What is fear?
noun- an unpleasant emotion caused by the belief that someone or something is dangerous, likely to cause pain, or a threat.
synonyms: terror, fright, fearfulness, horror, alarm, panic, agitation, trepidation, dread, consternation, dismay, distress
verb- be afraid of (someone or something) as likely to be dangerous, painful, or threatening.
Fear differs from anxiety. Fear is different from panic. Fear is not the same as terror. However they all seem to be interrelated and often times confused with one another. And there’s no doubt, we know it when we feel it.
As I started to research for this article, I realized that the word “fear” was overused in our culture. It was easy for me to identify what is was not, rather than agree with most conventional definitions. However, by virtue of being human, we have all felt fear in our lives in one form or another. Therefore, we are all experts in our own experience with fear.
The word “fear” seems to be a catchall for many unpleasant emotions, each seemingly designed to cause a reaction within our bodies, within our lives. In my experience, fear has prevented me from doing something I otherwise may have dreamt of doing. Many argue, fear is designed to keep us safe. I am not sure I agree that is the whole truth.
Regardless of your stance on fear, it does indeed have quite a bit of power shaping the lives of many.
Fear is powerful.
Fear, as a topic, comes up quite a bit for us now. But not how you may think. It comes up in the form of questions asked of us, seeking the tricks we used to overcome fear in our lives. I’ve thought long and hard about this. We haven’t become ‘fearless” nor are we extraordinarily brave. We’ve merely learned to transform our relationship to fear and prevent it from becoming a dominant force in our lives.
That is the purpose for this article, an attempt to provide a resource for you.
My former reactions caused by fear have pretty much ceased but the lessons they’ve granted us are profound.
Somehow the lives Miro and I lead, we represent the transcendence of fear. The majority of the questions we receive from our readers is “how do we do this?”
But did we really overcome fear? I’d say no. But what we did learn over the last five years was how to identify, demystify and overcome fearful thoughts as they came up.
My Story with Fear
As clear as I recall my breakfast just a few hours ago, I can recall my most severe encounter with fear that took place a little over fourteen years ago. Miro was a new-born, not more than a few months old. I can recall how sweet he smelled, how soft his skin felt and how much love warmed my soul each time I looked into my tiny baby’s eyes. I can still hear his sweet giggle and see his eyes light up in my mind’s eye as if it was happening in this moment.
Miro and I had received an invitation from one of the parents from our birthing class, an invitation to meet the other families we knew prior to their children’s birth. I was so excited to see everyone and meet their babies. On the evening of our get-together, I became terrified of driving, experiencing the most irrational fears wash over me.
“Don’t go, you’ll crash your car. Don’t go, you’ll die, you’ll get lost and be violently killed, mutilated, decapitated. Don’t go, your child will be kidnapped, taken from you, sold on the black market. Don’t go, you’ll die in a horrible explosion and you and your precious baby will burn to cinder. Don’t go, your child will be in a horrible accident. Don’t go, you’ll ruin Miro’s entire life. Don’t go. Something terrible is going to happen to you both. Don’t go,” the voice of fear shouted over and over in my head.
I could not quiet my voice of fear no matter how hard I tried.
Instead, I tried to reason with the voice of fear shouting louder and louder in my head.
“It really isn’t that far to drive, I drove much farther to work on a daily basis for years and years. This wasn’t rush hour and I know the freeways well,” I pleaded with the voice of fear.
It was straight up the i5 to the 134, a clear shot from downtown Los Angeles to the Valley. I knew the route. I told myself it was irrational and tried to ignore the voice. But the more I tried to ignore it, the voice of fear as it started to demand more attention, yellow louder, insisting I listen.
It said, “you never have thoughts like this, so listen to this now.”
Louder and LOUDER the fearful voice became, and the more I resisted it, the louder the voice seemed to shout at me.
I managed to arrive at the party on time and have a semi-lovely visit with all the new families. But frequently, that voice in my head started up again, and I became increasingly nervous about the drive home.
I dreaded leaving, because at that point, one fearful thought led to another more fearful thought. Five minutes into my drive home on the empty Los Angeles freeway, I was forced to pull off onto the shoulder.
I sobbed, frozen in fear.
