Fear is an inevitable part of being human. How to work with, and even welcome, fear in our lives.
We all experience fear at times. Due to the current Covid-19 pandemic, many of us are facing fear with greater frequency and intensity.
Whether fear takes the form of uneasiness, anxiety or flat out panic, it’s not a pleasant feeling. Fear is the unpopular and uninvited guest in our inner house of emotions, destroying our carefully constructed illusion of confidence and tranquility.
Despite the discomfort of fear, if we are able to understand and work with it, fear becomes our protector and guide. We can learn to live at peace with fear, and even welcome its presence into our lives.
The Function of Fear
Fear is one of our oldest and strongest emotions. Originating in the primordial, subconscious part of our brains (the amygdala), the function of fear is to alert us to the existence of a perceived threat and trigger action – flight, freeze or fight.
Fear is a survival tool intended to empower and protect us. When fear is activated, we have a greater chance of successfully defending ourselves or loved ones. Time slows, adrenalin floods our system, our senses become hyper alert and our heart rate soars, filling our bodies with energy as we prepare to act.
Fear creates an energizing energy that is intended to dissipate once the threat has been resolved. Problems arise however when we live in the ongoing presence of fear that we have been unable or unwilling to resolve.
Unresolved fear limits us. It can cause us to shrink, retreat, and live in a perpetual state of anxiety and worry. Or alternatively, it can make us insecure and aggressive, unleashing our rage at inappropriate moments.
Learning to recognize the difference between functional fear that protects us and unresolved fear that limits us is an important part of being able to live in harmony with it.
How Fear Protects & Guides Us
“Don’t be afraid of your fears. They’re not there to scare you. They’re there to let you know that something is worth it.”C. Joybell C.
Fear in its free flowing state protects us. It’s our personal guardian, maintaining vigil over our wellbeing and what is important to us.
Without fear, we would be prone to making unwise and dangerous decisions. In the absence of fear, your ancestor would have made the fatal decision to investigate that strange growling sound, instead of prudently deciding to hide behind a leafy bush.
In addition to protecting us, free flowing fear brings us truly alive, guiding and focusing our attention on the things that are important. Fear discards the trivial and unnecessary and reminds us how precious and fragile our lives are.
If you or a loved one have ever had a near miss in a car accident or a health scare, you probably found yourself suddenly deeply aware of how precious life is. And wondering how you could have wasted so much time worrying about things that were not important.
When Fear Limits Us
“[Humans] go to far greater lengths to avoid what they fear, than to obtain what they desire.”Dan Brown
Fear is an energy that is intended to call our attention and initiate action. When we are unable or unwilling to take action, our fear cannot discharge. Unless the perceived threat resolves itself, fear lingers, casting an ongoing shadow that dampens our tranquility, confidence and vitality.
One of our most common limiting fears is that of loss. We often live in fear of losing things that we think are important – including life, health, career, money, status, relationships, love and approval. The sad thing about living with unresolved fear is that in being constantly afraid of losing something, we lose the ability to enjoy what we have.
Further, unresolved fear often results in destructive and counterproductive behaviour, inflicting hurt upon ourselves and others.
For example, by being afraid of rejection and “losing” love, we “protect” ourselves by closing ourselves to love. It is like living in an empty house so that we have nothing to be robbed of.
Many people do not acknowledge or even recognize the role that fear pays in their lives. But you can see the impact of fear from the ways in which people act and make choices. Fear underlies any choice or action where we reject our real selves or attempt to avoid the reality of what is.
The inability or unwillingness to acknowledge fear prevents us from being able to work with and resolve it. Unresolved fear prevents us from being fully present in our lives, hindering us from being ourselves and opening up to others.
Fear is highly contagious and tends to override rational thought. The body switches to survival mode, the primitive parts of the brain become alert and the focus narrows to escaping or fighting. For this, it is very hard to reason with a person who is in an active state of fear. It is also difficult to make good decisions when you are in an active state of fear. Unresolved fear can make us act in irrational and harmful ways.
Working With Fear
Fear is a part of being human and whether we like it or not, is our lifelong companion. Although it is tempting to ignore, repress or control fear, by instead choosing to work with it, we can harness fear’s potential and learn to live together in harmony.
By keeping in mind that the overall purpose of fear is to protect us, fear can be approached as an ally, instead of an uninvited guest to be gotten rid of.
Here are five key elements in working with fear.
1) Recognizing Fear
“The fears we do not face become our limits.”Robin Sharma
In order to work with fear, it first needs to be recognized. This is easiest if you are noticing obvious signs of fear – feelings of anxiety, nervousness etc.
