FearBefore you read any further, here is the truth: nothing I write or you read willfree you of fear. The only ways to escape fear entirely are generally bad ways,except in their own rare, true times. Death can free you of fear, perhaps: but tochoose death before its proper time is not victory over fear; it is defeat by fear.Shock or trauma or drugs can temporarily burn the fear from you, but when thathappens, you lose the wisdom and knowledge fear offers. To choose that as alife-decision is as self-defeating as to choose to destroy your sight or hearing, orstrip the sense of touch from your fingers. As a temporary solution, your bodyand mind impose in the face of emergency or disaster, such numbness can beuseful. Otherwise it is just limiting.Fear is natural, useful, admirable, and entirely normal. The few intelligentbeings humans know of who are without fear, we call mad, and for good reason.Fear is the simplest and most universal expression of our natural love of life,comfort, and affection, and our struggle to hang on to those good things. Theman or woman who is without any fear has already passed on life.Fear guides us away from damage and warns us to protect our most treasuredrelationships and our most vital advantages. Fear provokes us to plan ahead,encourages us to strive for competence and control. The fear of being lessworthwhile than our least dream of ourselves keeps us struggling to maintainour greatest dreams. The fear of disappointment in the eyes of those we admireprods us into acts of greatness.Fear keeps us driving within the speed limit, reminds us not to mix prescriptiondrugs, and suggests not-so-gently that we take a walk rather than eat an éclair.Fear drags us to the doctor to learn what that unpleasant black spot on the backof our arm is, and, just as nagging, fear insists we complete a homeworkassignment for an online certification program. Fear is our good and faithfulservant.Fear is not, however, a good master.Therefore, while I can think of no helpful or desirable way to free you fromfear, I would love to help you free yourself from fear is bullying mastery. If youwould like to take some time to learn about fear, and how to live in goodbalance with your fears, then, yes, I do have a few things to suggest, and a fewideas to offer. Letting Go of Shame
If ever there were a formula for failure, that is it. “The only thing we have tofear is fear itself,” Franklin D. Roosevelt said – but he did not go on to deal withthe muddle created by being fearful of fear. Think about the long, silly chain itcan become:I am afraid.I am ashamed of being afraid.I am afraid of being ashamed that I am afraid.I am afraid of being afraid that I will be ashamed that I am afraid.I am afraid of the fear of being ashamed that I am afraid of being afraid.I am ashamed that I am afraid of the fear of being afraid of being afraid of beingfearful...Enough! Stop right there! Not one more loop of this: the first thing to do is stopbeing ashamed—and therefore afraid – of being afraid.Normal people do not usually feel shame that they get hungry, or thirsty, orsleepy, or happy, or cold, or any of a number of other ordinary, boring,commonplace human experiences. Unfortunately, we reserve shame and afeeling of failure about other equally ordinary and commonplace experiences;and given a bit of a push, can even end up dysfunctional enough to startexpanding the list to even the ones we would ordinarily just let stand. Withsome training and pressure, you can make otherwise sensible people say thingslike, “Oh, I am so sorry I’m sick, I didn’t mean to be!” or “I’m sorry, I’m sosorry, I know I shouldn’t be thirsty, but I am.”Fear, like thirst or a high fever, is just an ordinary reaction to ordinaryoccurrences. You lack liquid, you get thirsty; you get sick, you run a fever; youface a threat, you get scared.Learning to face the reaction itself with that level of acceptance removes thefirst barrier many face in learning how to master fear, rather than struggle inbondage to fear. Being able to accept it demands the discipline to claim the truthover and over again: that fear is just nature’s way of telling you there is danger.If you can slowly wear away the habit of guilt and the struggle to not feel fear,you remove one layer of fear and anger at the very beginning of your process.Those who feel guilt, anger, and shame over their own fears are fearful twiceover for every fear they face: one fear of their weakness, and one of whateverfrightened them to begin with.