I was scared. No, actually, I was terrified. Not just terrified, but petrified.
I was literally frozen with fear and could not move.
I wasn’t sure of exactly what, but I looked over at my beautiful newborn son fast asleep in his car seat and I sobbed on the side of the freeway because I was too afraid to drive. I was frozen in fear and it took me close to an hour to gain my composure in order to even attempt driving again.
It was irrational fear, but once it gained control of me, it had full and complete control. I could not do anything to combat it, and the cascading thoughts, one on top of another turned into a snowball of fear, freezing me from taking any action. I could only sit there, on the side of the freeway and shake and cry.
Fortunately, that is the most severe bout I’ve had with fear. The reminder of the power of fear, the completely in-control fear, fear that managed to control my every move, spooked me even more than ever now.
Who was the voice of this fear? Why did it have so much power in my head?
Fear is so very powerful.
Prior to our travels, my relationship to fear was completely unconscious, rarely a focus, but when it did rear its ugly head, I was acutely aware of its presence.
I knew intimately the physical responses fear caused in my body from the racing heart, sweaty palms, to the dry mouth and frozen from action. However, I never considered my relationship to fear nothing but “normal” as many I knew experienced panic attacks and crippling anxiety.
And that certainly wasn’t me.
A friend on facebook said this about the difference between fear and anxiety:
“I see a spider: Fear.
A spider is on me: Panic and Anxiety.”
I know many of my friends have panic attacks and anxiety disorders, but I was sure I did not have that.
I was certain I had a “normal” relationship to fear. I believed that my fear was neither overreaching, nor absent, and my levels of fear were “respectable”.
On the few occasions when my fear managed to dominate my experience, I acquiesced to its power and just let it run its course, without question. After all, what choice did I have? We all know, “fear “ is bigger than the individual and there is absolutely nothing a person could do about it.
The Purpose of Fear
Fear must have been designed to keep us safe on some level, activating the fight or flight reaction. But somewhere down the line, the purpose of fear in our lives was usurped and used to manipulate us. Advertising, governments, religions all used fear as a means to control the masses.
Coming from a background in advertising and branding, I am acutely sensitive to fear being used as a means of manipulation in order to create value in a product or service. I can usually decipher the fear based messages and tap into the emotional reactions such messages convey. In a recent blog post in the New York Times, fear was examined through the eyes of citizens of the State, used to manipulate policies and justify the removal of personal liberties in the name of fear. Summed up pretty well:
“The British philosopher Bertrand Russell, writing as World War II was drawing to a close in Europe, observed that “neither a man nor a crowd nor a nation can be trusted to act humanely or to think sanely under the influence of a great fear.” Russell’s point was that irrational fear can propel us into counterproductive activities, ranging from unjust wars and the inhumane treatment of others to more mundane cases like our failure to seize opportunities to improve our everyday lives.”
Somehow we view that fear is out side of ourselves, bigger than ourselves, removed from our individual control. Then we simply accept fear as being part of the system we live in and definitively how the world functions.
The world’s fears are real. But what of our personal fears? What of those emotionally controlling thoughts we identify as our personal fears? Well those are shame filled meant to be kept quiet and hidden of course.
The Role Fear Plays in People’s Lives
FEAR: A recipe for disaster
Mix 2 parts fear, 1 part shame and shake, until dissolved. If fear does not dissolve, cover them in an air tight container mix with medication, either prescription or self medicating, your choice.
In all cases, you must do whatever you can do to ACT NORMAL!
Within the American culture, fear plays a major role. However on a personal level, fear may be a person’s greatest teacher. In many respects for Miro and I, fear has helped us transform the way we live our lives.
I asked others what role fear played in their lives, here are a few of their responses:
“Fear, once recognized, can be so helpful as a guide to move us in the direction we need to go. Perhaps, if someone is accustomed to stuffing fear, it takes some practice to acknowledge it and learn to act productively on it.”
“Fear is my motivator. Usually comes as the things I’m avoiding so I need to be aware of that all the time. Then go towards it, instead of away.”
“I’ve learned to recognize fear as a sign that the steps/action I’m considering taking is probably the right path to take… whenever I’m going to be pushed outside of my comfort zone, I’m afraid, but actually taking those steps and moving out has brought the greatest growth, adventure, memories and fun!”