However, recognizing fear can be difficult because it frequently operates at a subconscious level. That is, fear can influence our behaviour without us being aware of it.
Identifying where we are acting out of fear requires observing our own behavior and patterns. In particular, taking a closer look at patterns around avoiding certain behaviors or situations, as well as situations where we tend to overreact or underreact to someone or something.
Examples of patterns to examine include:
- Relationships – do you avoid intimacy or tell yourself you don’t need anyone? Do you tolerate or do too much in your relationship?
- Career choices – do you tend to choose the “safe” options? Are you inexplicably frustrated or unhappy despite having a “good” job?
- Interacting with people – do you avoid conflict? Find it hard to say no? Do you feel you need to hide who you truly are? Are you threatened by opinions that differ to yours?
- Emotional incongruence – do you feel disconnected or unable to explain or control your emotions, particularly anger or sadness?
- Health issues – do you experience frequent muscle tension, headaches or migraines, stomach or digestion issues?
Once you notice patterns, honesty and openness is needed to explore the reasons for these patterns. The key question is – are you doing (or not doing) something because you truly want to, or because you are afraid?
Because we generally view fear negatively, we often build blind spots to avoid recognizing fear. Blind spots include intellectualizing, minimising, denying, projecting and rationalizing our fear. Meditation practices and input from friends, family or a professional can help in seeing behind blind spots.
2) Accepting Fear
“You can’t stop being afraid by just pretending everything that scares you isn’t there.”Michael Marshall
Accepting fear means not seeking to minimize, reject, control or deny it. Trying to tell ourselves that we “shouldn’t” be afraid won’t make fear go away, but instead uses up energy in overriding what our bodies are experiencing and trying to communicate to us.
Instead of fighting against fear, we accept fear’s existence as and how it is right now and allow ourselves to feel its presence.
3) Separating from Fear
“Fear has a large shadow, but he himself is small.”Ruth Gendler
As part of allowing ourselves to feel fear, we also need to maintain our separateness and independence from it.
Unless we are in a state of panic (when the rational parts of the brain are overridden), this means being able to experience fear without being overwhelmed or submerged by it. We allow our fear, but understand that it does not define us and we can act despite it. We are bigger than our fears.
Fear reflects how you feel in the moment, but is not an indication of your limitations or who you are. Problems arise when we identify ourselves with our fears and allow them to control and define us.
For example, it’s normal to be afraid of talking in public. But if as a result, we avoid doing it, we end up identifying with our fears. We build a pattern of avoiding talking in public, and later see the pattern as defining our identity.
When we face fear by recognizing, accepting and then separating ourselves from it, fear generally subsides. It’s the equivalent of turning on a light to discover that the source of the large shadow is much smaller.
4) Understanding Fear
“We have the power to look very deeply at our fear, and then fear cannot control us.”Thich Nhat Hanh
To resolve fear, we seek to understand what it is trying to communicate to us. We “invite fear to the table” to share with us what it is trying to protect us from. We look deeply at our feelings of fear and gently ask ourselves the reasons behind them, while maintaining an open, compassionate and non-judgmental mind.
Understanding fear requires compassion and patience. Fear can be complex and may not be rational. Fear often works in layers and these layers may include other emotions – such as where anger / sadness act to cover up underlying fear. We also often have multiple related and sometimes conflicting fears.
For example, we may be afraid of losing our job and facing financial difficulty, but beyond this layer of fear lies an even bigger and deeper fear that we will be seen as a failure. Or we may have conflicting fears, such as where we both want something and are afraid of having it (for example the fear of being alone combined with the fear of being vulnerable if we are with someone).
Understanding the origins of fear
To understand fear, it’s helpful to recognize that many of our deepest fears reflect pre-programmed responses to a past threat that may no longer exist and we may no longer remember.
Our fears reflect beliefs and experiences from the past. When we have a traumatic experience, the subconscious part of our mind (amaldya) records the feeling of fear and associates it with the experience. Although we may then lose the conscious memory of the experience, if we are later “triggered” by a similar experience, we will feel fear, even if we are now in a safe environment.
Many fearful experiences stem from childhood when we were helpless and completely reliant upon others. Although we are now adults and far better resourced, our subconscious minds often continue to associate certains experiences with fear.
For example, a child who grew up in a household where the caregivers were often angry and shouted. Anger from an adult to a helpless child is frightening and the child may learn to associate shouting with fear. As an adult, s/he may then overreact whenever anyone shouts, as it triggers the childhood experience of helplessness and fear.
