You see it approaching out of the corner of your eye.
All noise slips away, except the bu-bum-bump, bu-bum-bump, be-bum-bump of your heart as it lurches into your throat.
The hair stands on the back of your neck as you feel the cold sweat bead on your forehead.
Your leg muscles twitch, your breathing is arrested momentarily while your brain makes millisecond calculations and recalculations.
Your reptilian or survival brain is deducing whether you — will you need to fight, to flee or to freeze …
… because a black swallowtail, a monarch, a painted lady, flew into your peripheral vision.
Sounds crazy, doesn’t it? Yet, would you believe, I and thousands of others have this fear?
It’s called lepidopterophobia¹.
Yet for me, it wasn’t just butterflies. It’s ANYTHING flying at me in my peripheral vision, even if I’m well aware it’s harmless like a butterfly …
My body goes on high alert.
I basically had PTSD-like symptoms – shortness of breath, forgetting where I am and losing focus on what I’m doing, severe emotional distress and physical upset. I say had like it doesn’t happen at all anymore. It still happens, but I’m changing my automatic response.
Now, I notice I’m not breathing and force the deepest breath into my lungs possible in the moment. Sometimes that’s a really shallow breath, but it does start me breathing again.
Once I’m breathing again, I move – my arm, my head, take a small step, just enough to break the freeze portion of my automatic response mechanism.
No Fear Is Irrational If It’s Being Experienced
The thing that finally got to me the most about these traumatic butterfly experiences was the critical thoughts I flayed my emotional self with like:
- don’t be stupid, it’s nothing, just a butterfly, (but I could fill in the blank a lot of different ways),
- everyone is going to see how weak and stupid you are,
- you’re an adult, you shouldn’t be this frightened of … of butterflies,
- perfect now you’re paranoid that someone’s going to call you out about it.
- that’s right, stay small, hide, and play it safe, you can’t have anyone see you like this.
These choice thoughts and a bunch of others raced through my mind. I started noticing them show up in more places that had nothing to do with butterfly experiences. They began creating so much emotional stress that sometimes I couldn’t function.
The thoughts were insidious and mood-disturbing.
At first, I fought with the thoughts, rebutting every one of them, trying to find and show proof that they weren’t true.
But constant thought rebuttal is physically, mentally, and emotionally exhausting.
I tried avoidance. I tried eating. I tried kickboxing. Mantras. Meditation. EFT. Reiki. Qigong. Group Therapy. Trauma Resolution Therapy. Sex. None of them worked for very long.
The thoughts seemed to find a way to invade the distraction, which made me feel even worse. I wasn’t addressing the real issue – I didn’t feel safe with myself because of my unbalanced thoughts and the emotions tied to those thoughts.
I don’t remember where I first heard about emotional grounding², which is also called physical grounding, not to be confused with the electrical grounding of wires.
Emotional or physical grounding is the process of focusing in on the present moment. Simply put, it’s distracting the mind from the thoughts and emotions that have currently hijacked it, by focusing outward, noticing and naming what is around you right this moment.
It includes counting and naming things I see and describing their color or composition, things I can touch, describing the texture and location, things I can hear, things I can smell, and things I can taste, describing the texture, flavors, temperature, and the sound they are making.
It’s a good way to remind the body and the mind that THEN is not NOW. It’s also a fast and simple way to shut the critical thoughts down.
Even after practicing emotional grounding for a few months, the thoughts still showed up.
Being Emotionally Grounded Makes Inner Exploration Safer
I got curious. Maybe something else was going on.
Turns out there is a large part of me who believes if everything is JUST RIGHT, I’ll be safe.
I also learned that peripheral vision is connected to the lizard brain.
The lizard brain is a term used for the limbic system which defaults to feeding, safety hence the freeze, fight, flight response, and sex.
It’s able to turn off other parts of the brain and hone in on those default settings – which are the ones that help to keep us alive.
My brain had made a deeply grooved connection that basically said – erratic behavior happening = danger approaching, institute all safety measures stat.
