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Fear is a human emotion that is a vital response to threat and danger. Fear can act as a lifesaver and also as a life destroyer. It can be a lifesaver when it grabs our attention and spurs us to positive action. When fear is used as a catalyst for good, it can help to move us out of harm’s way, right a wrong, or to choose self-preservation over self-neglect. If a child steps out into a dangerous intersection, our fear mobilizes us to instinctively pull that child back to safety. When we witness the horrific mistreatment of a marginalized population, we organize and rally for change. When we are confronted with a diagnosis of illness, we generate the will to adapt, learn, mend and heal.

We can respond to our fears compassionately and constructively

Fear can also be a life-destroyer. Unbridled fear captures us and holds us hostage to its cruel demands. If these fears are left unchecked, overtime they have the power to disturb us deeply and limit us severely. When this occurs our days can become ruled by anxiety, loneliness and isolation. Worst of all, our fears have the ability to erode and destroy our trust in ourselves, in the goodness of others, and in the joy of living. Fear, left to its own devices, can undermine and hijack our inalienable right to happiness and well-being.

Experiencing fear is inevitable. An unvarnished view of the threats and tragedies reported in the news each day can leave us feeling both helpless and hopeless. The positive side is that there is a critical and encouraging link between our feelings about these threats, both personal and global, our health, and our interdependence with one another. We can harness and dismantle the damaging, domino effect of fear by learning how to respond to our fears compassionately and constructively.

Putting Fear into Perspective

When we are confronted with imminent threat or injury, we instinctively go into survival mode in order to cope with the present danger. But when the perceived threat is something we are watching on the TV or Internet, this activated energy has nowhere to go. As this embodied fear accumulates, we can find ourselves in a state of heightened wariness, worry and anxiety. We just can’t seem to shake off the escalating doomsday feeling that the world is becoming a steadily more frightening place.

When animals are frightened they will freeze temporarily until the danger passes. For us humans this temporary freezing can become a long-term trait. Feeling, as the saying goes, “scared stiff” a good deal of the time can increase the likelihood of escalating anxiety, confusion, mistrust, isolation, depression, and an inability to engage in necessary life tasks. Overtime, our ability to make decisions becomes impaired by this chronic state.

Sociologist Barry Glassner believes that our perception of danger has increased exponentially due to the media’s role in the kind of sensationalism that engenders widespread fear. In his book, The Culture of Fear: Why Americans Are Afraid of the Wrong Thingshe suggests that frightened citizens make better consumers and become more easily swayed voters. He cautions, “False and overdrawn fears only cause hardship.” When this happens entire categories of people are dubbed as “innately dangerous.” As the media continues to spin repetitive stories with horrific images and details, frightened viewers find themselves unable to look away. He encourages us to put the news in perspective by becoming more savvy consumers. We can learn how to differentiate between newsworthy stories and exaggerated, scary sound bites of skewed information and inflated statistics.

In his book, The Science of Fear: How the Culture of Fear Manipulates Your BrainDaniel Gardner believes that as we learn to understand our fears, we will be able to make better choices. He wrote, “It goes without saying that there are plenty of individuals and organizations whose self-interest lies in manipulating decisions of consumers. For example, ‘Here’s something to be afraid of, but if you buy this product, you’ll be okay.’” He asserts that we must become aware of the tendency toward the “contagion” of fear that often follows a cascade of sensationalistic information to avoid abandoning our own judgment and blindly following the lead of others. He closes his book with the hopeful message that, in spite of our many, present day threats and challenges, it’s never been a better time to be alive. Gardner includes this timeless, instructive wisdom from the 18th century writer, Samuel Johnson, “Fear is implanted in us as a preservative from evil; but its duty, like that of the other passions, is not to overbear reason, but to assist it.”

Tips for Responding to Fear

Interrupt It

Fear tends to beget more fear, distorting our perceptions in the process. In a study in the Journal, Current Biology, researchers from the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel found that people who experience frequent anxiety mistakenly overgeneralize their fears. Anxiety colors their perceptions and it becomes difficult for them to distinguish between a neutral, “safe” stimulus and past fearful experiences. Their findings show that over time our fears compound and we tend to react more fearfully, more frequently, regardless of the cause.