Changing the GameInstead of trapping yourself in shame and fear, your ideal act is to move fromthe first sense of fear, to alert consideration and planning. Again, it may help torecall that fear is a natural, ordinary response that serves as a mental andbiological “heads-up” when danger is perceived.Consider a man walking through the forest: he hears a sudden crash and thud.His head shoots up, his eyes focus. Even as he’s looking, his body prepares fortrouble. Special hormones are immediately surging into the bloodstream,including adrenaline and corticosteroids, which serve to prime the body for aclassic fight-or-flight response, depending on what might transpire.In an ideal response, however, the hormones do not take over – the mind does.Fear exists, and the bio-chemicals are there to ensure that all the spookysymptoms are felt, but the mind uses that rush to speed thoughts along, increaseobservation rates and precision, and gun the logical engines, working out whatthe threat might be, and what practical choices may be made. In this state, timeis often reported as seeming too slow. Those who have experienced a fear rushmay comment on the sense of incredible clarity, the ease of thought, and thenear effortless ability to put plans into effect almost before they are formed.Overall, far from classic “fear,” people report an incredible sense of calm. Onlywhen the mind fails to engage with the threat does the fear reaction start to edgeinto panicky symptoms, frantic loops of goal-free distress, and self-defeatingangst. A mind that is properly fearful is, in a very odd way, fearless.That is because much of what we consider to be fear, is actually stress causedby a failure to engage the mind and body to deal with a threat. Our commonunderstanding of fear is closer to being a looped panic response.There are a number of things that cause this dysfunctional fear reaction. Thefirst, common problem we face is a “threat” that simply cannot be dealt with,for any number of reasons.For example:I must admit, with shame, that I am decidedly phobic about dental work. I hateit – simply hate it. I have had the usual collection of bad experiences inchildhood; I have faced the standard ongoing adult needs for care. I cope wellenough; not happily, though. The bottom line is that when I have to settlemyself in a dentist’s chair, a fear response begins.Unfortunately, none of the appropriate reactions remove me from that dentalchair with any speed, and every reasonable, adult action I can take keeps meright where I do not want to be. I will put up with a small but real amount of
pain, and quite a lot of stress. There will be pointy picks and whining drills andall in all, I will not be a happy person.Nature’s plan for me and for fear is that fear will kick in, my brain will race toidentify the threat, and then it will race faster to do something to end that threat.If there is no threat, my body will stand-down. If there is a threat, I will eitherrun quickly to escape, or I will attack, or I will do something else to manage thesituation. But in nature’s rule-book, I should not be sitting in continued fear forhalf an hour or more, still worried, still threatened, but doing nothing to end thethreat.Stress is fear with no outlet: it is a continuing situation in which the bodycontinues to trigger fear thoughts and reactions, but in which the victim cannottake control and end the distress. My unhappy seat in the dental chair is oneform of stress factor. Another might be a constant barrage of sights or soundsmy subconscious interpreted as indicating danger: some people cannot copewith an urban environment, as their bodies and minds interpret the strangers, thetraffic, the sirens, the occasional back-fire, the slamming of doors, the fightingof neighbors – the constant cacophony of city living – as indications of danger.Bad marriages, dysfunctional workplaces, ongoing financial problems, legalissues – you name it, we modern humans face things that do not go away andwhich cannot be dealt with in the prompt, no-stress way that nature expected.As a result, humans feel a huge amount of fear and stress they would neverexperience in “the wild.”However, that does not mean there is nothing you can do to manage your fear,and what you do depends on first aiming for that calm, clear-headed, un-panicked first reaction to threat. Even if you are starting after months, or yearsof stress, you can attempt to regain that balanced, action-ready clarity of thoughtand planning. The Eye of the StormA few years ago I was in a hydroplaning accident. Coming up a familiar hill atabout 55 miles per hour – a full ten below the speed limit, and slightly slow forthe traffic around me – I hit a patch of water draining at an angle across theroad, invisible to me. My tires broke contact with the pavement of the road, andthe next thing I knew I was hurtling toward the shoulder, over the shoulder, andinto the chaparral, with the drop-off into a small canyon coming up quickly.During that time I was, obviously, very afraid. I was also in the state of fear,however, that is natural and effective. As the situation ran along, I made a seriesof decisions, one after another, each aimed at increasing my chances of survival.
