We are camping at Algonquin Provincial Park this week, as part of our 25 day, 6 provincial park summer holiday. Today, my 6 and 7 year old convinced us that they could do an almost 8km hike marked as difficult, due to the incline. I was hesitant, fearing that we would get stuck halfway up with children who refused to take one more step. But I also knew that they had successfully completed a 6km hike last year. So off we went…
My daughter was more tired than my son towards the end of the hike, so my husband and son walked ahead of us, as my daughter and I walked a bit more slowly, holding hands and making up silly songs, in hopes to keep her mind off of her fatigue.
As my daughter and I approached the very last leg, my husband called me to tell me that there was a bear and two cubs perched in a tree on the very edge of the path, right before the exit. He and my son had only noticed it once they were past the bear. My senses were on alert as we kept walking, scanning left and right, the protective momma in me coming out immediately.
The bear was instantly noticeable. My daughter started to panic as soon as she saw it. Her fear and anxiety were palpable, and she was crying and pulling at my hand, trying to run away, but too afraid to let go of my hand. In the few moments that I paused, frozen with indecision, two other groups of people caught up with us, one of whom had 2 dogs. The real momma bear began getting agitated, as our group became larger. It began panting and growling at us, chomping his jaws a few times. One of the dogs started to growl back. My fear and anxiety were also palpable.
Someone quickly suggested that we were in a better position to keep moving now, rather than if the bear were to come down, and in a flash, Chloé was in my arms, I had taken a deep breath and we just kept walking, hoping to God that bear would stay up in the tree. This all sounds like such an overly dramatic story as I type it here, but it truly felt terrifying to all of us. As soon as we got far enough away, I placed Chloé on the ground, and she ran full speed to the parking lot, still racing with fear-induced adrenaline.
Fear serves as a guide, to tell us when we are in danger and when we need to be more alert, such as when we were approaching the bear with its cubs. But sometimes, remnants of fear from past experiences stay with us long past fearful events. Although the fight-and-flight reactions that our ancestors needed on a daily basis are still us useful to use today, they are sometimes triggered in situations where there truly is nothing to be afraid of. This can leave us in a state of constantly making decisions with our primitive brain, out of fear, instead of with our rational brain.
Tonight, as our daughter climbed into bed, she became very fearful of the bear we had seen. Perhaps even more fearful than she was when we were walking past it. She was afraid that a bear would tear through the wall of our trailer and eat her while she slept.
I sat down with her in her bed, and explained to her how sometimes our body feels fear for a real reason, like when the bear was right in front of us. I also explained that sometimes, our body gets confused and we feel fear in situations where there is no real reason to be fearful, such as her later feeling afraid in bed. Chloé is only 6. This explanation was not quite enough to help her calm the terror that she felt, in her dark bed, in an environment that is less familiar to her than her own bedroom. In the end, we let her fall asleep in our bed and will move her to her bed in a bit.
However, I felt that it was important to start helping her recognize that we do not always have to listen to fear just because we feel it. I spent a large part of my life letting fear rule my life and my decisions, without even knowing it. After my dad died in 2016, I was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Although this was likely triggered by my mother and uncle’s car accident in 2014, I can now recognize how I had been living in a state of letting fear rule my life for many years. My nervous system had been in an almost constant state of fight-or-flight reactions, constantly scanning for the next possible danger that could pose a threat to me, no matter how minimal.
Fear is an important emotion and is not one to always be ignored. Connecting with our sense of fear can guide us to not trust certain individuals, to not attempt activities where there may truly be a significant chance of experiencing harm, etc. However, we need to hone our ability to trust our instinct and to know when we truly need to heed our fear, and when we need to let it go. And this is a message that I want to pass on to my children. Just because you feel fear, it does not always mean that a true danger exists. The more we become connected with ourselves, the more easily we start to be able to see when we need to listen to our fear and when we need to let it go…
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