What To Do When You’re Afraid

…or depressed, or lonely, or anxious, or angry, or hating yourself. This technique works on any negative emotion.

But let’s talk about fear.

Fear is a remarkably universal experience. It doesn’t just happen with big things, like a hurricane slamming the East Coast. It’s ever-present in everyday life, in small doses and large. Fear of disappointing someone. Nervousness over giving a presentation. Worry that you’ve offended a friend. Even when we’re happy, fear seeps into so many ordinary moments that it starts to feel normal. Often we don’t even notice it.

When we do, what happens?

There are two common responses to fear: fight it, or run from it.

Running from it is easier, but of course that just turns a life full of fear into a life full of running. Avoiding fear makes the thing we fear loom larger and darker, and constrains us to huddle in a little ball where we feel safe and comfortable. Except that long-term, you can never really escape, so you just end up feeling afraid all the time.

Fighting it is certainly better, but this approach has its own problems. Casting fear as an adversary to be battled means setting yourself up for a lifetime of battles. You vs. Fear, Round 879. Even if you can conquer one specific fear (and you definitely can), there’s always the next monster to face. Waging a neverending battle can leave you exhausted, and your failures can make you feel like you’re a failure, too.

Fight it, or run from it. But there’s a third path.

Accept your fear.

This doesn’t mean surrendering, letting the fear dominate you. Nor does it mean calling it out, demanding it submit. Accepting your fear means giving yourself the freedom to really experience it for the first time, examining the feeling, swishing it around in your head and savoring it like a fine merlot. Despite a lifetime of running from or fighting this adversary, how often do we stop and ask what it really is? How does it really feel?

Breathe it in. Experience its sensations. A slight nausea, perhaps. A tightness in the chest. A tensing of the muscles. Take stock of your physical reactions. Take a good, hard look at the monster, and give it license to roam. Watch what it does.

Try this, and you just might find that the monster loses some of its power. It’s used to chasing and sparring; it is unaccustomed to being a houseguest, awkward in its manners. It is no longer as dark as it once was.

This technique won’t make the fear go away. That isn’t the point. You’ll still be afraid, at least for now; there’s no quick fix to that. But it’s possible to transform fear from a crushing weight into something lighter, something that flows into you freely and then back out again.

Try it sometime. See what you think.

How do you handle your fear?

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