Ask Me: What About Nightmares? Part 5: A Digression into the Nature of Fear

I have been so intrigued by our exploration of scary dreams and some kinds of “fear” we may be working with around our scary dreams. Last article in this series, we laid out some broad possible kinds of scary dreams and we will continue with that by exploring each of those more deeply.

But first, a little digression into fear itself.

Fear as Appropriate Response and Fear as Response based on Our Past

There are so many ways that fear rises in us and that our dreams provoke to work with us.

And yet, we are afraid of fear. Or, we may have an idea that to be a “realized” or “enlightened” human would mean to not experience fear about anything. Or that fear is a sign of weakness. Or that fear is something to avoid at all costs – or, or, or.

But fear – like all our emotions/feelings – is a natural experience and response for, well, all sapient beings. In animals, fear is incredibly functional. Meaning, it is not just an alert system warning the animal of danger, but also teaching the animal how to survive, putting it on alert and even flooding the body with adrenaline in order to survive.

In other words, fear is a natural response to fearful things. Something scary happens, we feel fear. A hawk goes for a rabbit, the rabbit is scared and full of adrenaline for survival. Appropriate response for the circumstance. In humans, fear is also appropriate.

For example, I was flooded with fear once when my car skidded on a sheet of black ice and went round and round out of control on the highway. I was not hit, nothing bad happened, but I was so scared, of course. And scared of finishing the drive – also an appropriate response. I drove very carefully the rest of that drive.

We also might experience fear when being threatened or when our safety is in jeopardy. Again, appropriately so. Our fear teaches us to be more hyperalert [like that rabbit] and also fuels us with adrenaline for quick responses in order to survive.

We may carry fear, too, the way perhaps the hawk hunting the rabbit feels fear. Fear [and thrill] in the crazy drop from the sky in its attempt to get the rabbit; fear that another bird of prey might go for the rabbit or, if the hawk catches the rabbit, that other bird of prey might go for the hawk and its meal. Birds of prey are like that.

Rhyton in the Shape of a Rabbit, Iran [ca. 900 BCE]


The natural response of fear may come, too, in situations that do not appear to be frightening. This can happen when we carry trauma. A situation or moment may elicit fear because of trauma we experienced in the past.

If I was assaulted in my past, I may have a moment where I freeze when I see someone who reminds me of the person who assaulted me. If I am a Vet who experienced war, I may have a panic attack when I hear fireworks or a car backfire. If I have experienced sexual violence, I may feel afraid when physically intimate with a lover.

Note I am not using words like “reaction” or “triggered”. I do not really use these words anymore because they gesture toward the idea that there is something “wrong” with this kind of response. That when we have responses based on past experiences, we become like a ticking bomb.

There is nothing wrong, per se, with carrying this kind of fear. Most of us do and, honestly, it is a natural response to living with trauma. Difficulty arises when our lives become held back/down by these fears. When we do not face them, we may live in constant fear of this fear and let this shape how we live our everyday lives – i.e.: not applying for a job we want or school we want to attend because of our trauma; not exploring relationship because of sexual trauma; holding back in our creativity because we were hurt around speaking or expressing ourselves. Wanting others to take care of us in our fear so we do not have to face it. We may even become abusive ourselves.

This is when unworked fear/trauma becomes something else. When our behavior and beliefs turn because of it.

If I was assaulted and have not worked with it, then I may become enraged when someone surprises me and blame them for my feelings. If I am a Vet and someone makes a loud noise, I may blame the person, the world and go into some kind of hiding to avoid all loud things or anything that reminds me of my experiences. If I experienced sexual violence and a partner inadvertently does something that reminds me of the violence, then I may blame the person for “violating” me and call them abusive. I may even decide not to take any risks when it comes to sexuality.

We project our fear out. We hide from it. Sometimes we hide from it by behaviors like drinking or using substances, shutting people out of our lives, etc.