I tried to break out of the hydroplaning, and then struggled to make use of thechaparral to break my progress. I worked to shift the car to maximize myfriction in the thin, sandy earth and shrubs.Frankly, I am not sure it did any good. I still went over the edge. But I know Ilived. I will never know which of dozens of good choices not only saved mylife, but allowed me to walk away. What I do know is that the fear I experiencedduring that event was simple, and relatively calm compared to my stress in adentist’s chair. In the dentist’s chair, unless I work very hard to master my fear,it rides me. In the car, as I faced death, I mastered fear, riding it as a surfer ridesa wave, using the rush and thunder to move me from choice to choice along thepath to a conclusion.Nearly dying was actually a heck of a lot less scary than living while awaitingthe dentist and his drill. The stress was less, the aftermath more quickly dealtwith. In a perfect world, all fear would be as simple and calm as the fear of thataccident.Of course, the world is imperfect, and most of our fears are neither as fast nor asfinite as an auto accident. We can, however, try to achieve a similar state ofgrace-in-terror, in a variety of ways.The first is to simply confront fear, and figure out what is causing it. That maybe simple, or it may be very, very complicated indeed. In difficult cases, wheretrauma and past abuse or injury feeds into panic and anxiety, you may needprofessional help unraveling the various threads of fear all feeding into yourresponse. However, in most cases the causes are fairly simple, though.When simple, you can begin to make some choices.Consider the following situation: a rather ordinary panic attack provoking fear,and often encouraging self-destructive choices. You know, let us say, that youare likely to receive a nasty, painful goodbye letter from a former sweetheart.You know it will arrive by email.You fear the email will come any day now. You are afraid to check yourcomputer. Just thinking about it makes you ill. You avoid logging on for theday, even though there is work you need to do online; even though you haveother vital emails on the way. Your hands shake when you open your laptop.You skip fast over the emails when you do open them, and hurry away asquickly as possible for fear the arrival chime will ring and The Letter of Doomwill be there.Fear is mastering you. You may “think,” in the same sense that a hamster on awheel “runs,” but you are not making progress, and you are not solving any ofyour problems; you are increasing them.
It is time to look for the still, calm eye of the storm; time to treat your situationwith the efficient, problem-solving portion of your brain, rather than resting inthe mere “feeling” portion. That is the portion that senses all the adrenaline andcorticosteroids, but which does nothing about them.How do you break out?Begin with a single question: if the longest journey begins with a single step,the shortest path out of fear begins with a single question. Is there a “best”question to start with? Not always, but there are at least a few useful ones tohelp break out of a fear-cycle.One of the best is, “How can I gain control?”Do not ask yourself how you can gain control of anything specific: that may getyou stuck further. Instead, just ask yourself what you can do right now to gainsome control.In the case of the emails, the first thought you may have is simple indeed: kill-file the person who is likely to send you The Letter.“But,” you may think. “That will not change anything! The letter will still bewritten, and sent, and I will still have to read it eventually.”Well, you are probably right. However, that is not the point.The point is you now have some control over when and how you face that letterthat does not involve waiting helplessly for it to leap into your inbox. Yourformer sweetie may well write that letter, and send it. It will likely arrive. But itwill not haunt your computer in the same way, waiting to pounce the minuteyou go to check your mail. It will not keep you away from your mail – onlyaway from your spam or kill folder, and you can decide to check that when youfeel like it.Instead of being the victim, waiting to be attacked, you are now the master ofthe siege, in control of your timing, able to decide for yourself when to face badnews, or ignore it. In the meantime, you can now go online without fear, doyour business without having to force yourself past your nerves, and you canconcentrate because you know where that letter will be, and you know you willonly look at it when you are ready.What you have just learned is that the core of fear is a feeling of helplessness.As long as you feel able to choose and control what happens, you are far lesslikely to fear. The funny thing is that those choices can be so small as to seemtrivial, even to you – but having the power to choose can change an experiencefrom one of terror to one of calm courage.
