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4 Steps for Working with Fear

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Since I was very young, I have dealt with various fear and phobias. Fear used to be almost debilitating for me in my teens and 20s, but over the years of my spiritual practice I have found methods that have drastically reshaped my relationship to being afraid. I have used these methods to help release the talons of fear from my life and allow my life to grow in awesome ways.

Below I have listed 4 steps for how I work with fear (incidentally, I still use these steps on a regular basis, and I make no protestations of having “conquered” all my fear). These ideas are designed to help us soothe our nervous systems, restore our perspective, and calm our bodies so fear does not feel so overpowering. These steps also help us get back to the steady ground of reality from the nebulous mist of imagination. 

My Four Steps for Fear (to be used together or individually):

1. Bring Compassion to Fear
2. Name Fear
3. Cross-Examine Fear
4. Faith in Resilience

1. Bring Compassion to Fear
Have some self-compassion and remind yourself that it’s part of the human condition to be afraid. One simple line I love from Pema Chodron is to remind ourselves that “other people feel this way.” We’re not alone when we feel fear and we’re not wrong for feeling it. We’re simply human. These days, especially in self-development and spiritual circles, fear has become an enemy to be conquered rather than a tender spot to be explored, seen, and loved. Remind yourself that it’s ok to be afraid, and all around the world, billions of other people are experiencing fear as well. You are not alone.

When we bring the force of compassion to fear, when we remind ourselves that “other people feel this way”, fear will soften its grip. Try it, “I’m afraid, and other people are feeling just like I am right now.” Now we’re in community, now we’re connected, and now we aren’t compounding the fear with isolating shame. When we feel less isolated, we feel calmer. When we feel calmer our hearts soften and we suffer less.

2. Name Fear 

Name the fear. Say it out loud. Acknowledge its presence.

For example: “I am afraid I’ll never be loved.”

Naming our anxieties and fears drastically reduces their power and also helps our nervous systems to relax. There’s actually some interesting research being done about how naming emotions helps to physiologically soothe the body.

My favorite thing to do is to say the fear in a funny voice. I often say my fear in Yoda’s voice. It almost always makes me laugh even when there’s something that has me really worked up.

For example, one of my biggest fears used to be, “I’m afraid I’ll always be alone and unloved.”

So I said, out loud in Yoda’s voice, “Afraid always be alone will I and loved I will not be mmmmmm.”

And then I laughed. The thought had so much less power. It reduced this suffocating and depressing fear to the essence of what it really was: a thought. A simple, plain, ordinary thought.

Fear makes us believe that what we are afraid of is a fact. And fear will present us with all kinds of evidence that it is telling the truth. So the next step is to put fear on the witness stand.

3. Cross-Examine Fear
Ask, “Ok if this fear feels true, then lets get really real. Is this a fear, or is this a fact?” Get down and dirty in reality. What are we actually dealing with? Reality is the great solvent that cleanses the mind of false impressions. To get to reality, we must inquire into what is happening. And fear is particularly adept at cloaking itself in the guise of truth rapidly creating a hologram in our heads that feels very real.

But we are not interested in what feels real; we are interested in what is real.

The reality is fear is fear, and fact is fact. If we can tease out which is which, we often become calmer. 

Sometimes fear will put up a fight here. “Well it could be true” or, “It is true." So that leads us to the next step:

4. Faith in Resilience
The tricky spot with fear is there is often ambiguity around possible outcomes. Often times what we are afraid of could happen. I don’t mean to pour cold water on this blog, but it is true. And since reality is the goal, we can’t pretend around this point. So here is often where we get stuck. This is where the fear looks us in the face and says, “You need me. You break up with me, and who knows what will happen.”

So what do we do? We find faith in our resilience. Isn’t it amazing after all we have lived through in life, all the challenges, the heartbreaks, the surprises, and the pain that we still think there is something around the corner that we won’t be able to handle? This fear is pervasive in the human psyche and is a basic aspect of our survival mechanism.

So if you get to this point, make a strong statement of affirmation in your own resilience. I say to myself, “Not matter what, even if this did happen and however hard it might be, in the end, I would be perfectly ok.” Sometimes when I’m in sassy mode I remind myself, “Alex you’re a tough bad ass and you’ve gotten this far through some pretty serious stuff in your life. You’ll be just fine.” Faith pulls the rug out from under fear. Fear has been so busy trying to keep us afraid of what might happen it never considers we might just say, "Yes maybe it will. Yes it might be hard, yes it might be unfathomable, yes I may not have all the answers, but in the end it will turn out ok." Faith in ourselves, our resilience and our strength, brings us out of the fear hologram and into grounded reality. 

Fear is not a problem, fear is just part of life. And you know what, sometimes in life really scary things happen. Fear is not always unreasonable. Don’t compound your fear with shame by making yourself wrong for having it. When scary stuff happens, we feel fear.  It's that simple and that natural. Face the reality of fear head on by working with it. When we work with fear from reality, we expose fear for what it really is. Reality will always win my friends and life lived from reality can’t go wrong. Our lifelong work is to see what is real.

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