When your heart is pounding, your fingers are tingling, and every sensation seems magnified a thousand times. We all recognize it at these extremes.
But do you know where to look for the quieter, insidious fears that steal your attention and energy?
When the obvious signs of fear strike, it’s often the result of external factors outside of our control:
We can all imagine some degree of trepidation in these circumstances…or conjure up another, even more frightening scenario.
Digging deeper, though, we might also uncover subtler fears—the ones that worm their way into our thoughts and won’t let go…
Rehashing chronic concerns has a serious impact on our physical and mental health, as well as our decision-making abilities and memory. Some of these effects stem from the impact of unrecognized fears, which make our future appear more uncertain and out of our control. It’s important to acknowledge, however, that our worries can transform a legitimate concern into a frightening What if? that’s far more devastating.
“Men are disturbed not by things, but by the view which they take of them.”
So what’s the best way to overcome your fears? Stop running from them and take an honest look at what you’re really afraid of. So let’s spend a moment this week to shine a light on those thoughts that have been holding us hostage from being our authentic selves and living our best life.
Maybe your mind has latched onto one area of the future that seems unclear and filled with risk.
It might involve your job or your education, if worry about security is taking up enough mental space to be a distraction. Perhaps a relationship feels fragile or is losing connection, and you’re not sure which direction to pursue—holding on or letting go. For some, our anxieties could be more internal…feeling stagnant in our personal growth or spiritual practices.
Take a moment to consider your unacknowledged fears. Just focusing your attention on those anxieties will help reign in their power over your unconscious thoughts and actions.
While fear can wreck havoc in our subconscious minds, we’re usually not aware of it during every waking moment. Think about when you notice your thoughts spinning with these subtle worries, or when you catch yourself in unwanted habits in an attempt to avoid dealing with life’s uncertainties.
Consider when you are most likely to experience anxiety:
Knowing when these insidious fears are likely to start looping their soundtrack in your mind helps prepare you for how to respond.
While each of us has to confront our own individual anxieties, they present themselves in ways which are unique to us as well.
It’s good to recognize how fear shows up in your life, so you can observe and deflect those moments when it tries to sneak in and covertly influence your decisions.
Most of us are used to fear presenting directly in our minds, through anxious thoughts and negative self-talk. For example, consider how often you speak to yourself in ways you’d never use with a cherished loved one. Become aware of all those times when your attention drifts to the future and stays trapped there, imagining a worst-case scenario.
Many people also experience some level of physical sensations, especially if the fear is strong enough: tremors, clammy hands, muscle tightness, shallow breathing, a rapid heartbeat, a queasy stomach, or a hyper-awareness of and sensitivity to one’s surroundings. When these symptoms accompany racing or scattered thoughts, search below the surface to see if fear is at play.
One of the sneakiest ways that fear manifests in our lives involves our behaviors—often we choose actions from a place of anxiety without even realizing it:
Identifying how fear shows up in your life can make it easier to notice when you’re scared and take steps to alleviate your distress.
So often the fears that drive us to harsh self-criticism or damaging behaviors start out as something small and non-life-threatening. Little worries about getting the promotion at work, connecting with our partner, or remembering to speak gently to our kids. So what causes these minor anxieties to spiral out of control?
I think it happens because these momentary fears don’t stay in the present. We allow them to run amok through the entirety of our imagined future, thinking we’ll never be able to outrun them or choose differently.
Ultimately, these anxieties become so frightening because of what we think it means about us—the type of person other people see, who we are at our core. Each of us desperately wants to be loved and accepted for who we are. And fear creeps in when we believe that we’re not worthy of this gift unless we achieve some arbitrary criteria for our best behavior or an ideal future. Being willing to embrace our humanity—our fallibility—and yet still be good enough is what can help us overcome our fears.
Wouldn’t it be nice to say you never feel afraid? In my experience, it’s unlikely to happen…for anyone. I still encounter my own made-up fears on a near daily basis. Sometimes they’re small enough (or I’m busy enough) to brush them aside.
When a particular worry keeps hanging around, or starts to affect your relationships and life with negative consequences, then it’s time to look deeper. I’d like to describe what works for me during those moments. This isn’t a method for erasing your fears or banishing them from your life.
