Fear. We've all felt its icy hand--whether it's a sudden grab, or a subtle, lingering presence. No matter how it functions in your life, no doubt you're happiest and most fulfilled when it's not at the wheel, steering.
Here are ten simple techniques you can apply to everyday fears--from asking for help to remembering to breathe.
Let Yourself Be Afraid
My favorite definition of fearlessness is this: the ability to remain soft and open, even under very difficult circumstances. Most often, fear causes us to shut down to our own and others' humanity. We just want to get away, but the quickest way out is to stay. If you can slow down a bit, you can see that fear rises, abides, and dissolves on its own. Allowing this process is the mark of the spiritual warrior. The coward turns attention toward fighting fear; the warrior accommodates it.
Try this: The next time you notice fear rising, whether it appears as anxiety, melancholy, or anger, stop, grab a piece of paper, and write one short sentence that describes your fear. Start with the words "I'm afraid...," then scribble the first thoughts that come to mind, without regard for grammar or rationale. It could be something such as, "I'm afraid to check my e-mail because I've already got too much to do" or "I'm afraid about an upcoming conversation with my boyfriend" or "I'm afraid I have cancer." Slowly read your words over three times. Take a full inhalation and exhalation after each reading. Avoid any attempt at amping up or toning down your agitation.
Ask for Help
I hate to fly. I hate it. Sometimes I even have panic attacks. I've tried all sorts of strategies to get over this--breathing exercises, visualizations, and Valium. None of these helped all that much. Here's what did: I told someone on the plane that I was afraid to fly, and he offered to get me a glass of water. That's it. To my surprise, I calmed down on the spot. I learned that getting someone to care about me, even for a moment, even if he or she is just pretending, calms me down. The truth is that 99% of humanity is good. When you are vulnerable, people actually want to protect you. When you know this, you can relax. The likelihood is that someone will be there for you.
Try this: If you notice panic rising, reach out to someone. You could strike up a little conversation with the person next to you. Or you could call a friend, write a letter, send an e-mail. You don't have to go into the whole story. You can say something like, "I'm having a hard day and thinking about you lifts my spirits..." If you don't want to communicate with anyone, make this request within yourself: "May this fear build a bridge between myself and others." The key is to counter the energy of fear, which spirals in and down to make you feel heavy and isolated, with the energy of connection, which spirals out and around, lightening the situation on all levels.
Put Others First
Fear can cause you to ignore your authentic desires and put your life on hold. We want to avoid, retreat, and think what we want isn't possible or realistic. This doesn't hurt only you! Those who love you are also deprived. I know people often suggest putting yourself first, but just as often I find the opposite true. When I stop and remember who is in my life, why I love them, what they need, and how happy they would be made by my happiness, I find tremendous courage to face my fears. I'm doing it for us! My actions are rooted in love, not aggression--and loving others is a secret power source of fearlessness.
Try this: Ask yourself: "If I were to get past my worst fears, who else would be made happy?" If you can't think of one person who would delight in your delight, imagine the person you most admire sitting across from you. This person can be real or fictional, but when you think of them, you feel a great sense of encouragement. Write down each person's name and explain why he or she would feel happy if you conquered your fear.
This may sound facile and non-profound. But it's actually the opposite. In an essay called "Working With Early Morning Depression," Buddhist teacher Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche says, "There's always the primordial dot: that spark of goodness that exists even before you think. We are worthy of that. Everybody possesses that unconditioned possibility of cheerfulness, which is not connected purely with either pain or pleasure. You have an inclination: in the flash of one second you feel what needs to be done. It is not a product of your education; it is not scientific or logical; you simply pick up on the message. And then you act: you just do it."
Try this: The next time you feel shaky, pause. Say these words to yourself: "I could always just cheer up." And then cheer up. This actually works. It may only last for a few seconds/minutes/hours, but you can always try it again.
