Life is frightening. That thought came over me the morning after the mass killings in Paris last November. On the night of the attacks, I emailed a friend there, asking if he was okay. He wrote back the next morning: “Everything is fine…but what a shock!” What a shock indeed.
Events like this evoke many responses: sadness, fear, anger, hoping it won’t happen to me, worrying about whether friends and family are all right, wondering how to help. It also highlights the necessity to work with our own fear, from the little niggling fears we have to the biggest challenges we face in life. Where do we find courage? Where do we find solutions?
It seems there are no sweeping answers that magically calm our fear and anxiety. However, some hints may be close at hand. For intertwined with fear, we discover fearlessness. This was highlighted by the response of citizens in Paris on Twitter, immediately following the attacks: People using the hashtag “Porte Ouverte”—Door Open—to offer shelter to those affected by the bombs and shootings, who needed a place to spend the night, who could not get home, who needed a refuge from the terror. Come here, our door is open to you. That message of fearlessness and human solidarity is one we can celebrate in these frightening times.
More mundanely, how can we connect an event like the Paris attacks to the everyday fear we feel?—the fears we encounter when shopping for a bathing suit, taking a flight, or just looking at the day ahead. Is the Open Door policy one we can use personally? Or should we adopt a Closed Border approach? More and more, in these challenging times, we’re asked to face these options.
If we are human, we are capable of fear, and we will all know fear at some time. Of course, it’s not just humans who feel fear. Animals, too, experience this primal emotion. In Animals in Translation, Temple Grandin writes: “The single worst thing you can do to an animal emotionally is to make it feel afraid. Fear is so bad for animals I think it’s worse than pain.”
Fear is something ancient and ingrained. It has its helpful place as a survival mechanism in nature, triggering awareness of a threat and triggering responses such as flight, freeze, or fight. In the study of the human brain, the amygdala has often been considered the “fear center,” and it is definitely involved in our responses to fear. But recent research suggests that the amygdala is not the all-powerful Czar of Fear. As neuroscientist Joseph E. LeDoux writes in Psychology Today:
Be suspicious of any statement that says a brain area is a center responsible for some function. The notion of functions being products of brain areas or centers is left over from the days when most evidence about brain function was based on the effects of brain lesions localized to specific areas. Today, we think of functions as products of systems rather than of areas. Neurons in areas contribute because they are part of a system. The amygdala, for example, contributes to threat detection because it is part of a threat detection system.
LeDoux points to the complexity and the interconnectedness of our experience of fear, which is not just a question of how the brain functions but also is reflected in our psychological experience of fear. The complex nature of fear may be why one-shot solutions are not always effective and why we need broader and more inclusive approaches.
Sometimes there does seem to be a simple solution to our fear. If someone abuses you, you might think that if you stop the abuse, you should be able to stop the fear associated with it. But does that work? The best we could say is “Sort of.” You may not have to fear being actually abused by a particular person again, but it’s likely you will still imagine or relive the abuse and that you may be very anxious about the possibility of being abused by someone else. You may have a difficult time trusting people at all. There is more work to be done to conquer the trauma associated with your fear.
There is no single “fear center” in the brain. Various parts of the brain contribute to a complex “threat detection system.” Perhaps our responses to fear need to be just as nuanced.
Fear and anxiety are closely interconnected. Anxiety is a very common if not universal experience. Many things make us anxious, but we wouldn’t necessarily say we’re afraid of all of them. You may feel anxious before a job interview; you might not be afraid of going to the interview. We can think of the difference between fear and anxiety as a matter of degree, or as a way to distinguish between a threat and a challenge. Taking an exam may be challenging, but not necessarily threatening.
Whack-a-Mole or Welcome Mat
Anxiety may be anticipatory worrying, but it can also be generalized unease. Most people experience anxiety, which can be low level, ongoing, episodic, or sometimes crippling—in which case medical and/or psychological help is called for. With ordinary anxiety, we usually look for the cause of the anxiousness and try to correct it, but again, it’s not so simple. It can become like a game of Whack-a-Mole. You subjugate one cause of anxiety and up pops the next thing. It can feel endless. A common strategy is to treat the symptom, the anxiety itself, by self-medicating with drugs, alcohol, or finding other solutions, from sex to shopping. There’s nothing wrong with a new dress or a new fling, necessarily, but as habitual responses to anxiety, they can become crippling addictions themselves. And do they work? If they did, we wouldn’t have to keep drinking or shopping so frantically.