Rather, I’ve found that the way past fear is to move through it. This isn’t a new concept, but it definitely deserves a bit more exploration. So let me introduce you to a process of meeting your fear in the same way you would greet a dear friend. I invite you to try this out as your Small Step for the week.
Remember how those unconscious fears tend to spin your mind in unwanted directions? Stop the out-of-control fear spiral by noticing when you are afraid. Pay attention to your personal signs that indicate you’re living and/or acting from a place of fear.
Label your anxiety by identifying the associated emotions, and how they are manifesting in your life. Call out your fear. Speak its name.
For those of you who are fans of the movie Labyrinth, recall how Sarah gains freedom from the Goblin King by speaking her truth aloud: “You have no power over me.”
Meeting fear starts this simply—Notice it. Name it.
This is the hardest part of the process. You don’t have to understand your fear. There’s no need to psychoanalyze it or find its origins. Instead, I invite you to be with your fear in much the same manner you’d bring to a dear friend in need.
Be willing to let go of the desire to minimize your discomfort, to subdue your anxieties, or hasten their departure. Just sit with your fears for a few moments.
Feel any physical sensations in your body. Recognize thoughts and impulses should they arise, but resist the urge to act upon them or move your focus away from your sense of fear.
Instead, allow your concerns to be legitimately heard and acknowledged. Open your heart with self-compassion as you witness your pain and anxiety.
This isn’t easy, and it takes practice. I found that hugging a cherished stuffed animal from childhood, or wrapping my arms around myself, made it bearable in the beginning. Moving through the fear is only possible, though, if you’re willing to admit to it and experience it in the present moment.
This step asks you to dig deep and explore your fears—to imagine them despite their frightening potential. If this practice comes across as too overwhelming or potentially harmful, you may want to talk it over with a close friend or therapist, or skip it all together. But for those who dare, there’s freedom waiting on the other side.
1) What’s the worst that could happen?
Once you have connected with your fear, it can be useful to play out each thread of worry in detail. Imagine everything that could go wrong. Then pretend all those possibilities have actually occurred. Breathe slowly, deeply, and ask yourself: What will I do next? And then next? And after that?
Keep going until you have an emergency action plan for your worst case scenario. We’re all capable of strength and resilience when faced with a challenge. Sometimes just elucidating our resources and next steps breaks the spiral of worry.
2) How likely is it that the worst will happen?
What are the chances of the situation you fear coming to pass? Our minds are remarkable magnifying lenses, but they don’t often consider probabilities while spinning reasonable concerns into full blown catastrophes.
If you do determine that you’re headed straight toward what you fear, however, don’t panic. You’ve just created a detailed set of next steps for how to handle this situation. Evaluate whether there is anything from your list you can do to prepare now, just in case. So often action can ease our minds and make navigating difficult situations bearable.
Either way—whether you activate your emergency agenda or not—you’ve taken action to create a plan, which makes moving past the fear possible.
No matter how great or small the chances of your fears coming to pass, it isn’t healthy to keep them circulating on a never-ending loop in your thoughts. Once you acknowledge, accept, and act upon your fears by creating a plan, it’s time to loosen your grip and let them slip away…at least for a bit. Sometimes they will return, and you can re-work the process, meeting them again and again.
For now, try out a few options to find what works best for you when it comes to surrendering your fears:
Talk to someone: a friend, family member, or therapist.
Meditate: focus on your breath or an uplifting mantra. There are many free, guided meditations available.
Time in Nature: a walk outdoors or an awe-inspiring view can do wonders for allowing yourself to let go.
Movement: gentle exercise can clear the mind and uplift the spirit for those so inclined.
Activity: sometimes distraction with non-related activities can help, as it allows you to feel satisfied with progress in other areas of your life.
“The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.”
~Nelson Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom
I always admired this idea—that courage could help you triumph over fear. But in some of my weaker moments, when I couldn’t summon my own daring, it has also left me in despair. How would I ever conquer the fears that hold me back?
I hope I’ve conveyed my experience that a fearless life isn’t truly possible (at least for me) unless I accept whatever is happening in the present moment and look squarely at that which scares me. When I acknowledge that bad things can and do happen, and believe that I am prepared to handle them, then my worries dissipate as quickly as they arrive.
Welcoming fear, and meeting those emotions with grace and compassion, is the surest way to discover our own bravery.
Won’t you leave a comment sharing a fear that you’re willing to let go of?