171 – Beyond Fear

What scares us the most is our perception of events.

"A number of our blessings do us harm, for memory brings back the agony of fear while foresight brings it on prematurely. No one confines his unhappiness to the present.”

— Seneca, Letters III

Fear is a powerful force in our lives. It can be the driver of action or inaction. Because it taps into the hard wiring of our lizard brains, it pushes us into reacting in ways that are more basic and instinctual. Fear makes it harder to use higher reasoning skills.

When we are afraid of something, we believe that something it going to hurt us. Usually, fear is triggered by something outside of ourselves. Whether we fear something physical, mental, or emotional, our perception and thoughts around what is happening causes the fear that we feel.

When we are afraid, our ability to make rational decisions is diminished. Depending on the severity of the situation, we may react actions that in the short term may feel like we are protecting ourselves, but in the long term can cause a lot more problems. If we feel truly threatened we may shift into survival mode, “fight, fight, or freeze”.

Anger

Anger is the outward expression of fear. When someone is angry they are usually trying to control a situation or another person. In the case of a physical danger, anger might scare away a threat. In an argument it might be used to try and bring someone into compliance.

Fear is such a powerful force, it is used in politics to try and control others and sway elections. By creating fear though rhetoric meant to amplify real or perceived threats, people are less likely to use higher reasoning skills, and act on their baser instinct. Current and past problems are blamed on some “other” group. Tales of imagined future catastrophes are used to spur followers into action against this “enemy”. Whether it’s claiming a stolen election or losing jobs to immigrants, by stoking up fear, their followers become easier to manipulate. People can become so fearful they can be easily influenced into taking actions that they normally would never do.

Anxiety

Recently, I’ve come to the realization that many of my choices and actions come from a place of fear. The more I pay attention to it, the more I see how it influences the things I do and say, and the things I don’t. I see how many of my habits are in place just to avoid something uncomfortable. I often, unconsciously, make a decision based upon what someone else might think of me. I may avoid doing or saying something just to avoid conflict. This is where a lot of my people pleasing comes from. I’m afraid if I don’t behave or act a certain way, then they won’t like me.

If you’re like me, you may have a low level of anxiety that colors most things. Because of my upbringing of always worrying about any misstep, I’m always on alert for the other shoe to drop. Filtered through the lens of anxiety, I can find something wrong in any situation. This kind of thinking is very unconscious, and I usually don’t notice that I’m in a state of vigilance, ready for any threat. A situation will arise where I feel threatened and have a strong reaction, which at the time seemed appropriate. But once things calm down, I can see that I had an outsized reaction to the situation.

So how do we manage our fear? How do we minimize it’s impact on us? How can we begin to get control over this powerful emotion so that in the midst of it, we can choose to be intentional with our response, rather than simply react?

“Today I escaped anxiety. Or no, I discarded it, because it was within me, in my own perceptions, not outside.”

– Marcus Aurelius

Fear is the result of our thinking. When a situation comes along, we project what we think the outcome will be and if we judge that it is positive, we’re generally going to be happy. But if we decide that the likely outcome is negative, we might feel upset. Our mood has been changed by something that hasn’t even happened!

Some of us get stuck agonizing over things that happened in the past. We worry about something that cannot be changed, and can be held hostage by something that can no longer affect us, except in the inner world of our minds.

Because fear is created by our perceptions of things, we can learn how to change our perceptions. We can train ourselves to look at things in a different way. We can decide what thoughts are useful, and which ones trap us in a prison of our own making. When you have control of your thinking, you recognize the patterns and thoughts that create your fears, can you choose new and more helpful ones.

The first step of reducing the fear in our lives is to remember that fear is created by the thoughts in your head, not by a real thing. I cannot stress the importance of this idea. Any time you feel fear or anxiety, instead of looking outwards for the cause, look inwards to your thoughts.

The next step to changing our perceptions is developing the skill of awareness. We need to become observers of how we think. It is estimated that the average person has around 60,000 thoughts a day. Most of us go throughout our day without thinking too much about what thoughts we are having. To pay attention to every thought that we have is not really a possibility.

Our society is not set up in a way that we can easily slow down and take stock of how we are thinking. We have constant and unending distractions around us. Even when we have a spare moment where we could spend some time noticing what is happening in our minds, we instead opt for looking at our phones to catch up on twitter or Facebook or the latest TikTok, which take us out of our present situation and take us somewhere far away.

This kind of mindfulness takes patience and training. The two most practical tools of mindfulness have been with us for thousands of years – meditation and journaling. In fact, Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations is his journal.

Many people tend to shy away from meditating. I often hear from others how hard it is to mediate. Sitting quietly with your thoughts can feel strangely uncomfortable. I myself find it difficult to do more than 15 minutes at a time. For many, the idea of meditation is sitting on the floor trying to clear thoughts from your mind. What has helped for me is to do a meditation practice where I try to become very aware of my body, my sensations, and my thoughts. I focus on my breathing to recenter myself when my mind has wandered away from observing my thoughts, and following my thoughts.

There’s also what it called walking or active meditation. This is where you focus very intently on some task that you are working on. Whether that is washing the dishes, working in the garden, or going for a run. Just try to be as present as possible. Focus your attention on what’s around you. Focus on the dish or the tool in your hand. Focus on the feeling of your foot landing and pushing off the road. This type of practice helps us move from just “seeing” what’s going on to “observing” what’s going on. When we become more mindful, we stay more in the present. We stay out of the past and the future.

Journaling is another way to get in touch with the constant flow of thoughts in your mind. In The Artist’s Way, author Julie Cameron recommends what she calls Morning Pages. The basic ideas is to write three pages in a stream of consciousness, with no real topic or goal in mind. With no judgment or goal, you are free to explore what thoughts are appearing and leaving.

You either are active participant in your life, or you are being acted upon.

Once you become more aware of the thoughts in your mind, you can start to choose what you want your observations to mean. You can decide how you want to respond to a situation. If you don’t actively choose your judgements and responses, you end up just reacting to the things happening around you. You either are active participant in your life, or you are being acted upon.

But what about things in the past? Since these are things that happened and can’t be changed, how can you make an active choice to do something? You can decide to reinterpret what those things mean. You can decide if the hard or painful thing in the past was a terrible thing that happened to you, or that it was a difficult situation that you figured out how to get through. You can look at your scars as something ugly, or you can look at them as battle wounds that you earned. It’s all about how you decide to look at it. You give it meaning.

When it comes to things in the future, we start to recognize the futility of worrying about what may happen. Most of the futures we imagine will not happen. This isn’t to say that we should completely ignore what may happen, or to prepare for emergencies that can arise. It does mean we don’t need to obsess over all the possible outcomes or only focus on that possible negative ones. By learning how to manage our thinking better, and staying out of that place of fear, we can make better decisions that may help bring about the future that we want.

Learning how to manage our thinking and recognizing that we are the ones that create our fear, we can decide to interpret things in a more positive way. This doesn’t mean that we are naive or overly optimistic. We want to be sure that we see reality for what it is. But it does mean that we can choose if we view something as a difficult and fearful thing, or a challenge that we can learn from and grow stronger.

Want to hear more? Sign up for our newsletter at stoic.coffee.