Fear is an intense emotion which seems to rule our lives. It keeps us stuck. It influences our behavior and decisions in ways that often cause more harm than good. And often it seems unshakable. We try to manage it, to suppress it, to escape it, but it creeps back in. The problem with these methods is that they seek to avoid fear, rather than facing it. But there is even the fear of facing fear. So how do we get around this? How do we get free of it?
Rather than resisting or avoiding fear, I think we have to examine it. We have to understand what it is that we’re dealing with. How can we even begin to find a way to be free of something if we don’t understand what that something is?
In order to understand fear we must first understand that there are two types of fear. There is that primal instinctual, reactive fear which is a biological mechanism, and then there is prolonged, imagined fear which is a mental thought construct.
The first of these, as I said, is a biological mechanism which is absolutely necessary for survival. When an animal is threatened it will naturally react either by freezing, fleeing or fighting. But once the animal has escaped the immediate danger it will return to its previous relaxed behavior. The only time we observe prolonged fear in animals is when the threat of danger is prolonged. If a wild animal is put in a cage, for instance, it will remain in a state of fear until it’s released.
Now the reason I give this example is because it’s analogous to the way in which many human beings live. Many of us remain in a prolonged state of fear even when immediate danger is not present. And while we may not necessarily find ourselves confined to a physical cage, it is our imagination which imprisons us.
The way in which we tend to experience fear is generally in reaction to imagined scenarios rather than actual physical danger. In fact, much of our fear seems to be in relation to situations which don’t pose any physical danger at all, but are a threat to our sense of personal security, identity and comfort, such as the fear of abandonment or the fear of the unknown. Now we do also have a tendency to imagine more specific potential dangers that might occur, such as the fear of being physically attacked or assaulted, but these imagined scenarios are projected onto the future. It may be that we are the only animals capable of thinking in terms of past and future, and while this may have some advantages, it also comes with a great many challenges.
The reality is that there is no past or future. There is only this present moment. This isn’t some mystical new age concept. This is a fact. Apart from our imagination we have no actual experience of past or future. Even if we refer to memory we are still only referring to mind, to the imagination, not to the actuality.
The fear that we generally experience is based upon our thoughts concerning the future. Examine any fear you currently have and see if this isn’t true. And it may be that some of our fears are also rooted in memories of traumatic situations from the past. But again, it is the thought that such situations might reoccur in future that causes us distress in the present. So essentially fear is a self-induced projection of imagined future suffering, yet we experience that suffering in the present, absent of the actual situation. And since the future does not exist that means that the suffering we are experiencing is completely illusory. I like to call this non-existential suffering.
So what about this present moment? Is there anything occurring right now in this moment, other than our thoughts, which is causing this fear to be triggered in us? If one is in immediate danger than fear is a completely natural response. But this kind of reactive fear doesn’t really require any thought. We simply react. If we’re walking and we suddenly notice a snake crossing our path we don’t have time to consider our options. We just react. We jump out of the way of danger. In that moment we become totally present. But the kind of fear that consumes us day to day is driven by persistent thought.
This is what we need to understand about fear. We need to understand how our fear is primarily generated by the thoughts we have. Now this isn’t to say that there may not be potential or even probable danger facing us in the future, but our present fear doesn’t help us to escape those situations. In fact, in some cases, it may actually contribute to those situations unfolding.
To give an example, if we’re afraid that we might lose our job, we can become so consumed by that fear that we’re unable to focus on our work. We might start behaving nervously. We make more mistakes. And we might be more reactive and panic when those mistakes are made, which could just make the situation worse. All of this causes us to appear clumsy and incompetent, and eventually we might get fired. But instead of recognizing how we contributed to that outcome, we convince ourselves that we were right all along. The fact that we lost the job only seems to confirm our fear. And so we go on living in fear of situations yet to come.
Now in regard to unavoidable situations, even then our preexisting fear doesn’t serve us. It may be that we will indeed have to face some uncomfortable challenge in the future. But being fearful now in this moment isn’t going to make it any less challenging. In fact, all we are doing as adding unnecessary emotional stress to an already difficult situation.
Another thing that we need to understand about fear is that it’s primarily an emotional experience. And it’s such a powerful emotion that it tends to override rational cognitive thinking. When we’re consumed by fear our judgment is skewed. We’re not thinking clearly and so we tend to make poor decisions. So when faced with a challenging situation we might find it all the more difficult to overcome. When fear is in the forefront it can be difficult to evaluate the situation clearly. We may be frozen in fear, unable to come to a clear decision, or we may simply take whatever option is most readily available without really understanding the consequences. And this could potentially put us in a more difficult situation later on.
Fear is essentially resistance. Remember that instinctual biological fear is all about escaping from immediate danger. So, in a similar way, our prolonged imagined fear is also about trying to escape something, but in a psychological sense. What we are resisting is not an immediate danger. It’s an imagined danger. Again, even if we are faced with the prospect of some unavoidable future situation, until that situation occurs it doesn’t actually exist outside of our imagination.
So how can we be free of this? Well resistance has its opposite, which is acceptance. Acceptance simply means there is no resistance. It doesn’t mean that we surrender to a dangerous situation, but rather to the fact of the situation. As far as the situation itself, we may have to act in some way as to resolve or even escape it when the time comes. But this requires our presence in order to act with clarity.
However, much of our fear is based on situations which aren’t necessarily likely to occur. For instance, we may have a fear of flying, even though the probability of a plane crash is proportionately lesser than the probability of a car accident.
Our fear is also often exaggerated. We may be terrified by the prospect of our partner leaving us, but is it really as terrible as we imagine? Would we not be able to survive it? Would we find it impossible to function? Would life not continue on?
Sometimes our fear is about losing our sense of comfort. We may be afraid to venture out of our comfort zone, but once we find the courage to do it, we find that our fears are unfounded. So in some cases it’s important to face our fears head on.
In fact, we mustn’t be afraid to face our fear, at least in the psychological sense. This means we must have a willingness to examine it, to look deeply into it in order to better understand it. The way to be free of fear is not to resist it, because after all, fear itself is a form of resistance. We need to acknowledge fear when it arises. We need to recognize it for what it is. By examining it we can better understand it.
The more we understand fear, the more we regain our power, rather than allowing fear to overpower us. And the more we can be present, the more we can approach life with clarity, thus enabling us to make better decisions. So when fear arises we can allow ourselves to be overcome by it or we can overcome it by simply understanding it’s illusory nature.