The alternative is to work with the anxiety as it presents itself, without necessarily seeking a cause or expecting an immediate solution. Welcome it, even, as part of an Open Door policy. “There you are again! Hello, come on in.” Interestingly, vulnerability and gentleness toward ourselves and our feelings can reduce fear and anxiety. The practice of mindfulness meditation, as well as other mindfulness and contemplative techniques, can be invaluable ways to lay out a welcome mat in situations of fear and anxiety.
An approach I’ve found helpful is called Touch and Let Go. When a feeling such as fear presents itself during meditation, the touch part is that you acknowledge or welcome the fear. You don’t push it away. You really take a look. You don’t have to dwell on it or build it up. If it’s a strong feeling or emotion, it’ll do that for itself!
Having welcomed your fear or anxiety, you let it go. This is far from a one-shot solution. The fear may remain after you release it, or it may come up over and over again. Let it be there. Make friends with it. Then, breathing out, let the fear go, out into space. Meditating with your eyes open may also help you feel the contrast between the anxiety and the space around. Rather than centralizing the fear within yourself, see it and let it go.
Take it Easy on Yourself
Although working with fear in one’s meditation is extremely valuable, it’s equally important to develop ways of working with fear and anxiety in everyday life. Here are some suggestions:
Don’t beat yourself up. Don’t blame yourself for your fears or anxiety. They’re human responses to the human condition. Try to suspend harsh self-judgments. Don’t expect to conquer fear in one breath, one hour, or one day.
Take time for yourself. Fear thrives when we push too hard. Appreciate yourself in small moments and small acts: take a walk, smell a flower, drink a good cup of coffee, watch an absorbing movie.
Do something differently. Alter a routine. By shifting a habitual pattern, you take yourself off autopilot. It may make you a little more anxious, but it also makes you more mindful and aware. And by working with small anxieties, you can learn about the bigger anxiety and fear in your life and how to handle it. The change could be small and almost silly: brush your hair before you brush your teeth, if you usually do the opposite. Wear something you never would, an outlandish scarf or hat. If you’re compulsively early, leave five minutes later for an appointment. Mix it up. Do something that makes you a little uncomfortable. If this backfires, remember point one.
Celebrate the victories. They may be small. You’re afraid of spiders, but you managed to trap one and put it out of the house. You’re terrified of thunder and lightning but you opened the curtains during a storm. Give yourself a mental pat on the back or a genuine piece of chocolate.
Make a catalog of daily fears. Get to know your fears and anxieties. Set aside a few minutes, and in that time, notice all the fearful or anxious thoughts that arise, and what triggers them. If this exercise makes you more and more anxious, don’t do it! But often noting fears and letting them come to the surface helps reduce some of the anxiety. It’s a good beginning.
Practice touch and let go in everyday life. Let the fears arise, but also let them go. After you make the catalog, look at each fear, each anxious moment, and then let it go on its way.
Be curious about your fear. We give power to our anxieties by trying to hide from them. Ignorance is certainly not bliss. Rather, it stokes the fires of fear. So look into what frightens you. Look at the big face of fear and look into the details. You may discover that fear is like the Wizard of Oz, a showman with little substance and much bravado. Or you may find something more substantial. Then, look more deeply, but with kindness to yourself.
Never forget humor. One of the best antidotes to fear is humor, in the sense of celebrating life, not making fun of yourself or others. Daily life offers a pretty steady stream of humorous encounters. It’s hard to be terrified when you have a broad grin on your face.
Accept help. Sometimes the help you need is to talk with someone about your fears. Sometimes it’s sharing a good meal and a laugh with a friend. A small note of caution: Accepting help doesn’t necessarily mean taking everybody’s advice. Seek professional help if you need it.
Open the door wide to your fear and anxiety. Touch it. Be curious about it. Then let it go. See the contrast between your anxiety and the space around it.
