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COMING CLEAN: Fright Night

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I live in the woods, and I’m afraid of bats. Here’s what I’m learning about understanding my fear.

It was a dark and quiet evening in early autumn. My toddler just fell asleep, and I was picking up toys in the living room. My husband was on a fishing trip, and the house was quiet.

Near the front window I heard and saw it: A scratch, a flutter, a scampering of feet. Then a high-frequency squeak, and the closed curtains rose and fell as a gust of air shifted the fabric.

The windows were closed.

Do I dare peek? What will I find? My heart raced at the thought: Is there a bat in my house?

We live in the woods, so there are many creatures about. I frequently see deer and wild turkey crossing the road, owls hoot from the trees, and mice zip around the yard as foxes seek them out.

Out there, in nature, I’m happy to see them. Among the trees and shrubs, I enjoy spotting them. But indoors, in our home, I felt violated. Yes, I’ve stumbled upon a random mouse in our previous century-old home (or rather, my cats did), but this was the first instance where an animal intruder encroached on our new nest.

If I thought this was a mouse, I’d be startled, yes, but it would be momentary only from the surprise. A bat? Well, that raised the bar of fear immediately, and all I imagined was the scene from the movie The Great Outdoors. It could be a two-pounder, for all I knew.

I grabbed a broomstick for protection in case anything flew my way, and picked up the phone to call my network for advice as I wiped away sweat from my brow.

I don’t consider myself a naturally fearless person. When I approach seemingly scary or daring situations, I can usually put on a brave face and have a sense of faith. I’ve also deflated my ego over the years, so I’m not as concerned with being embarrassed. I don’t seek adrenaline rushes for thrills, and while I would be open to, say, skydiving, I’ve grown more cautious as I’ve gotten older and become a mother.

This fear of bats that I have — a newish fear I’ve acquired — has me flummoxed. Did I have a bad experience in my youth? Not that I recall. Did my uncle tell me a horror story about bats when I was a wee one? Doesn’t ring a bell. And do I realize that the bat is smaller than me, and intends no harm? Of course.

Why do we fear what we fear? Why small animals? Two friends of mine shiver at the sight of snakes. Another friend recently shared her fear of mice — and she grew up on a Midwestern farm, for Pete’s sake. It’s not as if we’re on safari and come across a lion or 400-pound gorilla, in which case we’d be in awe, yes, but also need to fear for our lives if we were deemed threats to these beasts. The rules are different in the wild than they are in my living room, after all — or maybe the consideration is the same, that you’ve encroached on what I see as my space and it’s every wild animal for themselves?

If you find yourself paralyzed by fear this Halloween season, here are some tips I’ve rounded up from our articles to help:

1) Challenge your thoughts.

In “5 Ways to Live More Fearlessly” by Brian Johnson, the author notes that master life coach Steve Chandler often asks his clients to reevalute their problems with a new perspective. “Thoughts create fear. Thoughts create feelings. Yet most people don’t experience it that way,” Chandler notes. “Most people experience feelings being created by external events, and other people. And the future hiding under the bed. So whenever I find a fear underneath something, I want to write the thought down behind that fear. I want to challenge the thought, and challenge it, and challenge it, as if I were an attorney in a very important case — challenging a witness. Because that thought is going to turn out to not be true. Try it and you’ll find this out.”

2) Accept and appreciate your vulnerability.

The moment I see a bat, I can realize that I feel vulnerable around this tiny, harmless creature. In his book The End of Fear, which senior editor Courtney Helgoe explores in our article, author and psychotherapist Richard Schaub, PhD, writes, “Surrender [is] an active decision, an act of strength and courage, with serenity as its reward.” As soon as I acknowledge my fear of bats and the reality that they won’t harm me, I can begin to muster my compassion for this animal and the good it does for the world. Keep on snacking on those pesky mosquitoes and crop-destroying insects, friends! Their droppings also help keep our soil healthy. (More fun facts about bats in the National Wildlife Federation’s blog post, “10 Reasons You Should Love Bats.”)

3) Stay calm and don’t get mad.

There are three ways that humans respond to fear, notes Schaub: fight, flight, or freeze. He explains why “fight” is so dangerous: “In my mind, the most destructive reaction is fight. There’s a lot of anger that arises over experiences that stimulate our vulnerability. When people are not consciously aware [that what they are feeling is vulnerability], they tend to react with anger and a ‘fight’ response. The fight reaction directly affects other people, and it comes out in many forms. There’s violence, obviously. But there’s also sarcasm, criticism, revenge, blaming. Flight and freeze are definitely harmful to the person doing them, and can be harmful to people around them, too. But the fight reaction is the most destructive communally.” Allowing our vulnerability and fear to shift to overreactions and anger, or irrational defense systems, can cause greater damage than we expect.

4) Let go of “What comes next?” thinking.

The bat may fly in my direction — or, most likely, it won’t move, and instead be frozen in its own fear of me. We can question what will happen next all the time, but allowing this thinking to keep us from progress is a missed opportunity for growth. There’s a fear of failure, of the unknown, and of success, notes psychologist Joseph Burgo, PhD, in “Fear of Moving Forward” by Jon Spayde, but he offers strategies to find our footing and continue onward.

Once I pulled back the curtains, I saw that nothing was there at all. My cat, Sids, was licking his paw in the corner, and it dawned on me that he had jumped in the windowsill and ran his paws along the glass to make the squeak I heard. As he leapt for the ground, he fluffed the curtains, the little jerk. Sids was responsible for making my heart skip a beat! I could’ve easily gone to bed in fear of what may be, broomstick clutched in my fists, but facing my fear quickly turned my scary movie into a slapstick comedy.

TELL ME: Do you have a fear that you can’t seem to overcome? Or a fear you finally moved past?

 

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