Fears of Death Creates Fear of Life

Critters sneak by cemetary - Fears of Death Creates Fear of Life

We are biologically programed to fear death. All animals are. By fear I mean that automatic response of fight, flee or freeze when faced with a threat to survival.

A shadow passes over and the lizard freezes. It passes again and the lizard scurries under a rock. If caught, the lizard will struggle and even bite in order to survive.

In the course of evolution, Mother Nature discovered that some species survive better in groups, so a bonding mechanism was added to keep individuals together. This created another level of complexity to the fear of death response. Loss of a mate, child, parent, or community was added to the list of life-threatening events. Grief was the physiological response.

The biology of grief is like the biology of any immanent survival threat. The heart beats faster, eyes dilate, muscles constrict, and the body prepares to freeze, flee or fight.  This is why, after a significant loss, some people get super busy, some get embroiled in fierce family fights and others can’t get out of bed. Their body/minds are responding to the survival threat of a lost connection.

Grief motivates the creation of new bonds.

What the social animal needs is to feel safe. Safety is felt in connection with others. When an elephant dies, the herd stays close to the grieving member, protecting it from predators and eventually reintegrating it back into the community.

The capacity of the human brain to think symbolically adds still another layer of complexity to the fear of death response. Because of this capacity, humans can imagine threat when none is currently present. The thought of the threat has the same force as an actual loss or physical assault. The body responds the same way. With particular thoughts a human can grieve a broken bond for years or feel fright without any immediate cause. The mind plays its movie and the body reacts.

When fear thoughts are frequent, they create a  fear of  life.

Fear is what blocks people from achieving their goals and creating the life they want. If unchecked, fear thoughts can lead to despair, depression, hopelessness, ill-health and even death.

People fear shame, humiliation, rejection, abandonment, banishment, isolation, and loss of love. All these fears entail a loss of connection and community and will activate a survival reaction.

To manage our fears, we create rules of behavior to protect us from the loss of connection.

When I was two years old my father, who was in the military, was re-stationed overseas, leaving the rest of the family behind. He did not die. We were probably not apart for more than a couple of months. However, for a child of 2, deeply bonded to her father, his absence was a cataclysmic event.

My mother was still there and took care of me. But for some reason, I had not bonded with her. So the loss of my father was experienced as life-threatening and created in me a fear of abandonment and wariness about bonding. That early blissful bonding with my father was never restored. My 2-year old brain concluded that my father had left because of some error on my part. Unable to figure out exactly what that error was, I cast a large net to minimize any future errors. I became hyper-vigilant about pleasing people so they wouldn’t leave.

Complex animals learn from the mistakes that bring them into harm’s way so that they can avoid them in the future.

Experiences of survival threat are stored in long-term memory and easily recalled. This enables the animal to quickly identify and respond to a potential threat. Unfortunately, this tips the balance of memory in the direction of bad experiences over good. Humans are especially challenged by this negative bias because it feeds the fear thoughts.

My hyper-vigilance around people worked well for a very long-time. I rarely got in trouble at home and I excelled at school. I earned degrees and honors. The pattern was regularly reinforced and deeply ingrained.

As I grew into adulthood, however, my efforts at pleasing did not always produce desired results. There would be confusion over the conflicting wants of multiple people. Pleasing lovers was far more complicated than pleasing teachers. My best efforts often failed because I put others first and did not take care of my own needs. I felt resentful and angry and communicated this even when I tried to hide it. This would lead to withdrawal and disconnection on both sides. The pattern of abandonment played over and over again until I decided to change it.

Understanding our daily fears as childhood survival programming, suggests a whole new way of dealing with them.

Below are the steps that I find work best:

1. Awareness

Awareness is the first step. You have to identify what you need to change.

When I first got together with my current husband, I recognized my abandonment pattern. I saw how I would pull away at the slightest hint of disinterest or disapproval and how this would accelerate our disconnection. I knew what I had to change.

2. Set the Intention

Setting the intention is essential. You envision the outcome you want and use it as a guiding light that draws your every step.

I believed that my new relationship was a keeper and I did not want to sabotage it with my fears, so I decided I would do whatever I could to change it.

3. Take Action

In order to change a pattern, you have to try something different. This means, thinking about how you currently handle things and coming up with something else. That’s how you change behavior – by replacing it with a new one. Repressing or “not doing” will not work.

