PRACTICAL IDEAS FOR FACING FEAR AND DEFUSING IT
I have an almost paralyzing fear of heights. I’ve had this fear most of my life. I have always taken to heart the expression that if we face our fear we will conquer it. I can’t honestly say facing my fear of heights has helped me to conquer it. But I have made an effort to face this fear so it would not hold me back from some of the most amazing experiences of my life. I have stood on top of the Eiffel tower, walked the edges of the leaning tower of Pisa, climbed the rickety stairs of Notre Dame cathedral, jumped off the high point of a cliff into a cenote in Mexico and zip lined across the rain forests of Costa Rica. I would have missed out on some amazing experiences if I had let my fear control me.
All of that and you couldn’t pay me enough to sky dive, bungy jump or scale the side of a tall building. I'm not particularly interested in exploring the adrenalin of "real" life threatening thrills.
Isn’t it interesting how fears take a hold of everyone in different ways? What one person is terrified of, another finds exhilarating. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve felt paralyzed by fear and had someone say “its just [fill in the blank]….” I’m know I’ve said the same to other people who’s fear seemed irrational to me. But fear is not always rational. When I am on the balcony of a tall building every cell of being is gripped by the fear that the building is going to fall over. Logical – not at all. Physically paralysing? Absolutely! In that moment the fear is as real as the sky is blue.
There are many ways that experts categorize fear. From a Yogic perspective I believe most fears can be grouped into 2 categories. Both are closely tied with the Kleshas.
Fear of dying or bodily harm – anything that makes you feel physically vulnerable like falling, being bitten or harmed by animals, fear of germs or getting sick etc…
Fears that threaten our ego – shame, vulnerability, humiliation, rejection, losing control, loss of connection, fear of separation or abandonment. These are the fears that threaten your worthiness, autonomy and lovability. I believe these fears are the root of a lot of our culture’s anxiety epidemic.
Some fears are easier to overcome than others. I haven’t overcome my fear of heights but another fear that I have faced and overcome (for the most part;) is my fear of public speaking. This falls into the second fear category of ego. As a child and through my twenties I would be sick with anxiety before presentation and even speaking in groups of more than a few people. In my twenties I began speaking in the media and then got a job teaching. I found the more times I taught the easier it became. I was teaching something I was passionate about and felt confident in what I was doing. This gave me confidence to do more presentations and eventually it became easier. I still get uneasy before a new class or presentation but I have learned how to manage the fear so it doesn’t create more stress and it doesn’t overwhelm me.
Here are 10 ideas to help you manage the stress around your fears and possibly diffuse them.
1. Physical Activity - Fear combined with anxiety makes energy get stuck in the body. Physical activity keeps your body healthy and it keeps your energy flowing. When your energy flows you are better able to deal with stress and anxiety. Choose an activity that is mildly stimulating where you can maintain a rhythmic breath like jogging, walking, biking and yoga.
2. Socialize/share - Humans are naturally social beings – women in particular. When you are struggling with tough emotions like fear, anxiety, stress and grief and you share your experience it naturally diffuses some of the stress that goes along with these feeling. Find someone you know is a compassionate listener and tell them about how your fear impacts your life.
3. Awareness/presence - When you have strong feelings and you bottle them up or hold them in they become like a pressure cooker. The pressure builds and builds - if you don’t let the lid off, it festers inside creating more anxiety and possibly disease. As soon as you notice your fear, take a breath or two and simply be aware that you are experiencing fear. Notice how it is affecting your body, breath, thoughts and emotions. Yoga and meditations practices for overcoming fear can be very helpful for developing awareness. There are two pratices I've used to help bring awareness to my body's reaction to fear.
4. Become frenemies with your fear - Once you are aware of how your fear is affecting you try to be present with it. Using the pressure cooker analogy, take the lid off - just like stew in a crock-pot, smell the aroma or your fear and taste a little. Have a conversation with your fear asking it questions like "why are you hear?" "What are you trying to tell me?". This will allow you to have a deeper awareness of the emotions tied in to your fear.
5. Positive Affirmations - Once you are aware and present and can identify some of the emotions tied in to your fear then you can start to reframe those emotions. Reframe your fear and create a positive affirmation around it. Learn how to create a positive affirmation.
6. Gratitude - Gratitude is more than just a practice to overcome fear in the heat of the moment. It helps you be more joyful and less overwhelmed. Having a daily gratitude practice is like taking vitamins. When you practice every day you will be better equipped to manage negative emotions like fear, anxiety, depression and stress. For some really easy ideas on how to start a gratitude practice check my blog post 5 Gratitude Practices for to Bring Joy to Your Life.
7. Compassion - Like gratitude, compassion and loving-kindness grow stronger with practice. When you are able to cultivate compassion and loving kindness you begin to live from your heart. Show yourself compassion and loving-kindness first and then you will be able to more fully send it out to the people around you. This practice means accepting yourself and the rest of the world as flawed and vulnerable. Pema Chödrön wrote “Compassion is not pity or feeling sorry for someone its is a genuine interest in their wellbeing.” This sense of empathy - free of pity - will allow you to see your darker emotions with perspective so they become less intense and complex.
8. Celebrate Success (even the little stuff) - As soon as you notice a changes in your fear, celebrate them. Treat yourself to cake, dance like a fool, have a massage. Invite a loved you to celebrate with you. When you celebrate even the small stuff you will be working on your gratitude practice as well.
9. Journal - Keeping a journal will support your other practices. Spend some time writing down what fears come up. What triggers fears? Is there a time of day they are most active? What happens when they come up? Where do you feel it in your body and breath. Be an observer and sleuth, investigating every aspect of your fear.
10. Surrender - After you are aware and present and an observer to your fears let them go. Don’t spend time analyzing. Definitely don’t judge or criticize. Accept yourself where you are in the moment, let go and keep practicing. This is also a way to show yourself compassion.
Fear and anxiety take hold in everyone differently and there isn’t one magic formula that will work for everyone. The first 4 on this list are a starting point, after that choose 3 or 4 of the practices that you are curious about. Give them a try and see they feel right.
These practices are meant to help you overcome fears that are "irrational" and become aware of what is rational and what is not. Some fears are rational and shouldn’t be overcome. If your fear is genuine and keeping you from danger than honour it and step away from the situation.
Which of these practices have helped you overcome fear? Please leave a comment, I'd love to hear your story.