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Making Peace With Fear

Liberate yourself from fear using centuries-old wisdom backed by modern science.

Source: Luizclas/Pexels
Source: Luizclas/Pexels

"I'm not afraid of storms, for I'm learning how to sail my ship." —Louisa May Alcott

Making Peace With Fear

Fear is hardwired into our DNA. Fear helps protect and motivate us; it’s essential to our survival. But what happens when fear begins to control us? What happens when we stop living in the flow of life due to fear of what might go wrong? Complementary wisdom from modern psychological science and Buddhist philosophy offers a simple solution that virtually anyone can put into practice today.

Fear and Anxiety

Fear and anxiety are related but not synonymous concepts. Fear occurs in the moment—in response to a specific threat—while anxiety is anticipatory; it’s fear of what could come in the future. Fear and anxiety impact the functioning of many Americans. In fact, anxiety disorders are the most common psychiatric disorders, affecting approximately 18% of the adult population. Additionally, many may not meet criteria for an anxiety disorder but find our lives limited by fears. For example, we may fear conflict, new situations, making mistakes, etc. And when such fears hamper our capacity to connect with others, pursue our goals, and engage fully with life, we suffer.

Fear and Avoidance

Avoidance is a logical reaction to fear-provoking stimuli. It demonstrates an appropriate learning response to experience. Think about the evolutionary benefit of this behavior: your caveman ancestors would wisely avoid the last place they spotted a saber-toothed cat or cave bear. Indeed, there is wisdom in the avoidance response to fear.

But what happens when we find ourselves avoiding situations that pose us no actual threat of harm? This kind of avoidance behavior is not just frustratingly illogical, it is, in fact, the linchpin that maintains most anxiety disorders. Yes, you heard me: avoidance only strengthens our fears and anxiety. This occurs due to a phenomenon known as negative reinforcement. Negative reinforcement is when a behavior is reinforced (think: rewarded) by the removal of something aversive or unpleasant. Specifically, in the case of anxiety, avoiding the feared stimulus reduces uncomfortable anxiety symptoms, which means we feel rewarded through avoidance, so we tend to repeat our avoidant behavior.

So, for example, if you are socially anxious, you are likely to avoid social settings. In the lead-up to a potential social outing, you may experience uncomfortable symptoms of anxiety (e.g., pounding heart, racing thoughts). If you decide to stay home, rather than go out, your symptoms of anxiety will reduce or disappear. Thus, the act of avoidance will decrease your discomfort, which is reinforcing.

So what happens next time? You have now learned that avoidance makes you feel better, so you are likely to avoid the social situation again next time. Each time this occurs the cycle of avoidance gets strengthened, thus further entrenching the fear/anxiety. Eventually, the social situations prospect graduates from being mildly nerve-wracking to intolerably intimidating, but not because of any actual negative social experiences, but rather because of repeated avoidance of social situations.

Acceptance, Not Avoidance

Buddhist teachings and modern psychological science agree that accepting and facing our fears, rather than avoiding them, is the key to freeing ourselves from this cycle. We must counteract our instincts to avoid what we fear and instead, lean into those fears in order to overcome their stranglehold on our lives.

Let’s take a brief look at what Buddhist philosophy has to say on this topic. The first noble truth of Buddhism is dukkha, which is the inevitability of sickness, old age, and death. It is recognition that fear, discomfort, and suffering are natural components of life. The second noble truth is that we worsen our suffering through our reaction to it, via identification with our emotions and failure to accept suffering. We fight against it, avoid it, and/or blame others (or ourselves) for our emotions; in so doing, we create more suffering. The third and fourth noble truths offer guidance on how to free ourselves from this cycle through understanding the true nature of suffering and ending our attachment to things being a certain way.

Essentially, we learn to relax about the existence of unpleasant emotions, to stop identifying with them, and to cultivate wisdom through a spirit of acceptance. There is much more to the Buddha’s teachings, obviously, but these are among the foundational tenets in a nutshell.

