Four Ways to Conquer Your Worst Fears

Learn how overcome unfounded fears and recapture the joy in living.

woman smiling

Photo Credit: Bob Jagendorf, via Flickr Creative Commons

Fear is an emotion that is a vital response to threat and danger. Fear can act as a lifesaver, but it can also be a life destroyer. When fear is used as a catalyst for good, it can help to move us out of harm’s way, right a wrong or 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.

How Fear Hurts

Fear can also be a life-destroyer. Unbridled fear can capture us and hold us hostage to its cruel demands. If these fears are left unchecked, over time they have the power to disturb us deeply and limit us severely. When this occurs our days can become ruled by anxiety, depression, 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.

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.

Four Tips to Overcome Fear

1. 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 helps to limit their power. To help yourself shift out of fearful thinking, take on a simple task. For example, you might distract yourself by gardening, exercising, calling a friend or trying a new recipe. 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.

2. 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.”

And, because your breath and your mental/emotional state are so closely linked, changing one will change the other. Breathing practices can help to quiet the sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight) and activate the parasympathetic (rest and restore) part of the autonomic nervous system.

3. 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.

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.

4. 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 drudge. Turning toward joy doesn’t mean ignoring our suffering or the suffering in the world. Uncovering joy means being willing, right in the midst of life’s challenges, to remember that love and connection to self and others is what restores and maintains life’s meaning.

In his book, Awakening Joy, James 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 enhances your 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 or volunteering for your favorite charity.

And don’t leave joy up to chance. 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. Take a few moments to think about strategies that will work for you, to calm your fears and to put your fears in perspective. Acting on these strategies will help you to live a life with less fear and more joy.  Embrace the choice to be happy!

Learn more ways to live your healthiest life with tips from Dean Ornish.

This content was originally published on Ornish Living.

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