Making Friends With Fear
Facing fear can help us use it to our advantage. Fear is a response to a perceived threat to our physical or emotional well-being, and we are wired to respond quickly with a cascade of more than 1,400 chemicals that prepare us for “fight-or-flight.” Our bodies don’t stop to ask whether the threat is literally endangering us, they just respond as if it is, based upon our fleeting perceptions.
If our perceptions are on target, the surge of chemicals helps us respond in the moment to protect ourselves from legitimate danger, such as an oncoming car. But often, we perceive or imagine something to be a serious threat in the moment when it really is not. In those instances, we needlessly put ourselves through a significant stress response that pulls vital energy away from functions such as our immunity, growth and repair, digestion and ability to think clearly.
In describing this dilemma, Gavin de Becker, author of The Gift of Fear, states, “True fear is a gift. Unwarranted fear is a curse. Learn to tell the difference.” We have a choice when faced with fear: we can panic, we can stick our heads in the sand and pretend we don’t notice something that is important or we can use the fear to our advantage to give us needed information. Here are some tips to help us face fear and use what it is telling us, rather than ignoring it or running away from it.
Cultivate mindfulness, the practice of becoming aware of our thoughts, actions and intentions in the present moment. Sometimes people practice mindfulness through meditation or prayer, perhaps sitting quietly, breathing deeply and focusing inward. This can be a very powerful practice, especially when done regularly. But every moment of every day is also an opportunity to practice mindfulness. When faced with fear, we can mindfully view it as a helpful signal and imagine that we invite it to join us as a guest at our dinner table, asking it what it wants us to know.
Use positive relationships for support when facing fear. Sharing our worries with trusted people that take us seriously helps us gain courage to face fear and move through it.
Tune in to your body. It may give you some useful information in response to fear. In turn, you can make it easier for your body to calm down, recover from any surge of stress chemicals and restore its natural balance by breathing and relaxing, engaging in some physical activity or enjoying some hearty laughter.
Imagine these scenarios. A woman feels a lump in her breast. She might have a strong, immediate fear reaction that derails her and leaves her unable to think rationally, perhaps assuming that her life is over. Another possibility is that she chooses to ignore what she felt, hoping that it will go away on its own. A third choice is for her to make a doctor’s appointment to get help in figuring out what the lump is and what, if anything, needs to be done about it. She might still feel afraid while scheduling and waiting for the doctor’s appointment, but she is allowing her discovery and accompanying fear to lead her to take action on her own behalf.
A mom whose family lives in an apartment building is having breakfast with her young daughter when she thinks she hears a voice in the distance, yelling, “Fire!” She might panic and freeze, unable to do anything, assuming that she and her family are going to perish. Alternatively, not wanting to frighten her daughter, she might reassure herself that she must have imagined what she heard; that there really couldn’t be a fire in their building and that they should continue their breakfast. The most helpful response would be to check out what she heard by opening the apartment door so she can take steps to protect her family, if needed.
The optimal response in both of these examples is to confront the fear. As First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt said, “You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face.”
Dr. Katherine Puckett, Ph.D., is the national director of Mind-Body Medicine at Cancer Treatment Centers of America. For more information, call 800-333-CTCA, or visit CancerCenter.com.