Again, it is not that the fear response is “wrong” – it is what we do with the response that matters. The key is to recognize our fear, notice where it arises with curiosity and tenderness and work with it – which, of course, is what our dreams want to do. Our dreams work to help us differentiate what fear arises from the past and what fear is based on what is happening now. Often, of course, they are mingled.

Our dreams, especially the scary ones and the dreams that come with the scary ones [often not scary] want to teach us how to be with fear, how to work with our fear as it arises, how to redefine. And to give us support around fear that we did not have based on our past.

Seated Figure, Niger Delta (Now Mali) [13th Century]

The Underlying Lesson – Trust

Underlying this kind of work with dreams is a teaching that works not just around fear but around all the myriad of feelings and responses we carry.
When we believe we should avoid fear, when we believe we should not be afraid, when we blame others and the world for “making us” feel afraid, when fear itself is terrifying, then we do not know that our fear comes with necessary functionality. Then we do not know we can learn and grow with our fear.
We do not know that we can trust our fear [and other responses] and, if we do not, we are cut off from our own physical and emotional responses. We stop trusting ourselves. And when we stop trusting ourselves, we lose connection to our instincts. When we lose connection to our instincts, we lose so much.
Then, we end up in greater danger in how we are in the world.
I once went on a camping trip with a group of women with the intention of doing three days of solo time in the desert. We went with two trained leaders, prepared for four days, did three days solo, then had several days to return and integrate. We set up base camp in the desert and staked out our spots around it. This was so, if we got in trouble, we could call for help or get back to the base camp easily. We had other “safety” nets set up, as well.
Part of the preparation for the three days, since we were all women, was a “trust your instincts” exercise. The idea was if anything [animal] or anyone came into or near our site, we would be open to feeling it in some way and respond accordingly.
Here’s the exercise: we stood in a wide circle and each of us took a turn in the center. When it was our turn in the center, the leader blindfolded us. Then, the leader would silently pick one or two people to step toward us as silently as possible. Our task was to try to feel when someone moved toward us without being able to see anything and when we did, to turn and say “There!”
Here is what happened when I went into the center.
When the exercise started, I felt something but thought, “No, that was too soon. I am sure they haven’t started yet.” And I waited. For five minutes, I kept feeling things but talking myself out of it [“Was that it? No, no. Wait, was that it? No, I am just making things up.”]. Finally, the leader stopped the exercise because two people had approached me and were standing within a few inches from me. Nearly breathing down my neck. And I never turned and said “There!” even when I had felt it.
Because I talked myself out of what I was feeling.
When we talked about it, I was incredibly embarrassed at first. But I realized it showed how little I trusted my own instincts, my own feelings. We processed it as a group and then I asked to go again, with the leader coaching me to yell out at the first hint of anything. I was blindfolded and immediately felt something, turning and yelling “There!” The person had not even stepped forward yet but was just about to.
I knew the first time but talked myself out of my own knowing.
When we don’t trust our own knowing, we end up unanchored. For me, not trusting myself meant that I trusted other people more than myself about everything. About my spirituality [raised in the strict religious community that is Catholicism started that training early], about who I was and could be, about my creativity. About everything.
If a professor told me I should study something, I thought I should. If my dreamwork teacher told me I was a certain kind of person, then I believed him. If my parent told me I was not smart, I believed her. If a friend told me something was my fault, I believed him. I did not know how, for a long time, to deeply feel into my own relationship to self and to my spiritual path.

I had learned to ignore and talk myself out of my instincts – about people, about situations, about decisions. Even when I had a feeling that something felt not right, I would quickly talk myself out of it.
Our dreams do not want to dictate a spiritual path, a specific way of being. Our dreams do not want to point us to some universal truth. They want to help us find our truths, our different voices, our way. To do that, we need to learn to trust ourselves again. To do that, we need to learn to find what and how our instincts speak to us. How it is not just in our consciousness – but also in our bodies.

Fear is one of the ways we can learn to listen to ourselves. When we begin to turn toward fear, to trust there is something important for us in the feeling, in our response, we are also turning toward trusting ourselves again.