I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.
–Bene Gesserit Litany Against Fear (Frank Herbert’s novel Dune)
I remember hearing this quote in my youth as I watched the 1984 film adaptation of Frank Herbert’s novel Dune and immediately writing it down so I would not forget it.
There was something about it which resonated with me, as a young teen full of fear. My mother was very ill with cancer, and I was a wimpy kid in high school dealing with all the drama puberty and high school will bring. Life for me in many ways was changing whether I was ready for it or not.
I recall many times when I was literally paralyzed with fear, missing chances to speak up for myself, and even missing an opportunity for my first kiss! The fear was palpable, and in that moment I was unable to push past it to take action. It became a constant and not very welcome companion for me who I eventually learned to challenge more and more in order to live a more fulfilling life.
But it was not easy, and even now as an adult and successful professional, I still from time to time have to consciously recognize and challenge it when its restricting voice tries to get my attention and limit my perceived options.
What is Fear?
Fear is an emotional response induced by a perceived threat, which causes a change in brain and body chemistry, as well as in behavior. It has an evolutionary purpose, helping us to quickly respond to threats to live another day, and as such still has a function in keeping us safe today.
But the key word to consider in this definition is perceived threat. Not all threats are real. If you have a pet cat you are quite aware of this when a cat will seem to freak out at an innocuous object or sound because at the moment the threat was perceived as real! In reality we often behave quite similarly, never realizing the invalidity of our fear!
How we perceive the world is influenced by the various habits and beliefs we have developed as we learned to live our lives and deal with the many good and bad experiences that life will bring us. But these beliefs we hold can often lead to perceiving threats which are not there. Its the voice that holds us back in fear of failing or looking silly. Its the lies that trick us into thinking we are helpless and without options for change.
Anxiety Disorder vs. Fear
Without over complicating the subject with psychological jargon, consider this… As mentioned above, fear and anxiety are responses to a perceived threat. Its what motivates you to respond or adapt to such threats, be it to run or deal with it head on. Once the threat is over, that fear and anxiety is resolved. Likewise, if it turns out the perceived threat was not real, once we are aware of that fact, the fear is resolved.
However, there are people who are predisposed to chronic anxiety, unrelated to threat. Such people worry about everything, no matter how unreal the perceived threat seems to be, and despite of any evidence proving there to be no threat. This type of anxiety, fueled by a Generalized Anxiety Disorder, doesn’t warn you about anything specific to adapt or respond to, so those afflicted have no way to put an end to that anxiety and fear.
Such chronic fear is best treated with the help of a psychotherapist and is out of scope for this website. The ideas presented may help a little, but when dealing with an anxiety disorder it is best to find professional help and understand that there is nothing wrong with seeking such assistance!
Dealing with Fear
Here are some way of learning to approach and cope with your day-to-day fears and anxieties. Since perceived threats are a result of our habits and ingrained beliefs it takes time to reshape those beliefs and habits into healthier alternatives, so be patient in persistent in your efforts!
Taking a Time Out
When you are flooded with fear or anxiety it is impossible to think clearly. Your body will be flooded with a chemical cocktail that will cause rapid breath and heart rate and you may even experience tunnel vision, which is a natural way the body prepares for a possible fight. Therefore the first thing to do is take time out so you can physically calm down and assess the reality of the situation.
Find a way to distract yourself from the worry for 15 minutes. Such distractions can include taking a walk around the block, running an errand, swinging by the gym for your workout, taking a shower or bath, or my personal favorite – making a nice cup of tea.
As already mentioned, your body has various natural responses to fear such as an increased heartbeat, flushing, and heavy breathing. These are the result of chemicals being released autonomously into the bloodstream and they need to run their course naturally, so there is no sense in trying to fight it. Let it pass.
However there is a trick to help regain composure more readily and at the very least help wait out the symptoms of that chemical rush. Breathing is very interesting in that is an aspect of our autonomous system which we can actually also control. When you impose that control on your breathing it tricks the body into following suit!
Police, military personnel, and even martial artists refer to this trick as Tactical (or Combative) Breathing, and some forms of meditation call it the Four-fold Breath. It is such a useful technique I made a dedicated page for it.
However, simply placing the palm of your hand on your stomach and consciously breathing slowly and deeply will help get past that anxiety more quickly. Allow yourself to experience the feelings so your mind can get used to coping with panic.
While sometimes it’s a good thing to take a break so you can return with a more clear mind, ultimately avoiding one’s fears only trains the mind to validate it even more.
Ultimately the only way to deal with fear is to face it. Avoiding it prevents us from moving forward, fostering anxiety. Therapists and Life Coaches can be invaluable in helping one to work through one’s avoiding strategies.
Practicing mindfulness is another way to begin to allow ourselves to experience and face fear. Simply sit quietly and observe the present moment. If fear or anxiety arises, recognize it, watch it rise up, and notice how it feels in your body. Observe it as it is, without trying to get rid of it or change it.