My critical voices tossed those thought monsters out to get me to avoid anything my limbic system might perceive as erratic, all in an effort to keep me safe.
Achieving safety is HUGE for those whose normal experience is rooted in a lack of safety. And when you’re young, a single experience can impact your sense of safety for a lifetime. My fear of things flying in my peripheral vision was my subconscious looking for safety. I had no idea.
That’s why no fear is ever irrational if you’re experiencing it. It’s there because it’s yours, with information necessary for living your best life, although it definitely feels like it wants the opposite when you’re in the experience.
Practice emotional grounding when you don’t need it, so you can use it when you need it.
Practice emotional grounding when you’re having a non-eventful day, then when you’re in a triggered state with strong emotions, you’re more likely to remember to DO the emotional grounding technique.
Remember emotional grounding is an act of distraction by focusing your thoughts outward, instead of internally.
The Information Irrational Fears Hold Is Useful
Beating yourself up with your own thoughts and fears uses lots of your mental, physical and emotional energy. You can get that energy back by practicing emotional grounding and giving yourself some compassion.
Once you’re feeling safe again, get curious about the thoughts that pop up when you’re scared or feeling unsafe, unwanted, or any other negative thought you regularly try avoiding. Get curious about the things, situations, and circumstances where your fears are over taking you.
Because when I said earlier that no fear is irrational, I completely believe it.
While your fear may seem irrational to me or mine might seem irrational to you, it’s only because we can’t have each others’ direct experiences. Sure they can be similar, but our survival is a highly individual process of body chemistry, history, culture, beliefs – both false and true, and so many other unknown and unnamed factors.
The one thing we have in common is the lizard brain and it’s insistence on our survival.
I believe my personal fear of things flying into my peripheral vision equaling erractic unsafe actions from which I need protection was put in place when I was quite young. It was put in play to protect me from something that caused me pain in my childhood.
Yet it no longer works as an adult who is openly and consciusly looking for joy in unexpected places, honing my sense of freedom and wonder, and allowing my desire for transformation.
It could also be that because of my negative thoughts, that joy, freedom, wonder and transformation could not approach me directly. It could only approach me in my peripheral vision, which my limbic system interpreted as dangerous. Truthfully, I’m guessing and rationalizing here.
What I do know is that after I bring myself back to safety, I:
- Acknowledge that my fears were created by me as protection and warning mechanisms,
- Remember that I’ve likely forgotten the original reason for the mechanism because I’ve used it in many ways unrelated to the original thing I wanted to protect myself from precisely because it works so well,
- Choose to honor and interact with the fear in new ways so the deeper message it holds can be revealed.
Noticing the fear in really odd places is what prompted me to be curious.
There are caveats to exploring curiousity though. Anything which can actually cause physical harm isn’t worth exploring with curiosity.
Also, getting help from a qualified therapist, counselor, psychologist or psychiatrist is healthy and nothing to be ashamed of, because it helps you see and work through the triggers for your fears.
Allow your limbic system to do its’ main job in protecting you from the real dangers in the world, while also recognizing that not everything requires us to act on the fear response from our lizard brain.
We have choices when it comes to what we do, what we believe, and how we respond when we’re facing those irrational fears. Sometimes it takes making ourselves safe first before we can get curious and manage fears and, especially, to find the root cause of a fear.
Also, not everything is going to work for you or the work the same way every time for you. Take the pieces of everything you try which DO work and you’ll consistently build and remember to use the exact thing you need.
Oh and my body still pumps out a bunch of adrenaline when I see something flying in my peripheral vision. That critical beating I used to give myself for my lizard brain doing the job its’ designed to do – that’s
completely mostly gone.
What fear do you have that you or someone you love and trust has labeled irrational? Will you create an emotional safety zone for yourself and work towards finding the message that fear is protecting?
Live. Love. Explore.
P.S. Did you know adult coloring pages are another great way to practice emotional/physical grounding and shut down insidious, annoying and mood-disturbing thoughts? Grab these 2 beautiful, hand drawn Butterfly coloring pages, along with 22 other adult coloring pages, and ground yourself in the present moment.