Helping Others to Open the Door
In addition to working with personal fear and anxiety, each of us has the ability to help others overcome and work with their fears. Even the most fearful person can lend a hand, in the right circumstance. When you have the chance and the ability to help, seize the moment: Even noticing someone else’s anxiety or fear can be helpful to him or her. You can assist by just sharing that space. You might practice meditation together, take a walk, sit in silence. If you’re helping someone else, you’ll be helping yourself as well. The world gets bigger when you notice the other people in it. Sometimes, it seems difficult to extend a finger, let alone a hand, to others, especially when one’s own anxiety or depression is great. But just by lifting our gaze ever so slightly to include another, we can often cheer someone up a little and also cheer up ourselves.
Sometimes a person or a group has the opportunity to change a great deal for other people in the world—for better or for worse. The terrorists in Paris acted for worse. On the other hand, Canada recently elected a prime minister, Justin Trudeau, whom the New York Times called an antidote to cynicism and “a leader who can restore pride to high office and rekindle the national spirit.” This “for better” moment surely will pass. Like the awful events in France, such moments are quite unexpected. Still, we shouldn’t underestimate our ability to influence our world. As we can see, the world needs us all to pitch in. Change needn’t begin on a grand scale. Like the Parisian Portes Ouvertes, small gestures can sometimes have profound effects.
The interesting thing, then, is that the other side of fear is fearlessness. The word “anxious” does not only express fear or worry. If your parents say they are “anxious” to meet your boyfriend or girlfriend, it may make you “anxious,” but they are eager—not apprehensive. Similarly, fear contains a great deal of energy. It can be a source of courage. When something makes us afraid, it shocks us, but it also perks us up.
Not long after the tragic events in Paris, an email arrives in my inbox, inviting me to join the global community to say: Nous Sommes Unis, “We are One,” asking us all to share a message of solidarity in response to the awful events in Paris. A spark of courage can find us at the worst of times.
In darkness, many have remarked, we find the stars that can light our path. It’s advice that applies as much to our individual experience as it does to societal disasters. In the darkest hours, take your telescope and look for a star, listen to an owl hooting at the moon, or meditate in your chair and wink at the next fear that comes your way.
Many things make us anxious or afraid. We have fears or concerns about catastrophic loss and change, fears of our own death, of illness and being injured, of losing loved ones, losing our jobs or our home, and other major changes in life. There are smaller fears and anxieties: anxiety on a bad hair day or other embarrassments about how we look; concerns that our three-year old isn’t potty trained, fear of walking into a meeting late with green stuff in our teeth! Fear can strike anywhere, any time, at any level. And if fear bombs aren’t enough, we also have General Anxiety.
This exercise is about looking at your fears of the day, in the here and now. Set aside a period of time, from 10 minutes up to half an hour. Use half your time to notice your fears. Use the other half to contemplate and release them. It’s good to do this when you aren’t distracted by too many other demands. Taking a walk with your fear is a good option.
Three Ways to Take a Walk With Your Fears
1 – Notice what makes you anxious. A fire truck goes by with the siren on. Do you worry where the fire is and whether you’re affected? You walk by a house with a barking dog in the yard. Does this make you anxious? You walk by someone you don’t know. Are you anxious about how the person is seeing you? When nothing outside makes you anxious, do you still feel general anxiety? A thought comes up of someone you know who is very ill. You think about your own health. Is there anxiety around that? Did the world news make you anxious or fearful? What are you most concerned about?
2 – Jot down some of the fears and anxieties you felt. If you don’t have paper and pencil, make a mental list. Then spend your remaining time contemplating the things that came up. Bring one of these feelings vividly to mind, let it be there, and then release your fear. Let it go. You can do this for each individual fear, for a few prominent or recurring fears, or for all of them at once.
3 – Notice how you feel after doing this. Do you feel more in tune with yourself? Less anxious? More anxious? More aware? If this exercise is helpful, try to do it once a week.
Practice: See it, feel it, be it
Try these three ways of working with your fear. They are all ways of opening yourself to the strong emotion, as if it were a friend you’re trying to get to know better. You want to know why the fear is the way it is.
1 – See the fear
This method uses our logical, examing mind to uncover what fear and anxiety are all about. Ask yourself what you’re afraid of. Then ask yourself some questions about what you fear:
What’s the worst that can happen?
Can I do anything to change the situation that frightens me?
Look more closely at what you’re afraid of. See if you can break it down into smaller pieces.
Is this fear tied up with memories or past experiences?
Am I afraid of something happening now, that happened before, or that I think will happen in the future?
