The Secret of Dealing With Fear and Stress

True fearlessness is not reducing fear but is accepting and going beyond it.

Posted Apr 30, 2017

“There are two basic motivating forces: fear and love. When we are afraid, we pull back from life. When we are in love, we open to all that life has to offer with passion, excitement, and acceptance. We need to learn to love ourselves first, in all our glory and our imperfections. If we cannot love ourselves, we cannot fully open to our ability to love others or our potential to create. Evolution and all hopes for a better world rest in the fearlessness and open-hearted vision of people who embrace life.”
                                                                                                         ― John Lennon

Fear is a different matter than our ordinary concerns. Fear is our innate emotional response to perceived threats and dangers. In 1872 Charles Darwin published The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals. Here is his description of fear:

Fear is often preceded by astonishment, and is so far akin to it, that both lead to the senses of sight and hearing being instantly aroused. In both cases the eyes and mouth are widely opened, and the eyebrows raised. The frightened man at first stands like a statue motionless and breathless, or crouches down as if instinctively to escape observation…. Contraction of the platysma myoides muscle. This muscle is spread over the sides of the neck, extending downwards to a little beneath the collar-bones, and upwards to the lower part of the cheeks. A portion, called the risorius …the contraction of this muscle draws the corners of the mouth and the lower parts of the checks downwards and backwards. It produces at the same time divergent, longitudinal, prominent ridges on the sides of the neck in the young; and, in old thin persons, fine transverse wrinkles.  This muscle is sometimes said not to be under the control of the will; but almost every one, if told to draw the corners of his mouth backwards and downwards with great force, brings it into action.  I have, however, heard of a man who can voluntarily act on it only on one side of his neck.
Sir Charles Bell and others have stated that this muscle is strongly contracted under the influence of fear; and Duchenne insists so strongly on its importance in the expression of this emotion, that he calls it the muscle of fright.

True fearlessness is not the reduction of fear but is accepting and going beyond fear. Humility, empathy and compassion can give birth to fearlessness. It comes from opening up without resistance or shyness to face the world and to share our heart with others. Compassion is the awakening of our heart from self-interest to humanity. Indifference is the lack of compassion. Confronting our fears is to appreciate the sadness beneath the apprehension, while the essence of cowardice is not acknowledging the reality of fear. Fear may be expressed in restlessness and boredom tends to bring us closer to fear. Inadequacy is the fear that we cannot handle the demands of the world. Balancing our awareness of our situation helps to develop fearlessness, which allows us to respond accurately to the outside world. It is being accurate and absolutely direct in relating to the outer world by means of sensory perceptions, mental clarity and a sense of vision. This balanced awareness is looking and seeing, listening and hearing, touching and feeling the reality of existence. Here is a Zen story entitled Without Fear:

During the civil wars in feudal Japan an invading army would quickly sweep into a town and take control. In one particular village, everyone fled just before the army arrived - everyone except the Zen master. Curious about this old fellow, the general went to the temple to see for himself what kind of man this master was. When he wasn't treated with the deference and submissiveness to which he was accustomed, the general burst into anger. "You fool," he shouted as he reached for his sword, "don't you realize you are standing before a man who could run you through without blinking an eye!" But despite the threat, the master seemed unmoved. "And do you realize," the master replied calmly, "that you are standing before a man who can be run through without blinking an eye?"

When our mind and body are balanced and are in harmony then we have no doubts. A result is gentleness that comes from honestly and the absence of doubt by trusting your heart and, in humility, trusting in yourself. A lack of humility can give rise to hubris, the greatest sin in ancient Greece, with its arrogance and overconfident pride.

People tend to fear silence. Think of the diversions in modern life: we send a text message to a friend, turn on the radio or television or plug into our personal jukebox with headphones. Our tendency to talk or fill the silence sometimes is based on a reluctance to see something or to confess something to ourselves, feelings we can avoid temporarily by these distractions. Consider this Zen story called Sounds of Silence in which each monk breaks silence for a different reason:

 Four monks decided to meditate silently without speaking for two weeks. By nightfall on the first day, the candle began to flicker and then went out. The first monk said, "Oh, no! The candle is out." The second monk said, "Aren't we not suppose to talk?" The third monk said, "Why must you two break the silence?" The fourth monk laughed and said, "Ha! I'm the only one who didn't speak."

Dealing with Stress

            Stress is difficult to define but we know it when we feel it. There is a sense of being pushed to the limits of our coping ability in facing a predicament. We feel threatened by a situation and doubt our capability to deal with it successfully. The source of this stress can be physical, psychological or psychosocial. An end result of severe stress is exhaustion and burnout. Burnout damages our psyche through the sense of disillusionment that underlies it. We can become cynical and embittered and filled with negative emotions.

Our bodies are programmed to deal with immediate stressful situations through the “fight or flight” response. Our adrenal glands pump out adrenaline, the chemical messenger of stress, and cortisone. Our thyroid gland accelerates our metabolism by increasing the amount of thyroid hormone to give us more energy to fight or run and our hypothalamus releases natural pain killers called endorphins. Blood is diverted from the gastrointestinal tract to our muscles and all of our senses become alert and vigilant.

            In the short term these responses can be life saving depending on the nature of the threat. But chronic stress can have a devastating impact on our health. Too much adrenaline and cortisone compromise our immune system by reducing our resistance to infections, malignancy, and illness. Excess thyroid hormone can produce insomnia and weight loss and can make us feel nervous and shaky. Depletion of endorphins can worsen arthritic aches and pains.

            The key to reducing stress is to face it directly and develop an approach to deal with it. Denying stress or trying to avoid it altogether only magnifies the impact. The way we approach a stressful problem depends on the circumstances. If we have some control over our situation we can actively reduce stress through effective time management, interacting with a person we like and creating an inventory of our personal goals and a game plan for our careers and recreations. If we are not empowered to change some of our situation, we may be able to change our reactions to stressful circumstances. Our attitude is critically important and optimism will be much more effective than cynical pessimism in dealing with stress.  To me a law of the universe is that stress is expectations divided by reality. If we cannot change the reality then we can modify our expectations.

            Adopt a healthier lifestyle by remembering the other four secrets of successful aging: appreciate your reality, challenge your body, stimulate your intellect and nurture your spirit. Also, eat a healthy diet, avoid tobacco, get plenty of rest, take vacations, pay attention to your physical health, get a pet and laugh every day. Other stress management techniques include regular exercise, increasing your social network, meditation, self-hypnosis and using positive imagery by remembering a joyful past circumstance or experience. With so many stress reduction resources available the important point is to find what works best for you and use it.


The Zen stories can be found at:  http://www-usr.rider.edu/~suler/zenstory/zenstory.html