Many people experience a kind of free-floating fear. It maybe fear of making a mistake at work and being thought of as a failure. It might be fear of not being a good enough parent. Some people feel they are not worthy of love or acceptance, so they fear rejection. It could be the vague, persistent fear that something is going to go wrong, even if we haven’t identified what that something is.
At times fear is rational and based in survival, perhaps during a hurricane or time spent in a war zone.
Psychologist and teacher of Buddhist meditation Tara Brach encourages people in every walk of life to recognize and make peace with fear. Her message stands whether the fear is big enough to be recognized as gripping fear, persistent anxiety, or is hidden under busyness or distractions like unhealthy food or drugs.
Understanding the reason for fear and learning to be gently present with it gives us space to live in the moment. Knowing that fear is present, but not dominating our life, allows us to make the most of what’s actually going on, says Brach in a presentation called “Attend and Befriend: Healing the Fear Body.”
“When a person is depressed or making judgements about others or reacting to others, if we look underneath these moods, what we find is fear,” says Brach.
Fear affects the sympathetic nervous system which activates the fight-or-flight response. That causes effects in the body that can hang on as tight muscles, shallow breathing and generalized tension.
In much earlier times, fear was needed for survival, but with the evolution of society, fear has become more related to social interaction, says Brach.
So, while most of us no longer have to flee from tigers, fear may be making us flee from ourselves, from connection with others, and from the life energy we can use to make our lives better.
“We suffer because when our sympathetic nervous system is locked into a fight-flight reaction, we’re living in a fearful, anxious mentality,” says Brach.
The origin of the word “worry” is related to “strangle,” she says. “So with fear, in some way, our life force is getting strangled and it takes us away from wholeness and presence.”
The 3 Faces of Fear
Most fear can be recognized in three reactions, says Brach:
- Deflection: Making light of fear, ignoring it or pushing through it with a “stiff upper lip.”
- Substitute gratification: Getting temporary relief that allows us to “zone out,” possibly from TV or intoxicating substances like sugar, food, alcohol or drugs.
- Flight: Getting so busy that we avoid the fear. Taking action, sometimes in a panic, that may cause us to verbally or emotionally attack others or ourselves.
How to Gently Accept Fear and Move Beyond It
The first step to nudging fear out of our lives is to accept it, says Brach. That means recognizing it’s there and saying, “OK, but it’s not taking over.”
Develop a Strategy to Manage Fear
- Pause: Once you acknowledge fear, just “pause.” Even a 5-second pause can create enough distance from fear to start breaking the habit of reacting with anxiety or flight.
- Breathe: During that short pause, pay attention to your breath. Slow down your breathing. Allow the fear to dissipate, as much as possible.
- Feel the fear in your body: You might try putting one hand on your heart and one on the belly, then breathe slowly, inhaling and exhaling equally. See where in the body the fear resides. Is it in the heart? neck? back? hands? Pay attention and accept it, gently. Fighting fear only creates more tension. Let the fear be there. Then slowly move past it.
Caution for Extreme Fear or Trauma
When trauma has occurred, it may not be possible to begin with a gentle inner focus on fear. In that case, working with a therapist you trust can begin to bring healing to the trauma and help you move toward a more gentle approach to accepting fear. Working with someone trained to help heal trauma can lead to developing a personal strategy for changing habitual fear to one of recognition, acceptance and creating inner space to relate positively to yourself and others.
Accepting the presence of fear and learning to break its grip not only leads to accessing your own more peaceful energy, says Brach. Calming individual fear opens the way to connecting with others in the path to social justice and a more peaceful world.
Brach, Tara, “The Trance of Fear,” tarabrach.com, July 24, 2013
Brach, Tara, “Attend and Befriend: Healing the Fear Body,” Youtube video, March 30, 2012.