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Fear Can Only Hurt Us If We Let It

Scared Boy

“Fear keeps us focused on the past or worried about the future. If we can acknowledge our fear, we can realize that right now we are okay. Right now, today, we are still alive, and our bodies are working marvelously. Our eyes can still see the beautiful sky. Our ears can still hear the voices of our loved ones.” ~Thich Nhat Hanh

I lay in bed staring into the darkness feeling physically ill with an acute sense of anxiety the like of which I hadn’t experienced in quite some time.

It felt like I had a soccer ball sized, black, dense object consuming the entire center of my stomach, causing nausea to ripple up into my throat uninvited.

I knew it wasn’t that hot, with the air conditioning on full, yet my legs were sweating, as was the back of my head. I could feel the damp pillow under me and the bed sheets sticking to me whenever I moved.

I cursed my own stupidity and replayed the previous week’s events over and over again in my mind as though under some illusion that the more I did this the easier things would become. As a coping strategy it wasn’t one of my proudest moments.

You may think I’m describing some event from my dim and distant past. When the high stress of working in big-ticket sales would cause me endless sleepless nights as I fretted over deals missed and even deals made that may go wrong.

But this was last month.

Wind back in time to April with tax day looming. After I forgot to send some bank statements to my accountant she had to file for an extension to help avoid a fine from the IRS.

I had put aside some money based upon what my tax bill was last year with a little bit extra. I called my accountant a few weeks later and asked her if she could estimate the amount I would owe.

In fairness to her she was reluctant to do so, but the figure she gave me after much prompting had me punching the air in delight, imaginary high-fiving my dogs, and grinning like a demented Cheshire Cat. It was way lower than I anticipated.

Shortly after, we got the confirmation that our best friends were coming over to stay for two weeks later on in the year. It was going to be the first time they’d visited in almost five years and to celebrate I suggested we go on a five-day Caribbean cruise.

They agreed and shortly after everything was booked and I was chilled and thrilled. Then it all went wrong. Horribly wrong.

No more than forty-eight hours later I got an e-mail from my accountant saying the final tax bill wasn’t what she had advised, but eight times higher.

How could that be? I called her and she apologized profusely, but it was what it was and there was nothing more she could do.

As I lay in bed that night I was cursing myself for rushing to book the cruise and for not making higher regular payments to the IRS as I had been advised.

I have said many times, “I have no sympathy with people complaining about their tax bill, as they can’t charge you for what you haven’t earned.” In the early hours of the morning this was the biggest stick I had to beat myself with, and trust me, it was a very big stick.

Stress, fear, and anxiety are all much the same thing. They all stem from a feeling that we’re not in control of life’s events. This stimulates the fight, flight, or freeze reaction triggered by the sympathetic nervous system, courtesy of the Limbic System in the brain.

There was no way I could fight the IRS and I’m not sure where I would fly to, so I lay in bed frozen with anxiety.

After several hours lying there listening to my own self-recrimination, I remembered to tell myself that it was okay to feel anxious under such circumstances. That it was a perfectly natural response to a negative event, and it was just a feeling.

And fear is only a feeling, albeit a powerful one. There is no thing called “fear.” You cannot touch it, smell it, see it, or taste it. As with any emotion, you can only feel it.

Also, we cannot experience fear if we are truly and congruently living in the present moment. Fear is always the mind projecting an inability to cope with a future event or situation.

It’s not real per se. Fear itself cannot hurt you. It’s how you respond to the perceived threat that hurts you.

Fear has a valuable evolutionary purpose in the survival of the human species because (for the most part) it stops us doing things that can threaten our health, safety, and well-being.

However, the worst strategy in dealing with fear is to fight it by resisting. Or to feed it by seeking out the worst possible scenarios to relatively benign situations.

I was doing both. I was feeding it by dragging myself through an imaginary court of stupidity in my own mind. At the same time I was also resisting it by telling myself I was being stupid to worry about such a thing.

Finally common sense kicked in and I decided to observe it, to be curious about it and to drop the futile resistance that was only giving it more strength.

