How to Help Manage Your Everyday Fears
You can learn to not be a prisoner of fear.
Posted Jan 16, 2020
Although it’s true that fear can be constructive, this is the exception rather than the rule. This piece isn’t about constructive fear—fear that arises in response to an immediate threat and triggers a “fight or flight” response in order to protect us from danger.
This piece is about everyday fears—the types of fear that are closely allied with worry. Fear arises when we feel intense worry about an event—or an imagined event—in the future. One reason that fear is such a source of suffering is that, try as we may, we have little control over how the future will unfold. When we resist the uncertainty and unpredictability of outcomes regarding such things as our health, our relationships, our jobs, the safety of our loved ones…fear is often not far behind.
Let me start with a remarkable quotation:
“Fear is a habit. I am not afraid.”
These words were spoken by Aung San Suu Kyi during the 15 years she was under house arrest in Myanmar (formerly Burma). She had every reason to fear for her life every single day. Had I been in her situation, I imagine I would have been afraid. But I understand what she’s pointing to when she says that she was not, because fear is indeed a habit of mind, and habits can change. Whatever your fears are, they are not set in stone. You can learn to lessen their tight-fisted grip.
I’ll use an example from my own life. One of my recurring fears is that my husband will get seriously sick or injured and need me to care for him. Given the current state of my health, I would not be able, for example, to sit by his bedside in a hospital all day, not to mention handling all the interactions that would be necessary with doctors and other medical staff.
How do I work with this fear? First, I acknowledge its presence. If I try to suppress it or get angry at myself for feeling it, the fear only gets stronger. So I start by accepting with self-compassion that this is how I feel right now. Then, I investigate it.
To investigate fear, start by considering what gives rise to it. In the example I’ve been using, when I investigate the fear of something happening to my husband, I see that it arises because of my desire to control the future. No wonder I feel so afraid—I’m trying to control the uncontrollable! Just the realization that my fear about my husband is about something I have no ability to control loosens the grip it has on me because I see that the fear serves no useful purpose: it has no effect whatsoever on what will happen in the future.
Continuing to investigate, I realize that, not only can I not control the future, but it rarely turns out the way I think it will. I love this quotation (usually attributed to Mark Twain): “I’ve lived a long time and seen a lot of hard times—most of which never happened.”
Keeping in mind the insights that investigation revealed, I practice what Korean Zen teacher Seung Sahn called “Don’t-Know Mind.” Those of you who’ve read my book, How to Be Sick, or my other books will be familiar with this practice. It’s self-explanatory—those three words, Don’t Know Mind, say it all!
When I keep a Don’t-Know Mind about my husband’s future health, I feel as if a burden has lifted. I realize that I’ve been expending a lot of energy dealing with fear over something I can’t know about. There’s no more reason for me to assume that he will get sick or be injured than there is to assume he won’t. All those fearful stories I spin in which I project this medical crisis and that medical crisis serve only to increase my own stress and suffering.
Continually questioning the validity of these stressful stories that I spin and then remembering to keep a Don’t-Know Mind about the future is how I’m slowly but surely changing this painful habit about which Aung San Suu Kyi spoke. I hope that someday, I can say: “Fear is a habit. I am not afraid.”
The Assumption of Safety
Here is another way that I manage my everyday fears. Louis Richmond is a Zen teacher who contracted a rare life-threatening brain injury—viral encephalitis. He was in a coma for ten days. In this book, Healing Lazarus, he chronicles the devastating effect of the illness and his slow climb back to health. When he began to recover, he had to learn how to walk and talk again. He had to resume his career and become an equal participant in his family’s life. During this long and grueling process, he suddenly found himself experiencing overwhelming fear that something like this illness could happen to him again.
Of course, any of those things might happen, to you or to me or to anyone, but we can’t live our lives in fear of them. We all must develop an assumption of safety that allows us to get through the day. I have three children, and if I allowed myself to worry constantly that one of them might be hit by a car, or could be kidnapped, I wouldn’t be able to function.
These words from his therapist changed my life because I’ve adopted an assumption of safety about the future and this has helped me manage my everyday fears. I talked about the fear of my husband having a health crisis. Two of my other recurring fears are: “What if one of my children or grandchildren is at a shopping mall when a terrorist attack occurs?”; “What if someone in my family is in a bad auto accident?”—the latter being a fear I’ve carried since childhood. Now, when these or other fears arise, I remember what Richmond’s therapist told him and I repeat her words to myself: “We all must develop an assumption of safety.”
This has helped me relax about my family because I’ve wrapped them in an assumption of safety. After all, the probability is low that anything disastrous will happen to them. Of course, we should take reasonable precautions, but catastrophes are the exception, not the rule, despite the media’s constant focus on them. The assumption of safety, accompanied by reasonable precautions, is the skillful alternative to living in fear.
You might try practicing with the assumption of safety by calling to mind one of your own recurring fears and then reflecting on how it’s highly unlikely it will happen. Then allow yourself to develop an assumption of safety about that fear.
Fear, like other mental states, is an arising and passing event in the mind—and the same is true of the stressful stories that accompany fear. They arise; they pass. My wish for all of you is that the tools I discussed above, along with this reflection on the impermanent nature of all mental states will help you manage your everyday fears. And don’t forget that when you do feel fear, cultivate self-compassion by treating yourself gently and with kindness. That is something you can control!
Thank you for reading my work.
These might also be helpful: “Stick to the Facts to Keep Stress and Anxiety at Bay” and “You Don’t Have to Believe Your Thoughts.”