EvaluationIf all has gone well, a question or two has led you to a point of at leasttemporary calm and control in the face of fear. It may not be much right now,and it may feel a bit peculiar, but with luck you have managed to temporarilyoverride fear for a moment or two. What next?Next comes some serious thought and evaluation, as you take the time to workout the nature of your fear, and decide what can and cannot be done about it. Ina sense, this is the big version of that first question: What can I control?Fear, in its ideal mode, provides energy and focus to help your body and minddeal with danger: all that edgy, twitchy, stomach-churning terror workswonderfully well with simple, primitive threats. Direct physical dangerprovokes fast choices, quick action, and prompt efforts to gain control. Theentire process is geared toward propelling a scared human from a moment whenhe or she may be out of control of a situation, to a moment when control hasbeen regained.Most of the fears we currently deal with, though, do not succumb as easily orquickly to gut-reaction emergency-thinking. That means that rather than hopingforlornly that if you wait around long enough, saturated with fear chemicals,you will just come up with an answer, you have got to use advanced skills totake you where reflexive thinking would have in a more direct situation.In other words, if you cannot solve it fast, solve it slow; but aim for the sameoutcome fear always aims for: control over danger.When dealing with complicated, non-direct threats, you need to take time tounderstand the nature of the threat, the sorts of skills you can bring to bear, thelimits of what you can accomplish, and in the end you have to set rational goalsfor what control you can and cannot impose. We have already looked at a few“dangers” in modern life that do not respond well to the sort of reflexivethinking that our ancestors would have applied to lions and tigers and bears.Turbo-charged, fear-driven decisions work well for car accidents, but badly formore abstract problems, or slower, less direct threats. Scary emotionalchallenges, legal and financial concerns, ongoing relationship problems, just donot yield to seat-of-the-pants choices very often. Trying to use that sort ofthinking is more likely to create more problems than solve them.But goal-oriented, analytical thinking can help a lot. So, let us begin with a fewmore questions to help expand your control.What elements of control matter to you in the situation that scares you?
In the discussion of the email, I suggested that at least to start the primary issueof control might not be control over the unwanted email itself, but over the wayyou received it, and dealt with it. Just as having even minor control over a shotcan change the entire situation in regards to your fear, so, too, can minorchanges alter your fear in regards to other issues. Taking back control over yourlife is often the key to mastering your fears within that life.Therefore, the first questions you want to ask in any fear situation have to dowith what can and cannot be controlled to your advantage. Obviously, in manycases your first desire would be to make a problem simply go away entirely:superb control!Most of the time, that is not an option. However, you can then move on to thenext choice: can you put the entire problem itself within your control? If so,how? Many problems can be put entirely in your control, though that maymean breaking a problem up or understanding it in a new way. With somemental jiu-jitsu, you may be able to convert a source of terror into a source ofpride and confidence – but to discover if that is possible you must take the timeto think, and evaluate.When you face a difficult situation, it is time to evaluate whether your actionsand choices can “flip” the conditions to your advantage. Will a completelyunexpected smile turn a confrontation around? Will a pleasant and friendlysurrender and apology rip away months of ill-will? Can you turn the worldupside down with a few simple choices, and in doing so put the problem underyour own control?So many of the fears we deal with are tied to being locked helplessly intoseemingly unchangeable conflicts. We feel under attack, so we defendourselves, never wondering what would happen if we simply gave up and quit;even if the point we are fighting over is one we actually do not care much about.Or we assume that some things cannot change, and never risk asking if they can.Fear is aimed at putting you in control. You cannot take control if you do nottake the time to evaluate your situation well – and often re-evaluate it. You needto understand the nature of the problem, and look for possible approaches to asolution. Remember, you are aiming at control, because control helps you endfear. That means learning what can change, and how to change it. Problems You Cannot SolveFear aims at putting you in control. One way to fight fear is to take back control.But what if there is no obvious way to take control, and no happy jiu-jitsu flip toturn the tables on misfortune? What if practical solutions, sensible planning,
calm, clear-headed thinking all crash headlong into an immovable object? Whatif a problem is big, scary, and not going anywhere regardless of what you do?How do you deal with fear of the unavoidable? Heaven knows, there are enoughunavoidable things out there to scare us badly: disease, injury, death, disasters,loses, and wars.How can we deal with fear of the unswerving mega-monster realities that wecannot change?We change ourselves.That may seem simple, or simplistic. It is not. The way of dealing with the greatfears involves becoming a great-hearted human: one who has changed andgrown enough to handle the knock-out blows life holds with grace and dignity.Many people never manage: so many that some take the great fears as universal.And, yet, somehow people do manage to live beyond the fears. How? Whatchanges? If fear is aimed at giving you control and you cannot take control, isthat not a sort of endless trap?Only if you choose for it to