making friends with fear

When I was in drama school, the great American actress Annette Bening came to speak to my class. A student asked her how she “overcame” her stage fright. She laughed, and said she hadn’t. Instead she described a mindful awareness and acceptance of the anxiety she experiences before a scene. She said she would have a peaceful conversation with herself, something like: “Oh my, my hands are shaking, my heart is pounding, and I am really nervous right now. Interesting. Good to know. Alright nervous Annette, let’s go to work!”

Like so much of our suffering, fear itself is not innately destructive; it is our rigid reaction to fear that keeps us imprisoned. Unlike Ms. Bening, most people’s conditioned response to fear is to resist and contract. Like wincing with your body when you stub your toe, rather than feeling our fear, we tense around it and defend against it. Some of us run from fear by self medicating with drugs, sex, food, or another anesthetizing distraction. Some of us fight fear like a shaming drill sergeant, forcing ourselves to “muscle through” and “conquer” our fears.

Not only do these responses often fail to adequately process and resolve fear, they are depleting on a physical, emotional, and psychological level. When we fight against it, or flee from it, we make fear an enemy. By cultivating a compassionate, rather than aggressive approach to fear, we can befriend it, soothe it, and learn from it. It certainly seems to have worked for Annette. Here are 5 ways to make friends with your fear:

I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again! Just Breathe

Our conditioned response to fear is to speed things up. Your breath is the most powerful tool you own to slow down your inner rhythm and achieve relaxation. When we are anxious the breath contracts into quick and shallow inhales with incomplete exhales. Consciously try to deepen your breath into the abdomen. Use your breath as a way of compassionately communicating with yourself and your fear. Imagine each full inhale providing nourishment and care, and each complete exhale providing relief. A skilled mind-body therapist can help you to cultivate essential self soothing technique.

Don’t Time Travel

The mind is an incredible time machine. A fearful mind is obsessed with the pain of the past, or the anticipation of pain in the future. As you sit watching your breath notice the mind’s desire to be anywhere but here. As each worrisome thought comes through your head file it under “past” or “future” and then come back to your breath. The breath, like your life, is happening right now, which is where your power lies.

Ground into your body

Like the breath, the sensations in your body are also happening right now, and paying attention to them can anchor you to the present moment. When we are frightened we leave our bodies. Cultivate practices to re-inhabit your physical being. Notice where fear lives in you. Breathe into those places. Drop your attention out of the head where everything is spinning and into the body where you can observe sensations without being consumed by them.

How old is it?

After you have achieved a level of present centered awareness, you might ask yourself how old this fear feels. If you experienced trauma in childhood, a stressful event can trigger us right back to the age when we were hurt. In recognizing the activation of an earlier wound you gain insight into where there is “unfinished business” in your psyche that is asking to be seen, heard, and healed.

Remember Rilke

One of my favorite quotes, by one of my favorite poets, Rainer Maria Rilke, states: “Perhaps everything that frightens us is, in its deepest essence, something helpless that wants our love.” If you can identify how old your fear is, you must then learn how to parent that pain. 

Rather than scolding fear as though it were a shameful failing, soothe it as though it were a wounded child. Ask the fear what it needs. Working with a therapist can help you cultivate self care techniques to respond to those needs. Fear is a part of being human, when we take Rilke’s advice (always a wise move) and befriend it with love and compassion, we can harness its energy and information to bring forth greater authenticity and creativity in our lives.

You might also like to read about how yoga helped me overcome my fear.