By Caroline Wibbelsman, MA, LPC. There were many reasons I decided to go camping alone. For one, I badly needed some time to decompress from my hectic schedule and unplug from so much stimulation in my life. I longed for quiet and had been craving a few days with minimal distractions. I admit that it was also an appealing challenge. I wanted to prove to myself that I could do it — and do it alone. But there was another reason too, unspoken, lying beneath the surface, quiet, subtle. And that was fear, that many-headed monster that whispers falsehoods to me and pushes its heavy weight into my space demanding that I acknowledge it. Here was an opportunity to practice what I’m always talking to my clients about: approaching our demons with friendliness and curiosity. So I packed up the cooler and sunscreen, filled up the gas tank, and headed out. Into the woods.
My initial realization upon arriving at my campsite was that fear mushrooms in stagnant spaces. By that, I mean that it grows when left unchecked and tends to spread during moments of inaction. The fantasy I’d created for myself about a remote wilderness with strange sounds and lurking shadows was nothing like the reality I was encountering. As I unpacked my gear, set up the tent, cursed the fire ants, and hurried to gather wood before dark, I noticed something. While busy accomplishing these tasks, I had no time to ruminate on what could happen and, as a result, I experienced zero fear. Movement felt empowering and seemed to dissolve any fearful thoughts or preconceptions of all the terror that could befall me. We know that movement can contribute to healing trauma by allowing an individual to restore their physiological balance and regain a sense of safety. Similarly, in this situation, movement allowed me to take action and organize in response to my current needs. By actively engaging in this process, my fear was rendered less powerful. Movement kept me in the present moment. I took a pen and jotted down, “how to be of a moment and not boxed in by the expectation of one.”
As I started to settle into the sounds and the solitude, thoughts about my own fear versus others’ fear began to take shape. I recalled my husband’s troubled look when I first proposed the camping idea, and my mother’s words of uncertainty (actually more along the lines of curt opposition). When I began to separate what their fears were for me and what my own fears actually were, I was able to allow those parts that did not fit for me to fall away. No I wasn’t scared of wild animals or of lighting a fire. Nor did I mind being alone. (I was much more afraid of the horror movie images infiltrating my mind.) I increasingly understood how I could appreciate their concerns without swallowing or embodying them. Their fears did not have a place in my experience, and knowing this brought an added clarity to my mind.
Night moved in, and with it the insect rhythms and star-spattered darkness. My attention sharpened and I became hyper aware of each small sound. Once in my tent, I tried allowing myself to just observe the sounds — the wind, the flapping of the tent, the nocturnal animals moving about — along with my sensations — shallow breath, tense muscles, eyes darting around — without attributing meaning to them. My heart thudded at the thought of something lurking right outside my tent and I tried not to judge myself for feeling so afraid. I then continued to struggle as these feelings became compounded by a layer of shame and embarrassment that I was even feeling scared at all. I managed to drift off to sleep finally, feeling the deep satisfaction that comes with being out in nature, fortified in the knowledge that I had conquered the hardest part of the whole trip.
And then, beginning softly, no more than a whisper at first, the thunderstorm arrived and quickly gathered in strength. What initially felt like a manageable dilemma supposedly solved by throwing on the rain fly, escalated when my tent began to flood, the thunder and lightning cracked in what seemed a direct line above me, and I realized with an empty feeling in my stomach that I could not find my car keys. Rain-soaked and shivering under the cover of a tree, the thoughts came upon me. What now? It’s the middle of the night and without my keys I can’t get the half mile to my car where I’ll be safe. It’s dangerous to be out in the open while it’s lightning. They’ll find my body tomorrow and wonder who could be so dumb to be out camping alone in weather like this. I guess maybe I can’t do this alone. I did take on way too much. I’ve exceeded my abilities. It was hard to not slip into self-criticism and panic at that moment. I reminded myself that although fearful thoughts come up, it is possible to choose whether to attach to the idea of fear or not. These things are difficult to separate though, particularly in moments of high adrenaline. In Tibetan Buddhism, shenpa is the concept of the hook, getting attached to something, the resulting tensing and shutting down followed by the urges we have to mask our unease. The hook at that moment was that I was not capable, I should be afraid. That was the thought. I struggled to just let it be there without jumping on it, not adding more self-criticism, not letting it mutate. It only lasted a few moments, but I felt the fear deeply. And then it passed. And then I felt my feet (soaked in sneakers by this point but still there and ready to move.)
Driving through the hill country on my way back home the next day, I thought of the work I do with my clients. I considered how our fears are unique and private, and how it can be such an isolating and lonely experience when others offer advice or tell us to get over our fears without helping us to understand that there’s wisdom in moving through the dread. How helpful it can be to hear, “that sounds really scary” held alongside, “remember, you don’t have to choose it.” How, similarly to shame, having the courage to share our fears while in connection with others casts light on the many-headed monster, robbing it of its menacing power over us and desiccating its mysterious skin. I realized that when I don’t cling to fear or let it have all of the space, it can be there too, like all of the other parts, existing without clouding my experience.
Caroline Wibbelsman, MA, LPC is a psychotherapist in private practice in Austin, Texas. She works with kids, adolescents, and adults dealing with issues of depression, anxiety, trauma, and life transitions. Her graduate studies in transpersonal and Buddhist psychology have guided her psychotherapy practice in a direction of mindfulness, compassion, somatic awareness, and attachment-based perspectives. Caroline is a native Spanish speaker and enjoys working with the Austin Latino population as well as others interested in exploring issues of culture and ethnic identity. She currently serves on the board of Austin IN Connection, a local non-profit committed to bringing ideas about attachment and interpersonal neurobiology to the professional community and the public.
Private practice: 2306 Lake Austin Blvd — www.carolinewibbelsman.com
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