I thanked it for its concern and reminded it that between the two of us we had dealt with every single-issue life has thrown at us for over half a century, and that we would deal with this also.

I could feel the black ball start to slowly melt and the nausea subside.

You too have dealt with everything life has thrown at you to date otherwise you wouldn’t be reading this post.

There is nothing in your life you haven’t coped with and there is nothing you won’t cope with. Sure, there will be times when it doesn’t feel like that, when the fear demon is whispering in your ear that things won’t be okay and you start to let it take control.

But, he is mistaken and the only power he has is the power you give him. Just hug him (or her) and say with sincerity, “Thank you for looking out for me. I know you have the best intentions, but everything will be okay. I promise.”

Scared boy image via Shutterstock

About Tim Brownson

Tim Brownson is a Certified Life Coach and trainer of other Life Coaches. He is also an internationally published author, NLP master Practitioner, and Certified Hypnotherapist. You can get his free ebooks ‘70 Amazing Things About Your Brain and ‘How To Set Goals That Work’ as well as two more by signing up for his newsletter here.

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  • Rogermthoms

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  • James H

    I have been working on my phobias for awhile and realized everyone has a fear in which they want to overcome. Patience and faith are always key

  • Stuart C

    I really needed the reminder today. Thank you for writing this. I’m struggling with anxiety while driving and I’ll try to remember to thank the anxiety for making me focus, but remind it that I have many years of experience and will be just fine.

  • Stephen Fraser

    Excellent article.

  • Thanks a lt Stephen, appreciated!

  • Just remember, anxiety isn’t the problem, how react to it is.

    Thanks for commenting.

  • James. I agree to a large extent. However, fears and phobias are not the same thing.

    Phobias are an autonomic response that can lead to panic attacks and even anaphylactic shock, whereas fears rarely lead to either.

    I agree with what you say about patience though mate!

  • Great post. I used to deal with fear by avoiding it. That didn’t work at all. I just got more and more fearful and found my world slowly shrinking. I had to lean into the feeling. I had to breathe deeply and walk right through the feeling knowing that I could handle whatever happened. That was the only way I could finally stop fear from controlling my life.

  • jennifer.fie
  • Really great post, Tim, thank you. Although I’m sorry to hear that you had to deal with this.

    I also carry fear physically; mine always goes right up into my neck and shoulders. Ugh, it’s the worst. I love your advice to be curious about our fear and to observe it, almost like an outside observer. That always helps me. The other thing I find that helps me is to focus my attention on the physical manifestation of the fear (the neck pain in my case). That helps me stop from going down a nasty tunnel of self derision in my imagination.

    Thanks again for the reminder that this is something we all have to go through and we always do make it through!

  • James H

    Thank you, my friend. I appreciate you letting me know the difference between phobia and fear. I learn something new every day 🙂

  • We all do 😉

  • I always say that an avoidance strategy is fine if you have a fear of polar bears and live in Florida. However, when dealing with more common issues then avoidance simply doesn’t not just work, but it makes things worse.

    Good for you Lovelyn for figuring that out!

  • Thanks Kate, but going through things like this is merely a product of being a Human Being.

    My wife is going through the final confirmation that her mum is terminally ill today. It sucks massively, but it’s also part of life.

    We simply HAVE to deal with what life throws at us. We have no other choice.

  • Great post, Tim.

    Always good to be reminded it’s all about how we respond to fear. It’s so easy to get sucked into the fear and be consumed by it. Posts like this can help pull us out, so thanks.

  • Appreciate the kind words Keith.

    And yes, we all need reminding, including me it would seem 😉

  • Irene Grace Chu

    Hi Sir, thank you for this. I was feeling afraid and wary of my upcoming promotion. I guess I’m having self-doubt on myself. Scared of the new, scared of being not good enough. But yeah you were right, this can only hurt me if i continue this line of thinking. I was really uplifted by your article, especially the last section where you said to “Just hug him (or her) and say with sincerity, “Thank you for looking out for me. I know you have the best intentions, but everything will be okay. I promise.”

  • Excellent, glad I could be of help and the very best of luck with your promotion – you’ll be fine!

