I’m afraid of the dark. Not the dark in my house, and not of anything lurking under my bed. Those fears dissipated a long time ago. No, I’m afraid of being outside in the dark.
I wasn’t always. In high school, I often walked home after late practices or school events through a big horse pasture at the top of a long ridge. (I grew up in the country.) These nights were pitch black. No streetlights, no television glow, no cars with their high beams on. Just open pasture, the inky silhouette of Mount Monadnock far to the east, and occasionally a heavy-breathing workhorse asleep on the hill. Walking through this dark was dreamy, romantic, daring. The solitude was safe, but it felt delicious and wild.
That feeling of freedom changed when I moved to more inhabited places and learned more about just how rough the world can be. These many years later, fear still grips me when I have to walk the dog or visit a neighbor at night. What’s in those shadows? What about that awful home robbery story in the paper? What if the drivers who go too fast don’t see me in time to swerve? What if they don’t swerve on purpose? What about coyotes? What if I break my leg and drop my phone?
The easy answer to such fear is to avoid it. Stay inside. Don’t poke the beast. But recently, I decided to train for a 5K race to raise money for an organization that addresses and prevents domestic violence. I wanted to support this work and I wanted to get back in shape after having my first baby (and a difficult time post-partum).
The catch? The only time I could fit in training runs was—you guessed it—at night. When it was dark. Not dusk. Not twilight. Dark. Consider the beast poked.
The first few runs were hard, I can’t lie about that. My mind freaked out over the rumble of diesel pickup trucks, and the hyperactive German shepherd up the hill just about gave me a heart attack whenever it erupted in crazy barking. It was always leashed, but still—my nervous system was primed to take every bit of information as a sign of bad, bad news. This external fear then amplified internal fears: I can never run well. I’ll never be fit. I’m just going to embarrass myself. I can’t succeed. You know, the really fun ones!
Clearly, my negative thinking was upping my stress past the point of usefulness. I had to figure out how to cope with this negative stress somehow or the fear was going make my decisions for me, and those decisions wouldn’t serve me well.
(Read more about negative thinking and stress.)
As it turned out, the goal itself helped me dismantle some of my fear. Running that 5K had authentic value for me. It was important for my health, and it was important symbolically because it meant I was reclaiming parts of my life that had taken a serious backseat during the early months of motherhood. I would be contributing to a meaningful community effort, too. My mission was bigger than my fear.
With this core of strength, I was able to do three things. First, I found a few quiet minutes to challenge the truth of my apocalyptic thoughts and take away their power. I gave myself big props for my efforts, the way I would cheer on my best friend if she were training for a race, and I wrote down a couple of encouraging sentences to glance at whenever fears and doubts reared up. (I’m sure I lost this piece of paper the next day, but the sentiment remained.)
(Read: What You Focus on Will Flourish.)
Finally, I took practical steps to allay my fears. I took the dog with me, even though she’s not the best running partner. Her presence helped me feel safe. I put my phone in an inside pocket. I listened to funny podcasts as I ran—one earbud in and one out to stay alert for the pickup trucks—and I wore a reflective vest AND a headlamp AND reflective stripes on my shoes. I posted my runs on Facebook and tagged runner friends who were unreservedly thrilled to root for new runners.
My fear didn’t disappear, but all of these actions helped build my resilience so that I was more in control. Now I could hear the crickets and peepers singing and enjoy the solitude, not just jump at scary crackles and hoots in the woods.
And I ran the race. My husband and son were waiting for me at the finish line, packed in among thousands of people. I raised my arms and smiled when I saw them, and my husband welled up with pride for my small but mighty accomplishment. I did too.
I offer this story to you if you’re looking one fear or another in the eye. Ask yourself, what’s my mission? What here is bigger than the fear? When you have that core, you can do the work that builds resilience (and honestly feels pretty great to do). Examine and challenge your fear-based thoughts. Celebrate your little victories. Take practical steps to ease your fears now.
Then go out and run your race.