2 – Feel the fear
Sit with your fear. How does it feel in your body? Does your breathing change when you’re afraid? Do you feel other bodily changes?
Is there an arc to your fear, where it increases, peaks, and then subsides?
If you stay with your fear— neither grasping onto it nor trying to get rid of it—do you find other feelings beneath or within the fear? Do you find any sadness there? Is there anger?
3 – Be the fear
This method is deeply intuitive. If you feel able to do so, try to identify with the fear completely. Be the fear. In this case, there’s no difference between the fear and you. Who is afraid? What is there to be afraid of?
Practice: Transforming Fear
Leading researchers posit mindfulness meditation as a form of exposure therapy. When we meditate we rehearse our fears in a way that can “extinguish” them.
In evolutionary terms, fear is adaptive. That intense charge to your nervous system in the face of perceived threats can save your life. But like any adaptive behavior (eating and drinking, for example), it can get out of hand and end up harming you. Consider the wear and tear on the nervous system if every time you entered a room full of strangers, you freaked out at a level appropriate for being chased by gun-toting guerillas.
Exposure therapy is a popular behavioral regimen designed to help people who have difficulty “extinguishing” conditioned fear, such as post-traumatic stress sufferers. The notion of “extinction” or “extinguishing” comes from the psychology of classical conditioning. Pavlov’s dog learned to associate a ringing bell with food and salivate in response, but after the bell rang repeatedly without any accompanying food, the animal stopped salivating. That response was “extinguished.”
Exposure therapy seeks to extinguish a fear response by presenting someone with a stimulus that would normally cause fear but prevent the usual response. Take fear of public speaking: By rehearsing and training yourself to notice your responses, you could eventually extinguish your acute fear of getting up in front of a group of people. In a recent paper, “The neuroscience of mindfulness meditation,” in the journal Neuroscience, three leading mindfulness researchers— Yi-Yuan Tang, Britta K. Holzer, and Michael I. Posner—postulated that mindfulness meditation may be acting as a form of exposure therapy. According to the authors, “Research on fear conditioning has helped to identify a network of brain regions that are crucial for the extinction of conditioned fear responses.” And now, there is emerging evidence from MRI studies that mindfulness meditation training alters this same brain network.
In short, the authors suggest that from the safety of our meditation posture, we can expose our mind to fears, and thereby train it to extinguish the fear when the response is maladaptive.
The neuroscience research may confirm the long-held belief among meditators that mindfulness practice helps us see that many of the things we’re afraid of are not as scary as we think.
Mindful Writing Practice: Hello There, Fear!
Another way of checking in with your fear and also touching into fearlessness is to communicate directly with those feelings, by letter! See if your language or your feelings change, when you address the fearful and the fearless you. You might find this is a way to bring humor into your anxiousness.
As examples, below are letters I wrote to myself.
After you write your own letters, reflect on them. Is there a difference in your language when you identify with being afraid versus being fearless? Notice how you felt when you wrote each letter and how you feel now. Did you discover anything?
Last night, you were worried you wouldn’t wake up in time to get to the airport for your flight. You woke up three times during the night, the last time just before the alarm went off.
You were anxious on the way to the airport, since it was before dawn. You’re always anxious about driving when it’s dark. Seemed to go fine though, didn’t it? Now you can worry about driving in a strange city, when you get off the plane. Go for it.
You really got uptight when you heard on the radio that an Air France flight was diverted to your home city because of a bomb threat. All the news of Paris and what’s happening in Europe and the Middle East flooded in.
Of course, you manage to worry about other family members, friends, and colleagues. You want to keep them safe, but you’re afraid something bad will happen to them.
Now, you’re on the flight and so far, everything’s okay. I’m sure you’ll find more things to worry about.
The coffee was good this morning. Feels great to be going on this trip. You’re excited to be seeing old friends and relatives.
The world is a mess. We have so much to do. What can we do? You’ll need every ounce of courage you have—it does seem that way. You didn’t expect to be called upon to be brave but it seems that everyone is called.
I feel sad for the world. I want to help. Love is the most important thing. It’s good to be alive. For a Klingon, it’s always a good day to die.
Go on, have another cuppa.
For three more ways to get comfortable with your fears, read Carolyn’s article Transform Your Fears Mindfully.