Last updated on 7th August 2014
It’s about six in the morning. A cuckoo is calling repeatedly and I’ve just woken. I’m warm in my sleeping bag, but it’s quite cold in the tent. How am I feeling? Frightened! Externally I’m fine, but when I look inside there’s a constriction. When I explore it more awarely I get an image of a cold, heavy snake lying down the length of my body and most obviously there’s a constriction around my heart. What is this? So fascinating how words can fit with these inner emotional states. So fascinating how we learned as children (for better or worse) to name what we’re feeling … lessons from our parents, observing the behaviour of others, reading & learning from books & films. So what’s the word, the description that fits with this sense of constriction around my heart? And I mean ‘constriction’. This what-do-I-feel question parallels the experience of running my tongue around the inside of my mouth to feel, to explore what’s going on if I’ve accidently bitten myself, or if I have something stuck between my teeth. This emotional exploring inside is a similar running-my-tongue-around experience. So I look for words that fit with the inner sensations. No, it’s not so much that my heart feels like it’s tightening or contracting itself. It’s more like there’s some kind of constricting box around it. And what word fits this? I wouldn't quite describe this as 'anxiety'. The word 'fear' fits though. Not some giant shouting extrovert fear. More a quiet, tightening introvert fear.
Why the fear, lying here in this deliciously warm sleeping bag with the dawn chorus all around me, the persistent cuckoo, and even a brief gurgle of geese? Well, I plan to walk the Five Sisters of Kintail today. It’s wonderful five mile ridge in the North Western Scottish Highlands. I’m 64 years old and it’s going to be hard work. A good eight hours high up, at times quite exposed to sheer drops (and my head for heights is fairly average), some scrambling up rough climbs, not easy. Not hugely hard, but not easy either. And why the fear? Well I guess it centres around how much, inside, do I feel something could go wrong, maybe badly wrong. And rationally I know that I will probably get a bit bruised & scraped & tired, but nothing worse than that. But I also remember very clearly that almost exactly two years ago I got trapped in a gully on the Black Cuillin in Skye and only got out alive with help from Mountain Rescue and a helicopter. Also, skimming the internet to learn more about the Five Sisters walk, I read a somewhat disturbing description. Hey I warn my anxious clients to be cautious about scare stories they read on the web! But, in addition, yesterday I had a little bit of a freak accident myself. Maybe I’m a bit spooked by this too. It’s the yes strange-things-happen-and-they-can-happen-to-me knowledge. So I drove the four hours or so up from Edinburgh to Kintail yesterday morning. I’d decided to do a relatively simple walk in the afternoon to loosen up. Ciste Dhubh. Straightforward, although I’d made it a bit more interesting by starting off along the Am Bathach ridge. Five hours all told. Although it was a Friday at the start of a May Bank Holiday weekend, I didn’t see another soul on the hill over the whole walk. And coming down … accidents are more common when we’re tired, maybe a bit relaxed, coming down the hill … I slipped and had an odd bash in the face. The points of my walking poles were well fixed into the soft ground. As I fell I pushed the handles forward. They slipped out of my hands and one whipped back into my face as I tumbled. Bang. Sore. A little stunned. So pleased to see my glasses were unbroken as they fell. Reaching up I could feel damage, and there was blood on my hands when I brought them back down from my face. Later, looking in the car mirror when the walk was done, to my surprise I saw that the curved four centimetre cut was made by the lower rim of my glasses driving through the skin of my cheek. What are the chances of managing that deliberately? Taking the handle of a walking pole and whacking it against the lower edge of my glasses so hard that it goes right through the skin … without damaging the glasses, or my eye. I’ve never heard of that before. Strange things happen. Just a little higher and the handle would have whipped into the lens of my glasses right over my eye. And I notice a bit of a chill, a discomfort in my body as I write about this. A bit spooked that odd accidents happen and can happen to me.
And the reason I’m writing about all this, about what I’m feeling this morning, is that I’m a doctor and a psychotherapist. In my work I’m constantly talking with clients about how they can better manage anxiety and fear. I know so much about this theoretically. What can I learn and share now I’m experiencing it for real? Well I lay in the sleeping bag for a good hour or so and went over it (it gave me an excuse for staying warm as well!). This kind of exploration can be so rich, so interesting. It feels a bit like explaining how I play tennis. I can describe the forehand, the volley, the serve, foot positioning, and so on. But during an actual game it all flows together. It needs to flow together if I’m going to play even half decently. But when learning, it’s important to deconstruct, to look at the individual skill components that build a competent tennis player. There are similarities with learning to cope better with anxiety and fear. So I thought it might be helpful to deconstruct what I’ve found useful coping with fear this morning under ten overlapping headings. Loosely they cover understanding, action, maintenance, & learning. So first understanding ... see the second post in this sequence ...