Interrupting our fears will help to limit their power. When we feel fearful, we feel out of control. To help yourself shift out of fearful thinking, do a simple task. Examples might include washing the dishes, gardening, exercising, calling a friend, or making a nutritious meal for your family. These simple tasks can remind us that we can be fearful and still make meaningful choices. Each measured step that lessens fear’s grip helps to restore our confidence and trust in our ability to cope in spite of the circumstances. With practice, we will learn to greet new experiences as a fresh beginning instead of assuming it will merely be a fearful replay of past times.

Befriend Your Senses

Our fears can be creative in the wrong direction. When fear takes hold of our thoughts, small concerns can escalate quickly into full blown catastrophic thinking and debilitating ruminations. Tuning in to your five senses can help ground you in the present moment instead of getting lost in anxious, future “what-ifs.”

Try this 9 minute, full-body Centering with Breath Awareness guided audio practice.

Because your breath and your mental/emotional state are so closely linked, changing one will change the other. Breath practices like this help us to quiet the sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight) and instead activate the parasympathetic (rest and restore) part of the autonomic nervous system.

Take a Media Break

Prolonged exposure to disturbing news reports can feel overwhelming. When we are over-saturated with upsetting information our perceptions can become skewed toward a predominantly negative, despairing outlook. But even though we may be feeling increasingly alarmed and drained by our media exposure, we often continue to bombard ourselves with compulsive checking and scrolling through endless feeds. The acronym FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) was coined to explain our fear of not being in the loop of the latest, breaking happenings. If someone casually asks, “Did you hear the news about…” and we haven’t, our FOMO catches fire as we scramble for updates.

The key to staying informed but not swamped is to be exposed to media in small doses. MED (minimum effective dose) is the lowest dose of a pharmaceutical that will create a clinically significant change in health. We can apply that same concept to media viewing.

Draw the line. Catch up on news at the time of day when you feel most rested and fortified. Resist watching news reports in the evening when you feel tired and vulnerable. Take a technology breather. Turn toward nature for relief and restoration. (See Ornish Living article, Nature: Fuel For Your Health.

Uncover Joy

A friend recently said to me, “Life sometimes feels like an endless self-improvement project.” I know what she means. While continuing to learn and grow is imperative, living without joy in the process would make life feel like a tragic drudge. Turning toward joy doesn’t mean ignoring our suffering or the suffering in the world. It would be impossible for those dealing with chronic physical or emotional pain, illness, trauma or loss to not experience the effects of debilitating, unrelenting fears. Uncovering joy means being willing, right in the midst of life’s staggering challenges, to remember that love and connection to self and others is what restores and maintains life’s meaning.

In his book, Awakening JoyJames Baraz sums it up this way. “Focusing only on the terrible things can lead us to pull back from life and fall into despair. Staying in touch with the well of joy within us enables us to be part of the solution rather than the problem.” He suggests making a “Nourishment List.” This list would include anything that is enhances our health and brings you happiness, calm and restoration. Simple examples might include taking a hot bath, meeting a loved one for lunch, meditating, playing with your pet, enjoying music, volunteering for your favorite charity, or writing a thank you note.

Don’t leave joy up to chance. Recognize what evokes it and then prioritize that in your schedule. Through conscious attention to increasing joy in our lives we can build a storehouse of positive experiences that will aid us in countering and silencing our fears.

In his first address as the 32nd U.S. President, Franklin Delano Roosevelt unmasked the issue of fear. At that time the country was experiencing the Great Depression. Banks were falling like dominoes. One in four workers were unemployed. Over 2 million people were homeless. Speaking directly to the pervasive mood of fear engulfing the country, he did not turn away from the challenge of facing this fear. These historic and encouraging words still ring true for us today. “This is preeminently the time to speak the truth, the whole truth, frankly and boldly. Nor need we shrink from honestly facing conditions in our country today. This great nation will endure as it has endured, will revive and will prosper. So first of all, let me assert my firm belief, that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself-nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”

What helpful strategies do you use to calm your fears?

 

 

 

Contributed by

Mimi O' Connor
Group Support Specialist

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