  • Lisa

    Thank you, this is a beautiful post. I’ve been a fearfull (i don’t know if this is the right word) person all of my life. Fear of what other people think of me, fear if I would end up alone, at the moment fear if my best friend is going to recover from a stroke at the age of only 24. When I find love I’m so fearfull that I lose him that I always seem to lose them. They hate my insecurities I guess. Your words of wisdom I really want to learn to make them help me. To live in the present moment, enjoy that moment en not worry about what might happen in the future. Because you’re so right that everything that we had to cope in our past we survived. We are stronger than we think and we will survive whatever may happen in our future. But if you live with faith and hope, you may not curse it while with fear you kind of do..

  • That’s tough Lisa and I hope your friend makes a full recovery. You can learn to lose your insecurities. It’s not easy and it takes time, but it can be done, so stick with it!

  • Evelyn Marinoff

    Thank you for this, Tim. Fear is, indeed, a powerful feeling; it often stops us from reaching our full potential. True, it is primarily a survival tool that can keep us safe and warn us about potential dangers. Fear by itself is not harmful, it is how we deal with it that can have damaging effects on our lives. It is exactly as in the saying: Courage is not the absence of fear but the mastery of it.
    Once we learn to recognize and even appreciate the feeling of fear as a protective mechanism, we will be even grateful for these emotions. But we should leave it at that: you have been warned to be careful, point taken, move on. Research on fear has shown that we often dread situations in the future that will most likely never occur. But the stress we go through, will most certainly take its toll on our mental and physical health.
    Therefore, for me, the flight response is never an answer. Facing one’s fears is the only way to ensure they don’t take control over us.
    Some advice:
    *It all starts with properly identifying the cause of our concerns.
    *Think about if what you fear today will have a long-lasting effect on your life. Will it be important in, let’s say, 1 year from now, 5 years from now? If the answer is no, stop fussing about it and enjoy your life.
    * Imagine the worst that can happen and learn to accept it. Once you do–prepare yourself for the worst– fear won’t be able to have its grip on you anymore.
    Fear is a very controllable emotion, I believe. With a bit of practice and some positive self-talk, we can break free from most of our daily anxieties. Even if you loose the battle today, pick it up again tomorrow. The main thing is to never let fear take away the joy in your life.

  • I think this is completely wrong ‘Fear is a very controllable emotion’

    It’s not very controllable as you would find out if I through a box of poisonous snakes at you.

    I used to do a lot of rock climbing and let me tell you, when fear takes hold and starts coursing adrenaline through your veins there is almost nothing you can do to stop that leg that is on a 1″ ledge from shaking. At that point you just pray your protection will hold because you’re about to fall.

    This happens to all top climbers on occasions because it’s a physiological reaction that is at an unconscious level. You cannot manage unconscious fears at a conscious level. Well not in the short-term anyway.

    Fear is one of a few emotions that is hard wired.

    I agree we can control it when the danger is really a concoction of an over worrying mind which is what I was getting at. But genuine fear is close to impossible to entirely remove.

  • Susan Mary Malone

    This is brilliant, Tim: “Also, we cannot experience fear if we are truly and congruently living in the present moment. Fear is always the mind projecting an inability to cope with a future event or situation.”
    Fear really IS about a future event. Once I started working off that principle, like you, I could then calm down and start working on the issue at hand.
    Thank you for this reminder!

  • timbrownson

    You’re welcome Susan, and thank you for the kind words!

  • Shanker

    Hi Tim,

    Your ‘We have managed many difficulties earlier, and will probably be able to do so in future too!’ is a great point. Yes, looking back, I too have done so. And, I’ve seen some people continue leading a normal life even after big tragedies and without any hope of recovery. I always thought that their problem is too much for me. Some were even smiling a lot and never complained about it. Wow, that is an achievement. Society thinks achieving a big thing is an achievement. But to me, even enduring a big misfortune and remaining normal in itself is a big achievement.

    Thanks for sharing your insight. I feel profited by reading your article!

  • timbrownson

    Completely agree Shankar and thanks for sharing matey!