Nervous Fears

T0 argue with nervous anxiety, either in ourselves or in others, is never helpful. Indeed it is never helpful to argue with “nerves” at all. Arguing with nervous excitement of any kind is like rubbing a sore. It only irritates it. It does not take long to argue excited or tired nerves into inflammation, but it is a long and difficult process to allay the inflammation when it has once been aroused. It is a sad fact that many people have been argued into long nervous illnesses by would-be kind friends whose only intention was to argue them out of illness. Even the kindest and most disinterested friends are apt to lose patience when they argue, and that, to the tired brain which they are trying to relieve, is a greater irritant than they realize. The radical cure for nervous fears is to drop resistance to painful circumstances or conditions. Resistance is unwillingness to endure, and to drop the resistance is to be strongly willing. This vigorous “willingness” is so absolutely certain in its happy effect, and is so impossible that it should fail, that the resistant impulses seem to oppose themselves to it with extreme energy. It is as if the resistances were conscious imps, and as if their certainty of defeat — in the case of their victim’s entire “willingness “– roused them to do their worst, and to hold on to their only possible means of power with all the more determination. Indeed, when a man is working through a hard state, in gaining his freedom from nervous fears, these imps seem to hold councils of war, and to devise new plans of attack in order to take him by surprise and overwhelm him in an emergency. But every sharp attack, if met with quiet “willingness,” brings a defeat for the assailants, until finally the resistant imps are conquered and disappear. Occasionally a stray imp will return, and try to arouse resistance on what he feels is old familiar ground, but he is quickly driven off, and the experience only makes a man more quietly vigilant and more persistently “willing.”

Perhaps one of the most prevalent and one of the hardest fears to meet, is that of insanity, — especially when it is known to be a probable or possible inheritance. When such fear is oppressing a man, — to tell him that he not only can get free from the fear, but free from any possibility of insanity, through a perfect willingness to be insane, must seem to him at first a monstrous mockery; and, if you cannot persuade him of the truth, but find that you are only frightening him more, there is nothing to do then but to be willing that he should not be persuaded, and to wait for a better opportunity. You can show him that no such inheritance can become an actuality, unless we permit it, and that the very knowledge of an hereditary tendency, when wholesomely used, makes it possible for us to take every precaution and to use every true safeguard against it. The presence of danger is a source of strength to the brave; and the source of abiding courage is not in the nerves, but in the spirit and the will behind them. It is the clear statement of this fact that will persuade him The fact may have to be stated many times, but it should never be argued. And the more quietly and gently and earnestly it is stated, the sooner it will convince, for it is the truth that makes us free.

Fear keeps the brain in a state of excitement. Even when it is not consciously felt, it is felt sub-consciously, and we ought to be glad to have it aroused, in order that we may see it and free ourselves, not only from the particular fear for the time being, but from the subconscious impression of fear in general.

Is seems curious to speak of grappling with the fear of insanity, and conquering it by being perfectly willing to be insane, but it is no more curious than the relation of the centrifugal and the centripetal forces to each other. We need our utmost power of concentration to enable us to yield truly, and to be fully willing to submit to whatever the law of our being may require. Fear contracts the brain and the nerves, and interrupts the circulation, and want of free circulation is a breeder of disease. Dropping resistance relaxes the tension of the brain and nerves, and opens the channels for free circulation, and free circulation helps to carry off the tendency to disease. If a man is wholesomely willing to be insane, should such an affliction overtake him, he has dropped all resistance to the idea of insanity, and thus also to all the mental and physical contractions that would foster insanity. He has dropped a strain which was draining his brain of its proper strength, and the result is new vigor to mind and body. To drop an inherited strain produces a great and wonderful change, and all we need to bring it about is to thoroughly understand how possible and how beneficial it is. If we once realize the benefit of dropping the strain, our will is there to accomplish the rest, as surely as it is there to take our hand out of the fire when it burns.

Then there is the fear of contagion. Some people are haunted with the fear of catching disease, and the contraction which such resistance brings induces a physical state most favorable to contagion. There was once a little child whose parents were so full of anxious fears that they attempted to protect him from disease in ways that were extreme and ridiculous. All his toys were boiled, everything he ate or drank was sterilized, and many other precautions were taken, — but along with all the precautions, the parents were in constant fear; and it is not unreasonable to feel that the reflection upon the child of the chronic resistance to possible danger with which he was surrounded, had something to do with the fact that the dreaded disease was finally caught, and that, moreover, the child did not recover. If reasonably healthy conditions had been insisted upon, and the parents had felt a wholesome trust in the general order of things, it would have been likely to make the child more vigorous, and would have tended to increase his capacity for throwing off contagion.

Children are very sensitive, and it is not unusual to see a child crying because its mother is out of humor, even though she may not have spoken a cross word. It is not unusual to see a child contract its little brain and body in response to the fears and contractions of its parents, and such contraction keeps the child in a state in which it may be more difficult to throw off disease.

