Is fear holding you back from living the life you want? Here are 4 essential steps for working with, and overcoming your fears.
Fear is a common emotion, but it gets a very bad rap. Aside from those who enjoy thrill seeking, most of us repress or deny our fears, or may avoid situations that provoke them. We do this because fear feels lousy, and we’ve been led to believe that our anxieties are a sign of weakness or shortcoming. But this belief only feeds our fears and can make us ill.
What are we afraid of?
Uncertainty and threat of loss are the roots of fear. When someone close to me was diagnosed with potentially malignant cancer recently, it was not knowing what to anticipate in the future that sent me spiraling into bouts of fear-generated anxiety. How far had it spread? What treatments would be necessary? Would he even survive? Had I known the outcome I would have been able to plan accordingly, but uncertainty about what lay ahead, or how to prepare left me feeling helpless, vulnerable and afraid.
Uncertainty often breeds rumination, which triggers fear. When it comes right down to it, we have no control over what befalls us. Natural disasters, accidents, injuries and illnesses happen. We are not superheroes, and there is no magic formula to bring you or your loved ones, back to life. In spite of that, we worry, often spending an inordinate amount of time running horror film quality scenarios through our minds.
We’ve died more lives in our imaginations than a hoard of cats, yet we’re still alive (fortunately). While that may sound dire, it’s true. When we breed, deny or avoid fear, we create an entirely new form of suffering. As Canadian physician and well-known author Gabor Mate has noted in his work with thousands of individuals, repressed or uncontrolled fear can, and often does, lead to physical and psychological illness.
Why do we fear in the first place?
First and foremost, fear is a biological mechanism that keeps us alive. Almost every living creature possesses an innate drive to avoid unnecessary danger and survive threat. Accidentally unearth an ant hill and thousands of ants will frantically start seeking an escape. That fear response increases the odds of their survival.
Fear circuitry is hard wired from birth, and becomes more sophisticated and nuanced with experience. As we mature, our minds build libraries of memories that we use to anticipate danger, devise clever means to survive, or imagine fearful scenarios.
Fear can also be lessened by experience. When I first brought my dog home he was afraid of trash cans that lined the streets on garbage day. That was an adaptive reaction to an unknown threat until he learned that the hulking black bins wouldn’t hurt him. Now he’s learned to pay attention to cars rather than cans.
Unlike ants and dogs, humans have a unique relationship to fear because we can, and often do, recall past fearful events, and create terrifying future scenarios in our minds. This capacity to anticipate the future is what allows us to plan for, and execute, complex tasks. It also can be a powerful anxiety generator if we find ourselves ruminating about undesirable events.
"Accept that fear can be difficult and uncomfortable, but it is a necessary emotion that provides important information..."
When my loved one received a cancer diagnosis, my thoughts of surgeries, the devastating effects of chemo and radiation therapies, and possibly even death initially left me overcome with grief and anguish. It wasn’t the diagnosis that caused my suffering. It was my response to it. When I gave myself permission to feel afraid, and stopped allowing my scenario-generating, fearful mind to run amok, I was better able to remain in the present moment and keep things in perspective.
Four steps for working with fear
In my work as a psychologist, research scientist, mindfulness instructor, and student of life I’ve learned four important steps for working with fear.
1. Free yourself from the belief that fear is bad, wrong, or needs to be avoided. Part of why fear has such a powerful grip on your mind, body, attitudes and actions is that you deny, resist and avoid it. What you resist usually persists.
2. Experience your fear, and allow it to be present rather than pushing it aside. This isn’t permission to get stuck in anxiety-provoking ruminations or feed the thoughts and behaviors that exacerbate distress. It’s about allowing the emotion to be, knowing that it will pass (unless you continue to persist being in conditions that are dangerous or threatening, or you become stuck in a pattern of rumination that generates more fear). Part of freeing yourself from the grips of fear is to become familiar with it enough to realize that the emotion itself will not cause you harm.
3. Accept that fear can be difficult and uncomfortable, but it is a necessary emotion that provides important information that you are either not safe, or that your thoughts and ruminations need to be examined. Fear is not the enemy. It is your fear of fear that makes it problematic.
4. Remember that working with your fears is a practice. It requires taking time to be mindful of your experience, to hold it with affectionate curiosity, and to recognize that fear is an important part of your human condition, not an adversary to be conquered. I’ve learned that fear is usually an important messenger — an indication that my thoughts and actions are not in alignment with my values and goals. When I take the time to examine the roots of my fears, I can learn a great deal from them.
Most importantly, wherever you are on your journey with fear, you are not alone. There isn’t a single (psychologically sound) person on the planet who does not experience fear, or has not had to confront its effects on his or her life. The more that you can hang in there and remain present with your feelings, the less likely they are to control you, and the better skilled you will become in flowing with them. Like all things, it is a practice.
Note: If excessive, persistent fear and anxiety are consistently interfering with your health or happiness, please seek the help of a qualified mental health professional.