Modern psychological research validates these teachings! In fact, learning to recognize, accept and tolerate our symptoms of anxiety and fear is a cornerstone of evidence-based anxiety treatments. For example, among the most validated treatments for anxiety disorders is exposure therapy. Exposure therapy is just what it sounds like: the client gets exposed to the feared stimulus or situation, albeit in a carefully managed, graduated manner. The exposure stops the negative reinforcement cycle of avoidance and teaches skills for tolerating anxious symptoms.

The above techniques work as well for specific fears (e.g., phobias, obsessive-compulsive disorders, and PTSD) as they do for more diffuse anxiety disorders (e.g., social anxiety disorder, generalized anxiety disorder). Other treatment approaches for anxiety, such as cognitive behavioral therapy and acceptance and commitment therapy also have as end goals the reduction of avoidance behaviors and the acceptance (rather than avoidance) of anxious thoughts and symptoms.

A key takeaway is to accept fear as part of human life, and not to expect to live a life free from fear. We should recognize that the suffering we experience during a fearful or anxious moment is real, but made far worse by our emotional reaction to it. When we fight, fail to accept, or judge ourselves for feeling, we increase suffering and create habits that perpetuate our pain well beyond the initial moment of fear.

This is why we see so many co-occurring drug/alcohol disorders and anxiety disorders: people escape their anxious symptoms with drugs and alcohol. This appears to work well initially, as the anxious symptoms are replaced with pleasant feelings from drug or alcohol-induced dopamine. But the avoidance creates only more problems in the long run as the individual never learns to tolerate the anxious feelings and in the process creates a drug/alcohol dependency. Quite the recipe for suffering!

Making Peace With Fear

Buddhism and psychology agree: it is only through a willingness to accept the unpredictability of life and inevitability of experiencing fear and other painful emotions that we make peace with fear and reclaim our lives. So how can we put this into practice?

If you are ready to start living with a spirit of acceptance toward fear, give these ideas a try:

  1. Do something small todayand every daythat scares or intimidates you. Talk to a stranger, say "yes" to an invitation, say "no" to an obligation, ask a dumb question, do something badly, try a new hobby, get your hands dirty in a project, or go to a restaurant alone … the possibilities are endless. The idea is to begin by finding small ways to live more fully through getting comfortable being uncomfortable.
  2. Notice avoidance behaviors and build habits that limit avoidance. Let me give you an example: I don't like talking on the phone; it stresses me out. I used to avoid checking my voicemails because I didn't want to return calls. This would inevitably lead to stress and worry about the content of the voicemail, the excuses I would give for not immediately replying, etc. I would spend far more time preparing to deal with returning a call than it would take just to make the call. So I instituted a habit that I have to listen to voicemails and return calls within 24 hours. This has resulted in significantly less stress because I no longer leave people waiting and have to explain myself. And as I have forced myself to make phone calls on a regular basis, the act of talking on the phone has become less stressful and aversive. Many clients have described a similar avoidance pattern with emails, and have found it helpful to set aside time each day to open and deal with each new email.
  3. Spend time acknowledging the inevitable instability of life and our inability to control it. It is human nature to live in ways that maximize predictability: we take for granted that most people will get married, buy a home, plan for the future, etc. And these are wonderful ways to create a sense of stability in an ever-changing world. But make no mistake: these offer only a sense of stability, but not actual stability. The world around us will continue to change and we can't do anything to stop life from taking away our partners, our homes, or our perfectly planned futures. We and everyone we love will all die someday. Although this may sound depressing, it really isn't. It is simply reality, and it is only a problem if you won’t accept it. Stop fighting. Make peace with not having control. You may find that with contemplation you can even move from a place of reluctant acceptance to delight in the unknown that life holds in store for you.
  4. Meditate. You’re probably tired of hearing this by now. In all seriousness, meditation is a powerful opportunity to practice acceptance of experiences in the moment, be they thoughts, emotions, worries, or impulses. A few minutes a day is all it takes to get started. I highly recommend the insight meditation app.

Remember, there are times when fear and anxiety are too difficult to navigate alone: To find a therapist near you, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.

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