Learning the origins of our fears and how they have shaped our lives is an important step in better understanding ourselves and maturing emotionally.
“When we notice a connection between our present fears and their origins in early life, we are finding out how much of our identity is designed by fear. Is fear the architect of me?”David Richo
5) Responding to Fear
“I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.”Nelson Mandela
Fear serves us well as a messenger, but is often not a good decision maker. Fear alerts us to a threat, but then tends to favor an rushed response of either fighting, freezing or fleeing. We should listen to fear, but need to take ownership of our own decisions. For this we need courage.
Courage is the ability to make conscious and considered choices, despite our fear. Courage therefore is a practice, and like any practice, can be improved.
Finding courage in calm
In order to make a considered decision, we need to find calm and objectiveness. We can achieve this by connecting ourselves to the present moment. We pause, breathe deeply and ask ourselves “What do I need to do now in this moment?“.
If our fear relates to something in the future, this question brings us back to what concrete action can be taken now. If there is nothing to be done in this moment, we have nothing to be afraid of in this moment. We release ourselves from needing to make a rushed, fear driven decision. We find calm and give ourselves compassion for the fear we feel.
When grounded in the present moment, we can better assess the threat. We reassess both the importance of what fear is trying to protect and whether it still needs protection. We then decide the best way to respond.
Revising the threat
At times our fear is in relation to a threat that does not exist, is highly unlikely or unrealistic, or that we can do nothing about. In this case, fear is not helpful and only limits us. This type of fear includes the following:
- Fear relating to a past trauma or event.
- Fear relating to possible, but unlikely threats in the future that we have no valid reason to believe will occur.
- Fear due to a unrealistic, overly rigid (often unconscious) belief.
- For example, a belief that “I must never make a mistake or everyone will think I am stupid” leads to being afraid of not being perfect.
- Fear related to events that we cannot control – particularly uncertainty and change.
When we encounter fear and discover its reason, it gives us the opportunity to revise what our fear is trying to protect. It may be something that no longer serves us.
When fear no longer serves us, we work on bringing our attention back to what is truly important – being fully present in our lives. We practice undoing any habits that have been created through fear and replace them with healthier ones. Mindfulness activities, meditation, support from friends or a professional can help in this.
“People living deeply have no fear of death.”Anais Nin
Responding to the threat
If we decide the threat is valid and wish to respond, our options are much broader than fight, freeze or flee. Options include obtaining more information, asking for help, attempting to peacefully resolve the threat and building more trust in ourselves to manage the threat. We consider all our options and weigh up the advantages and disadvantages of them.
Building trust in ourselves
Often fear results from a lack of trust in ourselves. We think we are afraid of outside events, but really we lack trust in our own ability to take care of and protect ourselves. When something goes wrong, will we be kind to ourselves or instead blame and criticize ourselves?
With respect to trust in relationships, one of the best measures that we have to protect ourselves is the ability to set and maintain boundaries. The more we can trust ourselves to set appropriate boundaries, the more we can trust others.
With respect to trust in our own capabilities, one way to build more trust is by “doing”. If you are afraid of something, do it anyway and build trust in your ability through doing.
“Just because you feel feel fear doesn’t mean you can’t do it. Do it afraid”Joyce Meyer
Making Choices That Scare Us
“Fear knocked on the door. Love answered, and no-one was there.”Wayne Dyer
Fear requires us to make a choice. Where we are afraid, we may choose to do whatever seems “safest” in the moment, or simply do nothing (in itself a choice). This often results in choices that are not the best for us long term.
When faced with making decisions when we are afraid, we ask ourselves “Am I choosing based on love, or fear?” Choices based on love are intended to achieve things that we desire. Choices based on fear are based on trying to avoid things we do not want to happen.
We then practice our courage in choosing. The word “courage” stems from the latin word “cor” which means “heart” – we use our courage to make decisions aligned with our heart’s true desires.
Living With Fear
“Everything you want is on the other side of fear.”Jack Canfield
Fear is our emotional guardian watching over and protecting what is important to us. When fear rises to block our way, we are being asked to look behind it to recognize what it is protecting and why. We are then given the opportunity to re-assess the importance of what our fear is trying to protect and decide whether it still needs this protection.
By using fear as a guide to what is important for us, but not allowing it to make decisions for us, we can make better choices and discard what no longer serves us. We learn to become comfortable with fear, and through practicing courage, seek what aligns us with our heart’s true desires. 💛