Learning to Touch Fear

Training Josie to TouchMy daughter, Ellie, is training her horse to touch an object. Ellie points at the object and says the word ‘touch’ and her horse, Josie, touches it with her nose. This seems like an odd skill to train. So I asked Ellie why she was doing this. She told me that if a horse sees something that is new, like a paper bag or a traffic cone, then their natural response is fear. Their focus narrows down to the thing that is frightening them, as if they were wearing blinders. Josie then becomes skittish and unpredictable and she ignores Ellie. But if she touches the threat, she realises that it is fine, settles down and opens up to Ellie’s instructions.

Of course horses aren’t the only ones that scare easily, and they aren’t the only ones that can learn to touch the fear. You and I can become skittish, unpredictable and cut off from what’s happening around us when we are afraid.

The big difference is, we aren’t usually spooked by paper bags and traffic cones, for most of us it’s our emotions that we’re afraid to touch.

When fear, anxiety, sadness or anger turn up, we can become both preoccupied by the feelings and also focussed on getting rid of them. We tend to treat internal discomfort as if it is the same as a real threat in the external world. In the grip of painful emotions, we find it difficult to focus on what is happening around us. We tend to ignore the suggestions of our wiser self and we make foolish or impulsive decisions.

What if we could learn how to respond differently to painful emotions? What if we could lightly touch the feelings that scare us? With time we might find that although they seem very threatening they can’t actually harm us.

Like all new skills, it is good to start small with less challenging emotions. Touch them gently and imagine yourself expanding to make room for them. If over and over again we practice the skill of turning towards emotional discomfort with curiosity, something important happens.

Eventually, when fear, anger or sadness turn up, instead of freaking out and being controlled by our emotions, we accept our feelings as signs that we are human and that we care. We are able to take actions based on both our values and what the situation affords and over time these wiser choices will help us to flourish.
So next time you feel yourself freaking out, take a breath and see if you could, just for a moment, touch your feelings with an attitude of kindness and curiosity. It might just change everything.

10 thoughts on “Learning to Touch Fear

  1. Sounds great Rach. Nice to see Ellie doing so well and to see some ACT in cross-species applications! Our daughter Libby is learning this sort of thing to assist with her anxiety. As an Aspie, anxiety is something she excels at naturally but the mindfulness training and loving kindness meditations she practices twice each day is allowing her to have options rather than consequences and initiate rather than be reactive.

    We have been so impressed with the results that my partner and I have begun more dilligent practice of these skills as well. One doesn’t need a diagnosis to benefit from these liberating concepts.

    Keep up the great work.


  2. Being currently in what feels like a whole world of fear this post was like a steadying touch on the back Rachel, a reminder I can shift focus however slightly at first towards my values

  3. This is wonderful, Rachel, and thanks for posting it. What I have learned about fear, and this is in one of the ACT texts, I believe, is that when I am afraid of something or anxious about something it is often because I am nearing the outer edge of my comfort zone. The anxiety or fear is a warning that I am entering new and maybe scary territory and that I should be careful. I used to believe that these feelings were there to keep me safe inside my CZ, which they were, and I never really questioned them or moved through them into the stretch. Through practicing ACT, I have learned to touch them gently, accept them and keep moving. I saw a quote from John F. Kennedy yesterday, the 50th anniversary of his assassination and an unhealable sorrow for my generation. He said something like “we do not do things because they are easy, we do them because they are hard.” This, to my way of thinking, is challenging the CZ border. I think that accepting that fear is, as Kevin Polk phrases it, “in the room” helps to normalize it, move with it, and keep going. When I do this, I am no longer in a freeze state and I can accomplish whatever I choose. I think Jason wrote about the F.E.A.R. metaphor in Learning ACT. FEAR stands for Fusion-Evaluation-Avoidance-Reason Giving. The antidote being Accept-Choose-Take Action. Accepting all of this with Loving Kindness (I love Sharon Salzburg’s work) and CFT allows me to hold myself in a place of softness while I cross the CZ border into scary or unfamiliar territory. Love what your daughter is doing with her horse. Being a rider myself, this makes perfect sense to me. I think I would have avoided many a fall if I had had the wisdom to do this. Kind regards, Donna

  4. Excellent way of explaining, and nice paragraph to obtain information regarding my
    presentation subject matter, which i am going to deliver in institution of higher education.

  5. When I’m at work in a terrible mood, getting rid of that is #1 priority. Faking kindness, isolating, burying myself in work…anything to forget or not feel my mood. Because it is unprofessional, incompetent, and immature to not be in control of one’s emotions. I cry when sad, afraid, or angry—and being out of control like that loses all credability in an instant. Better to keep oneself under tight control and get the job done.

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