Facing Our Fears
Scan the headlines and it may seem clear that we’re living in scary times and have every reason to be fearful. But zoom in on your own experiences and you may find most of it is unchecked perception.
In practicing mindfulness, we learn to accept that nothing is permanent. Everything passes, from events to people to our own thoughts. This allows us to avoid clinging tightly to things and instead just enjoy them while they’re here. Or to suffer through them while they last. This could be seen as a way to be truly grateful for something instead of taking it for granted or to ease suffering because we know it will pass.
We run the risk of getting stuck when we become too attached to people or things. New opportunities need space to enter and if we’re clinging tightly to the old, there’s no room for the new and we miss out. Take a few minutes to check in to see if you might have a cluttered home, office or mind, or perhaps a relationship or job that isn’t meaningful anymore that’s preventing anything new from entering or emerging.
Our whole lives are a series of passing phases, from infant hood to childhood to adolescence to the various stages of adulthood and at each phase, we shed the old and ease into the new. We don’t keep our security blanket from infant hood as we mature into the next phase, but we sometimes do hang onto people, situations or things for the same reason, thinking that they can make us safe. But that sense of safety or security doesn’t come from an external source, it comes from our own minds.
When we feel insecure or scared, the ego sends the stimulus to the brain that we’re in danger. The brain then floods our bodies with stress hormones to prepare us to fight or run. If we’ve convinced ourselves that we don’t need to fight or run because we have a prepper closet or a roommate who knows kung fu, or a person who will always love us no matter what, we’re fooling ourselves because we’re giving our power away in the hopes that someone or something will save us from whatever we’re afraid of.
To be clear, we could perceive life as quite frightening these days. Everything from climate disasters to egg shortages to inflation can feel scary. Political strife, wars overseas looming on our country, mass shootings almost weekly, major Supreme Court decisions…all of these can make it seem like things are falling apart. But for each of these events, there are many, many more events that are not scary. Where billions of people are safe each day. Where people are kind and considerate to others. Where most people are not breaking the law.
We can’t avoid seeing or hearing about fearful things in the world and feeling afraid is part of being human. It’s a survival instinct that is meant to keep us safe. But most of what is causing us fear is not in fact a situation where we are in direct danger. The tragic shootings recently are not a threat to me, for example. I feel sad and angry about it. I feel enormous empathy for the victims and their families and friends. But I don’t let my mind extrapolate out to that place where nowhere is safe for anyone. Massive flooding in California this summer is not going to sweep me personally away, despite the way the news media reports it. For people directly affected, these things are of course a cause for real fear. But for most of us, the fear is a generalized sense of the world not being safe.
We can learn to face our fears instead of turning to external sources for a sense of safety and security. We can look directly at our fear during meditation for example. Consider keeping eyes open, sit in a comfortable position and bring to mind something causing fear. As the feelings of fear rise up, instead of resisting them, simply allow yourself to feel however you feel, observing the thoughts and sensations that are occurring. Try not to cling to the thoughts or emotions. Just notice each one as it presents itself and then allow it to pass. You can also practice breathing in safety and breathing out fear. With each exhale, you release a little of the fear through your breath. This may need to be repeated multiple times and if at any point there’s too much discomfort, simply stop and breathe slowly, re-regulating your system.
While working through fear in meditation is quite valuable, it’s equally important to develop methods we can incorporate in our daily life to work through fear. Pay attention to blame showing up. Beating ourselves up when we feel fearful isn’t helpful. Try to suspend self-judgment. It’s a normal human response to feel fear, so there’s no reason to self-blame or shame.
Be kind to yourself and practice self-care. Fear thrives when we’re tired or pushing ourselves too hard, so take time for yourself when needed. Celebrate small victories. Overcoming small fears is progress, so give yourself a pat on the back or a real reward when you deal with a cockroach, or have that dreaded conversation with someone, or open a notice from the IRS as soon as it arrives. As you build confidence in overcoming small fears, you’ll find more strength in facing the bigger ones.
Try to be curious about your fear. When we avoid or tamp down our anxieties, it tends to increase our fear, not alleviate it. So take a look at it with curiosity – where did it come from, when did it begin, is there anything meaningful about it? And perhaps the most important question, is it real? And always, if it becomes too uncomfortable, simply stop. We’re always in charge of where we allow our minds to go.
This might be a good time to take an inventory of any fears you’re holding onto. And check behaviors that have been in response to fear, real or perceived that might be keeping you stuck. Wouldn’t it feel great to just open the door wide and let those fears go? We all can, with self-compassion through mindfulness.