Since I did not know how to change my abandonment pattern, I enrolled in program recommended by several friends.

Seeking help is a powerful action.

Help can come in many forms: books, friends, programs, therapists, coaches, spiritual teachers, etc. It is dangerous to rely on your own brain for guidance. It carries the childhood program that got you in this mess in the first place. You need new information and that must come from outside. Sometime just by the simple act of setting your intention to change, the teacher will appear.

4. Release the Emotions

Changing a survival pattern can feel scary. The body will perceive your efforts as a threat to its safety. It may freeze, distract, run away, resist, and even get angry. It’s a clue to the underlying pattern. Never judge or criticize yourself, this will only make your body less cooperative.

When my fear is activated, I get a hot flash, my heart beats faster, and my breath gets shallow, my muscles tense and my throat aches. The throat is about self-expressions. As a child I learned to pay attention to the wants of others and ignore my own. When my throat aches, I ask myself what words or emotions I am holding back. What am I not saying that needs to be said?

By staying with the feelings, by focusing on the physical sensations in the body, thoughts will slow down. Notice what you are feeling in your body and the location. Pay attention to the quality of the sensation. Is it hot/cold, sharp/dull/heavy? Does it change or move? Learn the pattern of your discomfort.

Slow breathing will relax the body when it feels threatened.

By focusing on the body sensations and breathing, the triggered emotions will release. Through repetition, the body will learn that the world is not coming to an end; it can survive without its old patterns and accept the new ones.

By focusing on the body sensations and breathing, the triggered emotions will release. Though repetition, the body will learn that the world is not coming to an end; it can survive without its old patterns and accept the new ones.

Be warned that the mind will try to reaffirm the old pattern. It will set you up for failure, for reconfirmation that what you believed was always right. It will try to convince you to give up this silliness. DON’T BUY ITS STORY!

I had a friend who was convinced that no one really cared about her. When she had a bout of food poisoning, she called a friend for help and was rebuffed. I asked her about the friend and she admitted that this friend was a self-centered person who was unlikely to come to her aid.

Just the other day, in an effort to be less of a slave-driver, I extended my lunch break by sitting in the sun and reading a book. I got engrossed and completely lost track of time. When I went back to my computer I discovered I had missed a client call. Ouch! Does that mean I have to go back to my slavery?

When you inadvertently sabotage your effort to change, learn from the failure. Don’t give up. Ask what needs tweaking. Maybe next time you can call a caring friend instead of a self-centered one or you could set a timer.

5. Support for Your Change

We are social beings. We need the social support of others. Some of our “others” will not be happy with our change. They may try to sabotage it because it feels threatening to them. Maybe in taking care of ourselves we say “no” more often. People who are accustomed to our pleasing behavior will not be happy when we cut off the spigot.

Your address book will change along with your behavior.

Surround yourself with people who model the behavior and life you want for yourself. You need people who love and accept the real wart and all YOU. Your coach or therapist is not enough. You need a community. This step is essential to getting your behavior change to stick.

6. Celebrate

The body needs to be rewarded for cooperating. This reinforces the new pattern. It’s an animal; give it a treat. Take a bath, get a massage, watch an enjoyable movie, have a candle lit dinner. Make a list of things your body enjoys and refer to it as needed. Learning come faster when it is coupled with pleasure.

I tend to think of my body as either a cranky child or a spirited horse. I respect its need to feel safe as well as its power. I don’t bully it. That only produces rebellion. I encourage it with regular rewards and acknowledgements.

Learn to celebrate all successes, even the small ones. See success even in your failures. Like Thomas Edison, treat mistakes as another way not to make a light bulb and one step closer to success.

7. Rinse and Repeat

There are many layers to changing internal programming. Like the mythic Hydra, a new head seems to sprout for every one that is removed. Accept that this is a life long process. Enjoy the journey. Discover pleasure and satisfaction along the way.


WANT TO USE THIS ARTICLE IN YOUR EZINE OR WEB SITE? You can, as long as you include this complete blurb with it: Grief, Loss and Death Expert Dr. Michelle Peticolas, empowers professional women struggling with grief and loss to find peace-of-mind, closure and a life worth living. If you’re ready to shift into a whole new way of being with death and loss, a new way of living your life, get Michelle’s complimentary illustrated guide, Essentials for Grieving Well at www.secretsoflifeanddeath.com

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