“Well, fear has definitely helped shape who I am. Fear of the dark and fear of being forgotten or left behind as a child. Fear of having my secret hiding place found out by someone I didn’t trust.
Growing older – Fear of the unknown grew into fear of success which morphed into fear of failure.
I have had the fear for my own safety force me to be brave when I didn’t think I had it in me . . . and now, the fear I have for what is happening around the world and in this country has settled in. . .
Fear forces us to be stronger than we imagine possible.”
“What role does fear play in my life? Most succinctly: Fear takes hold and strangles the possibility of joy in my life.
An adventurer at heart, my childlike, impetuous soul says ‘yes, let’s do that!’ And then a rush of my failures, embarrassments, and voices of once-respected ‘authorities’ envelops me and concludes with the question, ‘why even try?’
But! Once I am able to identify and label that insecurity as ‘fear,’ I am – mostly – able to shake it off and say, ‘Yes! I will try to do that. And it’s ok of I screw up, embarrass myself, or challenge someone’s opinions. I am worthy of this adventure and the joy it may bring!”
~ Greta Wischmann
“Regarding fear: fear is a motivator for me. I also use it as a temperature gauge to know how important something is to or for me. Often the more I fear something – the more I want it, it pushes me, is important for my growth. So whatever I fear, I try to do. Stop and breathe and then do it.”
For many, fear seems to be a source of power, a motivator for change, an invitation to step out of their comfort zone. Many have seemed to have found the key to make this possible. And I wanted this formula too and was determined to figure it out.
Understanding Fear & My Own Fearful Thoughts
In the early days of our travels, again, fear washed over me. I felt on edge, wide-eyed and timid. I remember stepping into the hot Mexico air, feeling disoriented, confused and completely out of my comfort zone. I felt afraid that I had made a terrible mistake. I felt fear that Miro and I were in danger. I felt certain something terrible would happen to us.
I had so many fearful thoughts running through my head I felt, once again, like that new mother stuck on the side of the freeway frozen in fear.
I was afraid and full-blown fear was dominating my experience.
I realized very quickly fear had no place to hide. Fear was either going to control our travels or become a quiet companion. I committed to the later.
Even though I was feeling full-blown fear during the first days of our travels, I had a sense that my fears were irrational. The idea of having an “irrational thought” led me to the belief that my fears were indeed nothing more than “thoughts”. I had promised myself that under no circumstances could I allow Miro to see the fear I was experiencing nor would I allow him to take on my fears as his own. The more I became clear of my commitment to travel without fear, the more I became obsessed with not allowing fear to control my experience. Nor Miro’s.
As soon as I made the connection that my fears were actually a series of “fearful thoughts” a lightbulb went off for me.
Hmmmm…. I had some experience dealing with “limiting beliefs” during my quest for self-healing my childhood issues. I read dozens of self-help books, practiced all kinds of meditation and explored multiple modalities of healing.
But this was the first time I decided to treat my fears as thoughts, instead of some powerful monster who had the ability to rule my life.
“Thoughts…..” I had dealt with them in the past and found Byron Katie’s, The Work, helpful in challenging limiting beliefs. I bet the same process would work on “fear” too, since I was adamant to view fears as nothing more than powerful thoughts.
That became the turning point in dealing with and dissolving my fears.
About Byron Katie’s, The Work
Using “The Work” to challenge my fearful thoughts proved to be successful. The program designed by the self-help guru Byron Katie is free, simple and there are many online videos available to watch her facilitate others moving through their own limiting beliefs and fears. Simply, The Work consists of personal inquiry including writing down the belief or in my case, “the fear” and asking yourself four simple questions about the beliefs followed by turning the thought around to consider the opposite. I describe the feeling of doing The Work as loosening the thought from our personal identity. In other words, taking steps to dis-identify with the thought and allowing it to be just that, a thought, versus the truth. It was a tool that works for me and every time I still come across limiting beliefs in my own life, I pull out a piece of paper and go through the process.
The Work is free, nothing to buy, but she does run workshops and has authored several books. However, I’ve never bought or read any, but have gained tremendous value by the simplicity of “challenging my thoughts” through Byron Katie’s process.