be.The truth is that, while fear does try to give us control in the face of threats, fearonly is useful for the threats that can be controlled. It is useless and damagingwhen applied to the stuff that is outside our control – and fortunately, our mindsallow us to accept that, unless we refuse to let go of the problems.Humans have always been small, and limited, and unable to control everything.It is vital that we have fear to push us to take control when we can, but it is justas vital to be able to accept a problem as outside out control, and let go. The artof letting go is so great, and so profound, it sometimes seems like it is thecentrepiece of most religious disciplines, philosophical traditions, and manyself-help movements.As a result, there is a lot of help out there to learn the skill, though. Whether youread the psalms to learn wisdom, consider the great truths of Buddhism to findenlightenment, or walk the “way” of the Tao, there is wisdom literatureavailable aimed specifically at helping you change yourself in such a way as tobe free of the great fears.History would tend to suggest that in the religious or philosophical sense, fearcan be mastered and to some extent actually set aside. There is less convincingevidence that one can ever be utterly, totally free of fear. But one can hope toreach a plateau of self-control that allows people to function as saints and wise-
men are said to do, with courage, calm, and dispassion in the face of incredibleadversity.Where do these traditions begin? Usually with a measure of acceptance – forsome, the acceptance of a God greater than the great fears. For others, simplyacceptance that the great fears need not be victorious over human disciple andfaith. Fear as a Mental ConstructWe have discussed fear as a real, sensible, sound thing; an instinctive responseto perceived danger, intended to support and encourage you to get control overthe threats that face you. We have thought about way to make use of it, and tofind ways around it. Now, though, it is time to look at fear from anotherperspective.Fear, looked at a different way, is nothing but a mental hob-goblin. A reactionof the mind that can be rejected, built out of perceptions that can bemanipulated, supported by physical reflexes that can be disciplined. In thistradition – a tradition strongly supported by many religious cultures andphilosophical arguments – fear is primarily a fiction we create in our minds, andit is our own choice whether to “believe” in the fiction, or not.In this approach, the question stops being one of a struggle with a real,problematic “thing,” but a matter of whether you will let an illusion you createdyourself stymie you and warp your life. While serious materialistic sorts mayscoff and mutter that all those bio-chemicals and emotional cascades must be“real” somehow, there is a lot of practical support for the “fear is just a bigfiction” school of thought. Certainly, there is plenty of evidence that the worstfears can be managed and dispelled by steady and regular commitment to thelearned disciplines of many cultures.The methods for dealing with fear-as-fiction are varied. Some focus first ondeveloping a strong sense of dispassion to your own situation: a sense ofperspective, at the very least.What is one fleeting life and death in perspective with the billion-year life of theuniverse? What is one person’s pain, when considered against the pain ofmillions? In the face of inevitable change, what point is there to fear for yourown security?Many traditions hold that fear loses its power when seen against the greatness ofthe universe, or the infinity of God and God’s plan. The flickering concerns of
our life, the terror of death, all shrink to nothing in the face of such magnitude,just as for a sensible person a couple of injections would have faded comparedto possible gangrene from a splinter of rotting wood.These traditions often start you on the path to freedom from fear by encouragingyou to weigh and balance your fear against greater things, slowly eroding yourcommitment to taking your fear very seriously. This is a powerful approach, ifonly because the less seriously we take our emotions, the less they tend topound us. Feelings are least powerful when most firmly dismissed.This is, in some ways, simply the other side of the technique of examining yourfear to determine its nature and source. Once you have examined your fears,you move one step further, and examine them in context with all the rest of yourlife.In this approach, many fears just wilt away quickly. The fear of getting a DearJohn/Joan email? It seems blindingly unimportant when compared with killerearthquakes, rebellions in the Middle-East, plague, pollution of the oceans, orthe extinction of an entire species. If you have any skill at this sort ofperspective work, you can easily move one step further, and shift from simplydismissing your fears, to finding them a source of intense personal humor andamusement. Mind and BodyThe second way these traditions deal with fear is through the management ofthe body and mind together, to dismiss the fear response itself. Remember thatfear – the symptoms of fear – are caused by a whole series of physical reactionsto perceived threat? Cascades of bio-chemicals, the body primed for fight-or-flight?Well, there is a strong tradition of willingly, intentionally reversing thoseeffects, using focus, meditation, imagination, relaxation, and other techniques.In most cases, the process begins with relaxation and breath management, asthese can reverse your body’s high-speed charge into reflexive fear.Meditation and prayer are common methods for using the techniques. Bothinvolve focus on elements that are not the source of the fear, wilful relaxation ofthe muscles, deepened breathing, and disassociation from fleeting sensations.Each of these elements can help promote a state of true trance, outside fear orother emotional reactions; and once you are outside of fear, relaxed, andbreathing deeply, you have come close to escaping the physical elements offear, also.
