Coping with Fear: Face It, Understand It, Overcome It

Buddha and demons for fear post

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.

Los from The Book of Urizen William Blake for fear postFear 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.

Dr. Sophia Yin body language of fear in dogs for fear postHumans 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.

Viktor Frankl for fear postOne 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 for fear postJudith 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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. Draw, paint, sculpt, dance, or write a poem about what you’ve learned about you and your fear.


Four Principles of Survival My Characters Taught Me

The gate at Auschwitz -- for Survival post
The gate at Auschwitz (“Work Sets You Free”)

 

As many of you know, I was recently honored to receive an invitation from Psychology Today to join their impressive roster of bloggers. I’ll be cross-posting here what I blog there, so regular visitors here won’t miss anything. But if you have any comments on my blogs that you think the Psychology Today community would appreciate, do stop by and share your thoughts. Here’s the link. Below is the entry I posted there on April 17, 2016.

A story has haunted me from the moment I read it. It haunts me still. It’s a true story set in a death camp: March 1945, and the German forces are on the run. An inmate tells a young psychiatrist he has had an auspicious dream: a voice promises to answer any question the man asks. The man wants to know when the camp will be liberated. The voice gives him a specific date, March 30.

Dr. Viktor Frankl -- for Survival post
Dr. Viktor Frankl

The night before the prophesied liberation no Allied armies appear, and the man falls ill. The next day he is delirious, and the following day the man dies of a disease his body has resisted throughout his years of imprisonment. In Man’s Search for Meaning, the book in which this story appears, Viktor Frankl writes: “Those who know how close the connection is between the state of mind of a man—his courage and hope, or lack of them—and the state of immunity of his body will understand that the sudden loss of hope and courage can have a deadly effect.” Speaking of his comrade, Frankl explains, “His faith in the future and his will to live had become paralyzed and his body fell victim to illness…”

Even as a youngster I knew that terrible things happened to people. I yearned to know how these people survived. This was at a time when Hollywoodized battles from World War II played nightly on the TV, the days of “duck and cover” and Sputnik. Paranoia was in the air.

Nothing would have alerted an outsider to my unconscious data-gathering, (well, maybe the perpetual furrow between my brows), but I was like a lot of kids who seem normal, (that shudder-inducing word that conjures its opposite, abnormal). I can’t say how young I was when I began taking notes on the subtle and not-so-subtle variants of suffering. Decades would pass before I realized that this is the proclivity of the novelist, observer and recorder of human miseries.

I create characters. My characters have a will and destiny of their own. They come from me, but are not me. They are separate entities that dwell in a less egocentric part of my psyche. As such, they often surprise me with their wisdom.

Martin Buber -- for Survival post
Martin Buber

And so, unbeknownst to me while I was writing it, The Conditions of Love, my debut novel, has at its thematic core my childhood inquiry about resilience. How do we survive the afflictions that besiege us? Martin Buber wrote: “The world is not comprehensible, but it is embraceable.” The word embraceable, with its fleshy emotive overtones, reveals something about Buber’s philosophical stance. For him, all life was encounter, a meeting between I and Thou. “All journeys have secret destinations of which the traveler is unaware,” he wrote, and I would add, “all journeys offer secret lessons and meaning to be mined after the journey is complete.” This seems to me the heart of hope. Self-awareness requires hindsight, but hope is forward-looking.

Through what I call a writer’s hindsight learning—what the writer doesn’t know she knows while she’s writing the book—I’ve distilled four principles derived from the characters in The Conditions of Love, each of whom has a talent for surviving.

  1. Keep your heart open.

Bitterness has a tangy sweetness, as does resentment and revenge. They shine brightly with allure but their pleasures are brief. Keeping one’s heart open sounds treacly, but it’s a kick-ass practice that requires rigorous faith in what is unseen and rich with possibility.

  1. Recognize the absurd in your situation.

Even under monstrous circumstances, or dreadful circumstances when mind, body and spirit have begun to wither and love has gone to hell, humor may rise up to break through the armor of fear or despair. In its bleakest, blackest form, humor can be a life-saving way of acting out.

  3Confide in a friend: animal, mineral, vegetable.

We need the Other. We need some one or some thing to listen and bear witness. We’re pack animals and suffer more in isolation.

  1. Trust your creative instincts.

I love that Mern, the mother in my first novel, a single working-class woman raising a daughter in the Fifties, kept herself sane (well, sort of sane), by constantly changing her hairstyle and looks to mimic famous movies stars. Maybe our most outrageous instincts offer the most original boost to our resilience.

Whether we are storytellers or not, the things that obsess, fascinate, and concern us deserve our attention. They are, I believe, clues to our deepest longings that wish to become known. The sorrowful story of the camp prisoner who succumbed to typhus when his dream of liberation proved false could be our story if we lose hope. Hope is the jewel in the crown.