You can find links to download the worksheets in several languages here.
Learning What Fear Feels Like in My Body
After I started to treat my fears as merely fearful thoughts, I started to notice a remarkable thing: Not only did fear show up in my body, but I could identify fear by where it was showing up in my body. For me, fear was always felt in the same place. In fact, Miro and I started to play with this awareness. We decided to explore emotions and their placement in our bodies together. We discovered fear felt different to each of us in terms of it’s physical manifestations and locations.
Then we noticed a few other things.
We could identify how inspiration felt in our bodies as well. We could even identify where instinct was being experienced in our bodies. That awareness brought both Miro and I great strength and confidence.
Because of this, I know now, that I will never find myself on the side of the freeway frozen with fear.
My Relationship to Fear NOW
As Miro and I moved through our first year of travels together, we continued to talk about fear, intuition and inspiration quite a bit. We practiced focusing our attention on those feelings as tools instead of giving power to fear. Only then when we brought a conscious intention to the fear we now call “fearful thoughts”, we discovered that we were stronger than them. Once we realized that “there is nothing to fear“, we became liberated and our travels became more adventurous.
Now, I realize that fear is a trick my brain used to keep me focused on thoughts that were “future” based. Keeping focused on the future ultimately prevented us from venturing out of our comfort zone in the present. (Focusing on the future is just as dangerous as focusing on the past. It is kind of like a dog chasing its tail for hours upon end.)
We generally feel safe in the world. That is not to say life’s circumstances never present us with scary situations. But when it does, our instinct kicks in. As was the case on the occasion that I had to pick up a rock to defend myself. But now, I refer to that situation as instinct.
Now, without fear, Miro and I became freer in the present moment and inspiration became our guide. Almost five years into our travels, my son and I have learned these lessons and continue to deepen our relationship to the world because of these amazing tools we’ve found within ourselves.
What We’ve Learned About Fear, So Far
Here are 10 things we’ve learned about fear that can help you dissolve it’s power in your life:
1. Fear always emanates a physical response in the body.
In recent Discover Magazine article we can see how happiness and shame show up in the body. The same goes for fear. Fear creates a chain reaction in the brain, starting with stressful thoughts which releases chemicals that cause the heart to race, rapid breathing, pushing more blood into the muscles. These physical reactions are preparing the body for the fight or flight response. In the case of coming face to face with a bear, these physical attributes are designed to keep us safe in threatening situations. However, repetition with this type of thinking can also cause tremendous stress in the body which may lead to disease.
2. Fear can prevent us from enjoying our lives.
As I’ve discovered, fear has tremendous power in many people’s lives. But when fear has become so powerful, preventing us from experiencing joy our lives, it has become time to take action. If we agree, fear is merely a fearful thought, then it seems outlandish that our own thoughts can keep us from experiencing our human gift, the gift of enjoying our lives. Wayne Dyer once said (and wrote a book with the same title), “Change your thoughts – Change Your life.” I couldn’t agree more.
3. Resisting fear always strengthens its power.
When I started to become conscious of having fear, I realized a few things in hindsight. First, the unconscious presence of the fearful thoughts and the internal resistance to them, created a destructive cycle within me. I intuitively resisted the fearful thought but in reality I was giving more power to them. Soon, the resistance started to cause the thought to repeat over and over in my mind and its intensity grew louder. In hindsight, I realized the only weapon I had against the growing strength of a fearful thoughts were giving it full attention, not resisting the thought or trying to ignore it. Full attention can transmute fear into nothing.
4. Fear ALWAYS leads to negative & limiting thinking patterns.
If I allowed my fearful thoughts to play its course, fearful thoughts seemed to breed more fearful thoughts. Soon, those fearful thoughts became beliefs which contributes to building the foundation of my reality. Unfortunately, some of those believes were based on ideas that simply weren’t true. Additionally, many believe that if you continue to focus on your fears, you are indeed contributing to the process of making those things happen.
“I am learning that fear takes a lot of mental energy and when you dedicate a lot of time thinking about something you realize/manifest it. I had two big fears in life and I would think about them and dream about them a lot and they both happened. I believe it was because of the time I spent thinking about them.”
