Thoughts on Snakes and Fear

Piggybacking off the last two days posts about fighting monsters (Fighting Monsters Part 1 and Fighting Monsters Part 2), I have another example of how we often view our fear inaccurately.

If you and I touch a hot stove, we are both going to feel heat, and if the stove is hot enough, get burned.

This is how the physical world world works.

We tend to believe that world of thoughts and feelings works the same way. We receive sensory input, and we react to it. But thoughts and feelings do not work that way. There are far more variables at play, a few which include attention, mood/mindset, and beliefs.

Here is an example of how it really works. My wife would say that snakes scare her. This is a perfectly reasonable, logical statement to make. She doesn’t like them, and feels a bit of fear around them. However, it is technically inaccurate.

This summer she was gardening. She was pulling weeds, dead grasses, and leaves out of one of the beds in the yard and putting it in one of those large brown paper yard waste bags.

About halfway into the job, she turned from the bed toward the bag, and to her horror, a small snake was slithering on the rim of the bag. She was startled, and a little scared. After all, she believes snakes scare her.

Now, this was a pretty tiny snake (in the world of snakes and yard waste bags at least). It would not have been big enough to get into the bag from the outside. So the implication was that it arrived on the rim from crawling up the yard waste as it accumulated in the bag, which means my wife actually had it in her hands at one point and put it in the bag herself.

Here is the key to understanding fear: If snakes could actually scare her, as stoves can actually burn us, why was she not scared when the snake was closest to her, when it was actually in her hands? It wasn’t because she had on any magical gardening gloves. It’s because she isn’t literally scared of snakes. She’s scared of her thoughts about snakes.

This is useful, accurate information to have. Because we aren’t scared directly by outside stimuli but rather our scared through our thoughts about them, we have two pathways to change. One is to understand that thought content always evolves, which is why we aren’t scared forever after being fearful or startled. The fear always subsides.

The second is that we are free to change our thoughts if we can, which may lead to less fear. However, it’s been my observation that when fear is understood accurately and is understand as a normal state, it isn’t further feared, which typically creates less anxiety and fear about fear, which reduces how much fear appears in the first place.

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