Today we ask that you develop a healthy response to fear.
Develop a healthy response to fear.
Fear in of itself is not inherently problematic. In animals, for example, a “startle response” is useful. Animals are sensitive to predators and danger. It is useful, in life, to be sensitive to predators and danger.
In humans, however, fear is something else entirely.
Unlike animals, humans have the capacity to imagine things that do not exist. This is, of course, a great gift. Humans are capable of dreaming things into material existence. Imagining something, and creating it. This is a marvelous power. But in most humans, this power is misused.
Most humans use their capacity for imagination negatively. They imagine bad things, frightening things. Bad things that might happen in the future. Bad things that have happened to other people, that they hear about in the news — all the bad things that happen in the world, played out on the mental stage. Or else the imagination is spent reliving things that happened in the past. What people did to you, that they shouldn’t have done. What you did, that you shouldn’t have done.
And so men dream up frightful things in their minds. Animals cannot do this. But men imagine frightening things, and feel very real physical fear in their bodies. And this is not healthy.
While it useful to be sensitive to predators and threats that are real, it is not useful at all to feel terror around threats that are imaginary.
Fear requires a great deal of energy. In nature, when an animal goes into “fight or flight,” an enormous amount of physical energy is used. Afterwards, the animal must rest and recover, sleeping deeply to replenish his resources.
But to be afraid all the time — as so many humans are — this creates an intolerable strain on the body. To always be afraid, to always be playing frightening scenarios in the mind, or reading frightening things online, or watching frightening news, or frightening TV shows and movies — this is like an animal who dwells in the state of “fight or flight” all the time. Such an animal would rapidly become exhausted and show signs of mental disturbance.
That is exactly the state many humans experience: exhaustion, mental disturbance. What is “anxiety” if not chronic fear?
So what is to be done about this?
Awareness is always the first step. Check in with your body, and assess how much fear you are carrying right now. Notice tension in the shoulders, tightness in the chest, throat, and stomach. Notice the quality of your thoughts, how much fear is in your mental background chatter. Do this without judgment. Just observe the situation.
On a scale of 1 to 10, 1 being complete relaxation, 10 being intense terror, where are you right now? What number jumps to mind?
If the level is 5 or higher, just make a note. Pay attention. Track it at different points in your day. How afraid are you? How much fear are you carrying in your body?
If the number is consistently 5 or higher, some work is to be done.
Anyone in a state of chronic fear would benefit greatly from a “retreat” or some kind. Time spent in nature, time away from electronic devices, quiet time that will allow the body’s adrenal system to relax. Many stressed out humans, brought to a peaceful place, will simply sleep. This is what their bodies need — just like animals sleep after a fright.
For many, a retreat is not practical. But there are still steps that can be taken. Limit time spent on electronic devices. Limit exposure to frightening things in the media. Limit exposure to stress-inducing TV and films, as much as you may enjoy them. It is fine to enjoy a good drama, but if you are carrying around a high physical fear load, staying up late watching violent TV or playing video games is like pouring gasoline on a fire. If you value your health, stop. At least take a week off. A week is not so much time.
Once the body unwinds a little, then you can begin the process of gently questioning and examining your fears.
This is like when a child is afraid of monsters under his bed, and a loving adult shines a flashlight and shows him that there is nothing there.
Write down a list of the things you fear. If just writing them down brings up too much physical fear, cease the exercise. Relax. Go for a walk, do yoga, meditate. Wait until you are calmer before trying again.
If you feel basically calm, then you can sit with your fears, and begin to question them.
Are your fears realistic? How likely is it that these dreaded scenarios will actually occur? You can assign numbers here, too — 1 being “Highly Unlikely,” 10 being “Definitely Will Happen.”
This is useful information. It is useful to discover how probable or improbable your fears are. When you know a fear is unlikely to happen, you can remind yourself of this when it arises.
Of course, some fears are realistic. If you fear death — it is true that you will die someday, and this cannot be avoided. Perhaps you fear the break-up of a relationship, and there are very real signs that this is happening.
Fears of this kind are good to face and acknowledge, rather than suppress. Yes, you will die. Sit with this awareness. Yes, this dysfunctional relationship may need to end, or at least change. Sit with this. Instead of running from it or being in denial, sit with it.
Imagine watching these things happen not as yourself, the suffering character in a life drama, but rather as an impartial observer, a witness. As if your life were a TV show, and you could sit back and watch it from the safety of a couch. What might you see from this perspective, that the “character” cannot see?
If you watch characters in TV shows, you will see often that their fears tend to be self-fulfilling, because they are unconscious about them. The controlling parent who tries to emotionally manipulate his child to ensure his love — of course the child comes to hate the parent. The villainous character who tries to make himself safe by destroying his enemies — of course in the end he creates an enemy he cannot destroy, who destroys him. These things are very predictable.
That is how it is with fear. Suppressed fears have a way of showing up. Fears that are kept in the dark turn into big scary monsters. But fears that are brought out into the light of awareness tend to dissolve, like the Wicked Witch in “The Wizard of Oz” when water is poured on her.
In other words, the negative side of the human imagination creates terrors and monsters. But humans also contain within their minds the power to master and dissolve their fears, by using the imagination positively.
It is completely possible for ordinary humans to overcome severe phobias and traumas by harnessing the positive aspects of the imagination. No animal can do this. But humans can.
And one way to do this is by imagining that you are stepping outside of your fearful situation, looking at it as an observer. What would this observer tell you about the things you fear?
Imagine what your present day self might tell your child self or your adolescent self about the fears and hang-ups you had years ago.
Imagine what a calmer, wiser future version of yourself might tell you about your current fears and hang-ups.
That is the essence of developing a healthy response to fear. You no longer simply react like a scared animal, fighting or running away. As a human, you have the power to sit with your fears, to observe them, to shine the light of awareness on them.
When you do, you will discover what your imagination really is for. You will dream good and beautiful things into existence, instead of being paralyzed by mental monsters. Reclaim the gift of your imagination — and with it, your power.