5. Fear can teach each us a lot about ourselves.
By learning to identify the fearful thoughts we’ve subconsciously allowed to become our beliefs, we can transform our lives by replacing those thoughts with beliefs that actually serve us. For example, I have a strong irrational belief that “the world is a dangerous place,” I may notice this belief is preventing me from traveling with confidence. If I replace this belief that “the world is a safe place,” I become more confident within my travels which ultimately improve my quality of life.
6. Fear is not the enemy. Fear can be a gift.
Anything that promotes positive change in our lives should be viewed a gift. Fear can do that.
“Fear has been a great guide to living a more enlightened life. It has been through leaning into my fears and working through them I have come to have more peace.”
7. There seem to be two universal fears.
Most fears fall into two camps: Fear of Loss and Fear of the Unknown.
1.) Fear of loss can be defined as fear of death, fear of change, fear of harm, fear of loosing a job, fear of poverty (and many others). Sometimes these are irrational fears, sometimes times these fears are warranted through the particular life situations. Either way, these fears rarely match the situation and our thoughts generally give more power to them, blowing them out of proportion.
2.) The second most common universal fear is fear of the unknown. Many people experience this fear as an overwhelming response to a situation they cannot predict the outcome to. Many people feel the need to have power and control in their lives and the “not knowing” is simply uncomfortable. I would venture to say, allowing feelings of discomfort to turn into fearful thoughts is one of the most destructive ways we prevent ourselves from enjoying our lives. Taking chances by stepping out of our comfort zone is really the zest of life. Those that find themselves frozen in fear preventing them from facing the unknown have shut themselves down from so many amazing experiences. A wise man once said, “life begins outside of your comfort zone.” Don’t be afraid to go there.
8. We each have our own individual triggers that cause fear as a response within us.
Understanding that each person is a unique individual, it is important to understand that each person has unique triggers causing their individual experience of fear. There is no formula to determine universally what that may be. This is why it is important to do your own work, take time to observe your internal physical responses to fear and identify them when they arise. Only then can you take note as to what triggers that fearful response within yourself. For some, it may be tied to cultural belief. For others it may be tied to childhood experience. And even for others, a certain word may trigger as fearful response. With some practice, bringing awareness to those triggers, you can observe the fearful thought and transmute it into nothing more than a thought, versus allowing it to subconsciously run the “fear program” in your mind.
9. Many fears are simply our personal relationship to uncertainty…
Going back to the universal fears listed in #7, we each have a personal relationship to the unknown. Become conscious of how you feel about not knowing what is going to happen next and ask yourself, is this really something I need to fear? I’ve discovered freedom in “uncertainty”, which has granted me the power to create, inspiration to explore and an invitation to step out of my own comfort zone. I am no longer afraid of not knowing what will happen next, and that is one of the most freeing side effects of our journey through fear.
10. We have the power to change our relationship to fear.
I feel strongly that a fearful outlook can be overcome. Like anything it takes commitment and inner inquiry. Through our journey through fear, both Miro and I feel empowered in our lives. You can too.
Fear and You
I would like to leave you with a couple of questions to consider:
1.) What would you do if you did not have fear in your life?
2.) How would your life any look different then it does right now?
I’d love to hear from you, please leave your answers and comments below. And, if you liked this article, please feel share it with your friends and social networks.
I have to say that the only thing I fear at the moment is more pain than I am already in. I know the toll it takes, and I know how bad it can get. That said, I do work through it, meditation and becoming above the pain, if that makes sense. Great article, lots to think about and process.
Love this reflection and analysis–and it is so true. So many of my fears are either rooted in the past or in what might- with a big if- happen in the future. Moving through each day living in the present is not always easy, but is a great goal and strategy! Thanks so much for sharing!
Thanks for this great insight into fear and for sharing your own stories. In the past I have suffered from some irrational fears that have had quite an impact on my life, but I think as I have grown up I have unconsciously overcome them. These day, I prefer to face any fears head on and sometimes go out of my way to do things that terrify me.
It’s important to not let fear put you in the cage. It’s prudent to listen to it so you can plan for what could happen … after that, just move onwards…!