Your mind and body, both free from an immediate sense of threat, stop thechemical cascade. The relaxation and deep breathing help convince your bodyand your brain both that the causes of fear are gone. Regular practice can notonly allow you to develop extreme control over these reactions, but to enter alow state of trance quickly, even when under stress. Those who becomeextremely proficient can maintain a state of extreme trance in the face ofotherwise traumatic and terrifying events.It is important to understand that, just as perspective weakens the “belief” infear, meditation, prayer, and relaxation methods weaken the mental andphysical support of the fear reflex. By carefully assuming the physical traits of arelaxed person, you become relaxed. By behaving in ways that are calm andpanic-free, the mind and body both accept that there must not be any fearpresent.In a sense, there is not any fear present. Your instinctive reflex may be to panic.Your trained, meditative self, however, steps out of that physical and mentalloop, and simply chooses another physical mode – one quite outside of fear.We have a tendency to treat fear as a very real, almost as a human enemy, thatexists without us, fights us, functions by its own rules and wins victoriesthrough its own strengths. In truth, “fear” does not exist – not when youapproach it through these traditional paths. Fear is just a word we use todescribe a mess of mental illusions and bodily responses. It has no separatereality of its own, it wants nothing, it does nothing, and it wins nothing. Fearcan be altered by simply thinking and behaving in ways that cause the body tostop producing fear components, and the mind to stop registering threats. In thisapproach, fear is nothing more exotic than, say, heart rate, or body temperature:things you can fairly easily choose to alter by jogging in place, or putting on asweater.This strips away much of the mystery and awe of fear. That is not a bad thing,in particular. Many people are owned by their fear as much because they forgotit was just a part of their own mind, as because it had any true power over them. Walking AwayWe have discussed many ways of dealing with fear. In the end, though, the mostimportant method is simply to stop investing in fear. We give fear power overour lives by making it our master, putting it over us, kneeling down to it. Eachmethod available to you to battle fear is really just a tool to allow you to turnyour back on fear and walk away.
The great philosophers and religious teachers of history have struggled to definefear, put it in perspective, and teach us ways to cope with it. Whether they pointto meditation, soothing mantras, prayers and psalms, reason, discipline,rationality, courage – no matter what they recommend, in the end the bestapproach is to believe, with all your heart, that fear has no right to run your life.You do not allow strangers to tell you what to do. You do not let fools makeyour decisions. No one willingly allows themselves to be mastered by idiots.Why, then, allow a set of feelings and bodily reactions make your choice andpick your actions for you?The ultimate technique, which honestly lies behind all the other methods,involves fearing – then shrugging, admitting fear has touched you, and makinganother sort of choice regardless. It is not a very romantic answer; it is notcloaked in the majesty of wise words, or decked out in tradition. It remains true:if you want to master your fear, you have to walk away from it, even when it isshouting at you, and your body seems ready to explode with terror.The thing is, fear is just fear. It is a lot of feeling, but feelings can be set aside.When fear hounds you, and your breath comes short, take a deep breath, closeyour eyes, and in your mind – walk away, down a long, silent road, into adifferent land, where fear does not reside. Make your choices in that land, andact on them.Let fear go.You will no longer be afraid, if you stop hoping.