A number of years ago, halfway up a forty-foot ranger tower, I discovered my fear of heights. One minute I was busily chatting with one of my daughters as we trudged up the wooden steps. I paused for a breath, looked around, and realized we were high above the treetops. There was nothing between us and the ground but some weathered wooden posts. The next moment I was unable to move. This was my first and thankfully last experience of a being sideswiped by a fear reaction so intense it turned my legs to stone.
Fear is a neurophysiological response to a perceived threat. Fear activates our fight-or-flight response by stimulating the hypothalamus, which directs the sympathetic nervous system and the adrenal-cortical system to prepare our bodies for danger. This can happen suddenly with a surge of stress hormones into our bloodstream, or we can experience a slow drip of anxiety that creeps up on us as dread. We inherited this “survival circuitry” from our hunter-gatherer ancestors. Those who developed it were better able to survive having to wrestle a tiger or run from a pack of wolves. During an encounter with fear, blood is shunted from our limbs so it’s more available to our hearts. Our breathing and heart rates accelerate; we sweat or shiver; our stomach “drops” and our vision narrows as our bodies prepare to flee or freeze. As much as we might sometimes like to eradicate this disabling feeling from our lives, fear is part of our survival kit.
Humans are not alone in having this “survival circuitry.” The regions of the brain that tell us to run from a threat are basically the same whether an animal runs on two legs, four legs, or has wings. Anyone who has lived with a pooch has probably seen how a dog communicates fear through body language and species-specific vocalizations. Cringing, whimpering, pacing and licking are typical signs of fear in dogs. Horses rear or bolt when afraid. Their muscles tighten, their breathing grows short. A study done at Purdue University suggests that even fish experience pain consciously and perhaps fear as well.
If the experience of fear is inescapable, how do we work with it? One possible way to overcome fear is to study fear, in ourselves and others, become familiar with it and understand it better. Diving into fear is contrary to our habitual reaction, which is to push away or deny what frightens us, but getting to know our fears might actually soften or even incapacitate them.
One of the best ways I know to understand our struggles with fear is turn to literature and read what others have written about it. Open Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl and discover how his harrowing experiences at Auschwitz during World War II led him to develop a form of therapy he called “logotherapy.” Frankl found that how concentration camp prisoners imagined their future affected their ability to survive. Or pick up Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom and read how he drew inspiration from his comrades:
“Time and again, I have seen men and women risk and give their lives for an idea. I have seen men stand up to attacks and torture without breaking, showing a strength and resiliency that defies the imagination. I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. I felt fear myself more times than I can remember, but I hid it behind a mask of boldness. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.”
Not all of us are called upon to be extraordinary heroes faced with genocide or apartheid. Our fears might seem less dramatic, but fear’s excessive presence in our lives can be a drain on vital energy and an obstacle to happiness. We can probably empathize more closely with today’s many memoirs of people dealing with debilitating fears about their health, finances, or security. Understanding that we are not alone but one of many who struggle with fear helps dissolve the sense of isolation that fear perpetrates. Accepting that fear is part of our lot as sentient beings is essential to our ability to generate hope and faith in our survival.
Judith Lief, a Buddhist teacher of Tibetan meditation asks, “How do we walk the path of fear?” She points out that fear restricts our lives, can imprison us, or be used as a tool of oppression. Acting out of fear, we may cause others harm. Fear can stifle us from voicing our opinion if we fear reprisal. But unlike our fellow creatures, humans have the ability to reflect on our fear, and this gives us the capacity to counter the overwhelming sense of anxiety and the dread that infiltrates modern life. Lief says, “The essential cause of our suffering and anxiety is ignorance of the nature of reality.” The movement toward fearlessness is in accepting whatever is happening in the moment and looking deeply into what is feared. In this way, we can begin to develop self-awareness of the patterns that inflame our fear and self-acceptance of the nature of who we are. The renowned Zen teacher Thich Nhất Hạnh tells us that if we stay in the present moment, we are not worrying about the past, which is gone, nor are we afraid of the future, which does not yet exist.
The poet Rainer Maria Rilke in his book Letters to a Young Poet suggests we might try to love our terrors and the dangers that confront us, which sounds a lot like the Buddha’s advice: to offer ourselves self-compassion when we are struggling with fear. Rilke writes:
“And if only we arrange our life in accordance with the principle which tells us that we must always trust in the difficult, then what now appears to us as the most alien will become our most intimate and trusted experience. How could we forget those ancient myths that stand at the beginning of all races, the myths about dragons that at the last moment are transformed into princesses? Perhaps all the dragons in our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us act, just once, with beauty and courage. Perhaps everything that frightens us is, in its deepest essence, something helpless that wants our love.” (translated by Stephen Mitchell)
Rilke’s last line is worth pondering. Perhaps everything that frightens us is, in its deepest essence, something helpless that wants our love.
Love and faith in my ability to move forward is what got panic-stricken me down from the ranger tower when my young daughter held out her hand and said, “Just one step at a time, Mom.”
A helpful way to think of fear is as an edge we come to about what we know about ourselves. As fear is the unknown in us, understanding our fear enlarges our perception of ourselves and can be a transformative experience.
Sowing the Seeds of Understanding
As a way of more deeply understanding your fear, please consider trying the following exercises.
- In a journal, write a letter that begins, “Dear Fear. There is something I never told you . . .” You can write this in a list or as an actual letter. Don’t overthink. Continue to write until you stop.
- In a journal, write a letter that begins, “Dear X (supply your name). I’ve always wanted to tell you …” This is a letter directly from your fear to you.
- Draw, paint, sculpt, dance, or write a poem about what you’ve learned about you and your fear.
This post appeared in a slightly different form on Dale’s blog on Psychology Today. You can find all of Dale’s blog posts for Psychology Today at “Transcending the Past.”