Lissa Rankin on Moving from Fear to Freedom



Lissa Rankin wears many hats: physician, mystic, author, artist, speaker and blogger. What unites her many pursuits is a passion for helping people optimize their health and understand how science and spirituality converge toward that goal.

A former obstetrician and gynecologist, Rankin is the founder of the Whole Health Medicine Institute, in San Francisco, which trains doctors in mind-body-spirit medicine. She’s authored six books to date, including the bestseller Mind over Medicine, The Fear Cure and The Anatomy of a Calling. She lives in California’s Marin County and blogs at LissaRankin.com.

What common signs indicate that fear is affecting our health?

When people are sick, there is almost always an element of fear. Many of us have “ridden shotgun” at one time or another with a health diagnosis, and that’s scary, so even if it’s not predisposing the illness itself, it can stimulate fear. Studies from institutions such as the Harvard School of Public Health and Carnegie Mellon University have discovered strong correlations between fear, stress and anxiety and health issues. When fear is predisposing us to illness, addressing the root cause of the issue is preventive medicine.

Whether triggered by something trivial or real, fear activates the “fight-or-flight” stress response in the brain. The body has natural self-healing mechanisms, but these only operate when our nervous system is relaxed, so effectively dealing with fear is foundationally critical to wellness.

How can we distinguish between true and false fear?

True fear is an actual threat to physical survival, like being approached by someone wielding a gun. However, most fear is generated by a story we make up in our minds. Our wild imaginations, the source of beautiful creativity, can be a destructive force, too, as we envision all kinds of worst-case scenarios, most of which will not come true.

Modern-day humans average more than 50 stress responses a day, which indicates we’re way off track in our relationship to fear. The mind constantly strategizes how to get what it wants and avoid what it doesn’t. A spiritual practice can help interrupt the “monkey mind” constantly ruminating on what could go wrong.

Paying attention to fear around practical issues like not being able to pay bills is helpful because it can keep us from being reckless, such as buying an unneeded luxury item although our mortgage payment looms. But letting false fear prevent us from following a dream, ending an unhealthy relationship or leaving a toxic job can predispose us to illness. Fear is the emotional equivalent of pain in the body. Attend to it when it arises; try to understand what it is telling you and see what’s in need of healing.

What are some effective ways to defang false fear?

Ultimately, we need to come into the right relationship with uncertainty; it’s the gateway to possibility. People often think that fear provides protection, when our intuition, which typically requires a relaxed state of mind, is a far more effective protector. There have been studies about doctors following their hunches to a patient’s underlying condition, leading to life-saving diagnoses.

How can we cultivate courage, curiosity and resilience, rather than feed our fears?

Cultivating a spiritual practice such as mindfulness helps put a pause between a feeling like fear and the reaction that might ensue. You learn to sit with uncomfortable feelings and recognize the story you are spinning in your mind about what’s happening. It also means letting go of expectations when things don’t go as planned.

Fear is my cue to activate a practice of surrender; to turn something over to the universe. I will also ask for help to calm my heart and let go of attachments. For me, this life-changing practice means I now trust the mystery more than my mind. I trust the unknown more than science and logic. The latter may be useful tools when doing taxes or a research paper, but I don’t trust them to be the best navigation system of my life or help me in a crisis.

Psychology isn’t enough to address fear, which comes with the territory if you think that we are just flesh robots programmed to maximize self-interest, alone in a hostile universe. Once you learn to see the possibilities and hand over the wheel to a greater, benign organizing intelligence, something unwinds in the nervous system and we relax into the wonder of mystery.


Connect with freelance writer April Thompson at AprilWrites.com.


This article appears in the November 2017 issue of Natural Awakenings.

Edit ModuleShow Tags

More from Natural Awakenings

Try Some Stretches

Not all stretches are alike, so it helps to know what kind to do for what purpose.

Pumped Up About Geothermal

People are finding that geothermal pumps, which draw on the below-ground temperature of 50 degrees to heat and cool buildings, make sense environmentally and economically.

Preventing, Reversing and Managing Diabetes Naturally

When we’re aware of the physical and emotional components of diabetes, it’s easier to make the lifestyle changes that ward it off.

Not Your Grandma’s Stuffing

The time-honored Thanksgiving dish is evolving to include healthy ingredients such as black rice, cauliflower, chestnuts and pecans, sometimes stuffed in an apple or squash.

Not Your Grandma’s Stuffing

The time-honored Thanksgiving dish is evolving to include healthy ingredients such as black rice, cauliflower, chestnuts and pecans, sometimes stuffed in an apple or squash.

Add your comment:
Edit ModuleShow Tags

See More »This Month

When Counting Sheep Just Doesn’t Work

Here are some simple tips to help to avoid the behaviors and conditions that might reduce the quality of sleep and enrich our sleeping hours.

Make this Tasty Italian Soup at Home

Warm up this winter with this healthy family recipe for Pasta e Fagioli from Bob Mariano, chairman, president and chief executive officer of Roundy’s, Inc.

YES Green Living Celebrates Grand Opening

On November 15, YES Conservation will open YES Green Living, a new store at in Evanston, that is focused on items made and sold with the planet in mind.

The Adoption Process from A to Z

Sally Wildman, JD, a frequent speaker and Chicago and Northbrook attorney, is offering a workshop, The Adoption Process from A to Z.

A New Approach to the Holidays

The Chicago Connection for Higher Instruction (CHI), a division of The Feng Shui School of Chicago, will present A Holiday Sensory Journey of Abundance.

Simple Green Changes

With a new Earth Day celebration upon us, what better time to make a resolution and implement helpful changes at home?