If you hold your fist as tight as you can hold it for fifteen minutes, the fatigue you will feel when it relaxes is a clear proof of the energy you have been wasting. The waste of nervous energy would be much increased if the fist were held tightly for hours; and if the waste is so great in the useless tightening of a fist, it is still greater in the extended and continuous contraction of brain and nerves in useless fears; and the energy saved through dropping the fears and their accompanying tension can bring in the same proportion a vigor unknown before, and at the same time afford protection against the very things we feared.

The fear of taking cold is so strong in many people that a draught of fresh air becomes a bugaboo to their contracted, sensitive nerves. Draughts are imagined as existing everywhere, and the contraction which immediately follows the sensation of a draught is the best means of preparing to catch a cold.

Fear of accident keeps one in a constant state of unnecessary terror. To be willing that an accident should happen does not make it more likely to happen, but it prevents our wasting energy by resistance, and keeps us quiet and free, so that if an emergency of any kind arises, we are prepared to act promptly and calmly for the best. If the amount of human energy wasted in the strain of nervous fear could be measured in pounds of pressure, the figures would be astonishing. Many people who have the habit of nervous fear in one form or another do not throw it off merely because they do not know how. There are big and little nervous fears, and each and all can be met and conquered, — thus bringing a freedom of life which cannot even be imagined by those carrying the burden of fear, more or less, throughout their lives.

The fear of what people will think of us is a very common cause of slavery, and the nervous anxiety as to whether we do or do not please is a strain which wastes the energy of the greater part of mankind. It seems curious to measure the force wasted in sensitiveness to public opinion as you would measure the waste of power in an engine, and yet it is a wholesome and impersonal way to think of it, — until we find a better way. It relieves us of the morbid element in the sensitiveness to say, “I cannot mind what so-and-so thinks of me, for I have not the nervous energy to spare.” It relieves us still more of the tendency to morbid feeling, if we are wholesomely interested in what others think of us, in order to profit by it, and do better. There is nothing morbid or nervous about our sensitiveness to opinion, when it is derived from a love of criticism for the sake of its usefulness. Such a rightful and wise regard for the opinion of others results in a saving of energy, for on the one hand, it saves us from the mistakes of false and shallow independence, and, on the other, from the wasteful strain of servile fear.

The little nervous fears are countless. The fear of not being exact. The fear of not having turned off the gas entirely. The fear of not having done a little daily duty which we find again and again we have done. These fears are often increased, and sometimes are aroused, by our being tired, and it is well to realize that, and to attend at once carefully to whatever our particular duty may be, and then, when the fear of not having done it attacks us, we should think of it as if it were a physical pain, and turn our attention quietly to something else. In this way such little nagging fears are relieved; whereas, if we allowed ourselves to be driven by them, we might bring on nervous states that would take weeks or months to overcome. These nervous fears attack us again and again in subtle ways, if we allow ourselves to be influenced by them. They are all forms of unwillingness or resistance, and may all be removed by dropping the resistance and yielding, — not to the fear, but to a willingness that the fear should be there.

One of the small fears that often makes life seem unbearable is the fear of a dentist. A woman who had suffered from this fear for a lifetime, and who had been learning to drop resistances in other ways, was once brought face to face with the necessity for going to the dentist, and the old fear was at once aroused, — something like the feeling one might have in preparing for the guillotine, — and she suffered from it a day or two before she remembered her new principles. Then, when the new ideas came back to her mind, she at once applied them and said, “Yes, I am afraid, I am awfully afraid. I am perfectly willing to be afraid,” and the ease with which the fear disappeared was a surprise, — even to herself.

Another woman who was suffering intensely from fear as to the after-effects of an operation, had begun to tremble with great nervous intensity. The trembling itself frightened her, and when a friend told her quietly to be willing to tremble, her quick, intelligence responded at once. “Yes,” she said, “I will, I will make myself tremble,” and, by not only being willing to tremble, but by making herself tremble, she got quiet mental relief in a very short time, and the trembling disappeared.

The fear of death is, with its derivatives, of course, the greatest of all; and to remove our resistance to the idea of death, by being perfectly willingly to die is to remove the foundation of all the physical cowardice in life, and to open the way for the growth of a courage which is strength and freedom itself. He who yields gladly to the ordinary facts of life, will also yield gladly to the supreme fact of physical death, for a brave and happy willingness is the characteristic habit of his heart:

Under the wide and starry sky,
Dig the grave and let me lie.
Glad did I live and gladly die,
And I laid me down with a will.

There is a legend of the Arabs in which a man puts his head out of his tent and says, “I will loose my camel and commit him to God,” and a neighbor who hears him says, in his turn, “I will tie my camel and commit him to God.” The true helpfulness from non-resistance does not come from neglecting to take proper precautions against the objects of fear, but from yielding with entire willingness to the necessary facts of life, and a sane confidence that, whatever comes, we shall be provided with the means of meeting it. This confidence is, in itself, one of the greatest sources of intelligent endurance.

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