a brief explanation of why the fight or flight response leads to particular physical reactions.
Heart & Breathing
So in anticipation of increased exertion, the heart beats faster to pump blood – carrying oxygen – around the body. With this increase in blood pressure your breathing also increases in readiness for more muscular effort.
Muscles may feel “tingly” and arms and legs may shake as they prepare to fight or run. Sometime people describe “jelly legs”. Picture athletes preparing to run the 100 metres at the Olympics – their muscles are equally ready.
Sweat can serve two functions. It can help cool the body and help the hands and feet grip better (bearing in mind this defence system developed before modern materials made sweaty hands a liability!). I’ve also read that sweat can be an aroma to repel attackers.
As I touched on before, the body is usually digesting the last meal you consumed. But in times of arousal, the fight or flight response diverts blood away from the stomach to the peripheral muscles such as the arms and legs. Consequently you can suffer “butterflies” in the stomach or feel the urge to vomit.
The urge to urinate or defecate can increase as the body needs to make itself lighter, better able to fight or run. Another, less appetising reason (from the pre toilet age) is that this make the body less attractive as a prey, and will deter attackers.
The pupils dilate to let in more light and can become “mid range” focussed – you need to be able to take in as much information about your potential attackers. This can be experienced as a blurring of vision if, for example, you happened to be engaged on something near by.
You may have read about accounts from battles, where protagonists didn’t realise they had been badly hurt, or even shot, until after the event. This is again a way of the body protecting itself, but for panic attack sufferers it can be a most alarming symptom. Everything feels unreal, you feel detached from reality.
The problem is that most of the time this fight or flight response doesn’t help us with modern day fears. Our brain doesn’t distinguish between a message saying its a real physical attack, or just an insult from another politician! So when Tony Blair literally described his weekly session of questions from fellow Members of Parliament as “bowel-moving” he wasn’t exaggerating!
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