The opposite of fear is not dauntlessness, it's relaxation. The ability to remain open and mindful under all circumstances, no matter how uncomfortable, is a sign of amazing courage. When we're not able to maintain mindfulness, we lose track of what's actually going on around us. We confuse what we think is happening with what is happening. When attention is absorbed in fear, we're distracted from what is actually going on. Like remaining in the still eye of a tornado--as opposed to being swept away by it--fearlessness requires full, moment-to-moment attention and receptivity, two qualities rooted in relaxation.
Try this: The next time you notice fear rising, stop what you're doing. Draw attention inward. Where is the fear manifesting in your body? Fear can show itself in a tense jaw, clenched belly, shallow breathing, and so on. When you locate fear's position, simply relax that area. Let your jaw or stomach go or take a few deep breaths. This is meant to be a physical relaxation, not an emotional one. You don't always have to calm your mind to calm your body. It can work the other way around.
Stop Talking to Yourself
In Buddhism, there are several categories of suffering, one of which is called "The Suffering of Suffering," which is different from the normal suffering human beings face. We all experience loss and disappointment. But we increase our suffering when we develop complex stories about where it came from, where it's going, or whose fault it all is. I'm not saying we shouldn't be thoughtful about the events of our life, but at a certain point all that storytelling becomes counterproductive. Instead of analyzing your feelings, you can consider the counsel of American Buddhist nun Pema Chodron: "Feel the feeling and drop the story."
Try this: When you notice you're beginning to spin out, instead of thinking about your suffering, feel it. Notice where it resides in your body, whether it feels hot or cold, dull or sharp, speedy or spacey. You could even cry or stomp around. Be patient and let yourself feel what you're feeling as an end in itself. You'll be amazed at how much faster suffering resolves itself when you cut out the suffering of suffering.
Bring Someone With
Here is an exercise you can do on the spot to calm real fear in real time.
Try this: Before you're about to do something scary (confront a friend, start a new job, ask for a date), imagine someone who would be proud or grateful if you took this risk. It could be a relative, a mentor, your inner child, or a historic or fictional character. Before you step into your scary situation, visualize this person by your side, holding your hand, or in your arms. Let yourself really feel their presence--and take them in with you. You're not alone, and there is strength in numbers!
When we're in the grip of fear, it seems endless. How long do you think fear lasts? You can actually do an experiment to see.
Try this: Take a look at your watch. Now sit down and conjure up one of your fears, but totally let go of trying to figure it out. Just connect with the feeling. Try to stay afraid for as long as you can. The very second you notice your mind starting to think about something else, stop and look at your watch. How much time passes before fear begins to pass?
Listen to Silence
Sometimes it feels like we'd do anything to stop being afraid, even for one second. Well, you don't have to look far. In a fearful condition, the mind tends to tighten its grip on fear until you feel like you might explode. But here's what you can do instead: Stop focusing on anything in particular. Let your awareness become open and soft.
Try this: Bring your attention to whatever sounds are present. As I sit here, I can hear a car idling across the street, music coming from downstairs, and the rustle of my husband's newspaper. Let your ears take in all the sounds. All of them play against a background of silence; otherwise there would be nothing to hear. Tune your ear to the silence. Listen to what's in between or under the sounds you hear and keep your attention on that. You can always, always hear the silence, even if you're in the stadium during the Super Bowl. Take in the vastness of silence. This exercise is a way to cut into the flow of everyday discursive thought and connect instead with the mind of peace, which is always attuned to the largest possible reality.
Learn to Meditate
All the suggestions above are predicated on one thing: the ability to maintain mindfulness and awareness, moment to moment, as best you can. When you don't consciously focus your attention, it wanders randomly. Choosing what to focus on requires practice--the practice of meditation. Then it will be easier to put the previous suggestions into play. No matter which type of meditation you do, if you stick with it your ability to move through fear with confidence will get stronger and stronger.
Adapted from Susan Piver's book, "How Not to Be Afraid of Your Own Life: Opening Your Heart to Confidence, Intimacy, and Joy" (St. Martin's Press, 2007), with permission.