Taking the previous tip a bit further, get curious about what thoughts generate your fear. Where do you feel the fear? Do you hear a voice in your head? If so, what does it sound like and what is it telling you? How do you react to it these feelings? What would that fear look like if you could see it?
Try to remain a passive observer of what is going on so you can better see what is happening.
Considering the Evidence
Our perceptions can stealthily mislead us, so it is important to learn to challenge fearful thoughts. Once brought into the light of reason you may be surprised to discover faulty logic or lack of justification for those feelings.
For example, in my own life, when I was facing a very likely layoff I panicked. How would I pay for my mortgage and all the daily expenses that already at times felt a burden? How would I find another job that I would like and that would in turn appreciate me? Was I even really qualified to do my job “for real?” (Whatever that means!) But while there is a possibility I may run out of savings before I found a comparable job, it was far from a certainty, and given I had not even started to interview to find out how well that would go, I was working under quite a number of assumptions. Additionally, my fear was making be second guess my own abilities and value. Despite doing a great job for 20 years, I suddenly felt I was not qualified! Clearly I have the experience, and I have the know-how.
It is natural for me to be feeling anxiety at this very valid threat. It was definitely a life challenge that needed to be dealt with, but it required me to take action – update my resume, reach out to colleagues, start interviewing, start considering other areas of work and sources of income. My anxiety was a great motivator to keep my focus on the efforts needed to get through that difficult time. However, if I fall into the trap of believing my fears that I am not qualified, or a helpless victim of “the system,” then I am paving the way to a very unpleasant self-fulfilled prophesy.
Accepting the Less-Than-Perfect
Life is messy. It doesn’t matter how hard you work, or how cool you are – you are going to have your fair share of bad days and setbacks. You are going to fail. In fact if you are not failing, you are not living a successful life, since success is built upon a foundation of failures. The difference is successful people take what they can get and keep going.
Social media and marketing tend to portray everyone else as so much more perfect. Everyone else is having more fun, and experiencing success after success. It’s all a well-orchestrated illusion.
When setbacks happen, accept them for what they are and work around or through them as best you can. Expecting perfect only leads to unrealistic objectives and disappointment.
If you made a mistake, own it. It happens. Don’t be so hard on yourself. A little self-compassion goes a long way!
Visualizing a Happy Place
As a New Yorker, I’ve had more than my share of hot and crowded (and did I mention smelly?) subway rides full of delays. Anxiety and frustration can easily ruin one’s mood, and in turn, one’s day.
In situations like that I like to close my eyes and take a moment imagine myself in a place of safety and calm, involving as many senses as I can. For me I like to imagine walking on a deserted beach, exploring all the neat items which have washed up. I hear the crashing waves and the seagulls. I feel the freeze and sea mist on my face, I smell the fresh sea air. Or I think of my cats snuggled next to me and purring contently as I sit on the floor working on my computer. I’m smiling already (especially since as I type this they are by my side!)
Think about what makes you happy, calm, and safe and bring it to life in your mind. Allow yourself to experience it as fully as you can. Consider each of your senses. You may be surprised how much it helps!
Talking About It
There is power in sharing your fears with others. The act of simply talking about it is often enough to lessens the burden, and you may be surprised how less scary fears are once they are brought into the light.
If you can’t talk to a partner, friend or family member, there are many help lines, life coaches, and therapists who are trained to listen without judgement.
The important thing is to share it with someone. Chances are they will see things differently and ask questions you may not have considered. Things will always seem much worse to those experiencing the fear.
Writing About It
Writing in a journal also helps to bring fears into the open and provides a way to look back on similar fears and how they resolved over time.
As with talking about it, the simple act of getting these thoughts and feelings outside of you can help you begin to put them into perspective. Trying to just think through can get caught in endless loops of negativity that only lead you further down that rabbit hole.
Fears always seem worse when they are subversively whispering in your ear.
Getting Back to Basics
Sometimes people turn to alcohol or drugs to self-treat anxiety or find unhealthy ways to distract or avoid the feelings, but these coping mechanisms will only make matters worse.
However, there are times when just focusing on the simple, everyday things like a good night’s sleep, a wholesome meal, keeping to an exercise routine, or a walk in nature are often the best cures for anxiety.
When I am feeling overwhelmed I like to clean my desk or an area of my house. Chances are I am neglecting such chores and the resulting clutter only adds to my stress. Taking a moment to straighten up a little reminds me that I still have some control.
I have already mentioned exercise as an example in the above but it is worth additional discussion. A good workout that gets the blood pumping actually changes your body chemistry, thus shifts your mood. Those suffering from fear, anger, or depression will find that a good workout can do wonders for cleaning the mind.
Even a good brisk walk can help, especially when you can get the heart rate up. Find a hill or stairs if you need to!