I’ve struggled most of my life with fear and anxiety–at times been crippled by them.
Decades of experience are no guarantee of expertise, because simply doing the same thing wrong a million times teaches you nothing. But I’d like to share what I’ve learned and let you be the judge.
So much of the advice on fear emphasizes how it holds you back from doing things you could do, keeps you in a cage of your own making, deprives you of freedom to be who you want to be. There are times in life this is exactly what you need to hear, because it’s true.
But it’s not the whole truth.
Fear is an authentic instinctive response to some reality.
As it rises, it speaks to the body first, then it’s interpreted by the emotions–it reaches our consciousness as an emotion. Depending on the strength of the response, it often enlists the “muscle” of the imagination. If fear is accustomed to being opposed, it will bring other “friends” too: painful memories, rationalizations that have sensitized you to fear in the past, and so on.
Like all instincts and emotions, fear is a valuable source of information and it has a vital purpose to fulfill. By allowing even the most uncomfortable emotions to fulfill their natural purposes, we cultivate inner peace.
In an important way, fear and its friends are coming to join us in some struggle, and our response many times is to turn from the real opponent and attack them. I’d like you to reconsider the wisdom and effectiveness of that response.
So how do you develop a productive relationship with fear?
- Recognize fear and decide to address it. Dismissal provokes it to work harder to get the message through to you. Fear will enlist more and more brainpower to fulfill it’s primal purpose. The smaller brand-new neocortex is no match for the ancient power of the limbic system. Nature did not intend for them to fight–they are built to work together.
- So, feel and acknowledge the fear. Understand the message it is bringing. Getting the message releases unwarranted or inappropriate fear, allowing it to go back home where it will wait quietly to dispatch the next message. When you consistently process the messages, fear will harness less and less of your mind to communicate with you.
- Once you have the message, respond. Sometimes that response is not much more than to identify the fear as unwarranted, and let it go. There will be times, though, when some kind of action is warranted.
- In those cases, use the perceptual acuity and quick thinking provided by the adrenaline coursing through you to formulate a specific plan.
- Use the heightened physiological activation that fear already brought online in your body to fight or flee. What you fight might be an actual opponent of some kind, or it might be a bad habit that is jeopardizing something you care about. What you flee from probably won’t be a lion, but it might be a situation that poses some risk, even if intangible. Either way, thanks to fear, your reaction time is faster, your heart is ready, your muscles have been primed for maximal output. Even your willpower is at a peak. Fear has prepared your superpowers–use them.
- When you have processed the fear, and responded, then let it go. How do you let it go? Quit holding on to it. Honestly, it wants to go. The brain wants to repurpose all that processing power. Your mind wants to get back to the business of flourishing.
- When fear is processed this way, your body will move on to something called the relaxation response. The body stops emitting stress hormones and goes back to it’s optimal mode for living. And you know you got it right that time.
This is letting fear be your ally.
This approach to fear frees you from conflict, frees you to exercise your capacities for your greater purpose. And virtue comes along for the ride: with fear as an ally, you’ll find that courage comes naturally. This new courage is informed by–alloyed with–conscientiousness. It’s not just courage, it’s a prudent and reasoned courage.
Fear not that thy life shall come to an end.
But rather that it should never have a beginning.
–John Henry Newman
You see? Fear’s message may be the most important thing you ever hear.