Mindfully Befriending Fear

“One of the greatest discoveries a man makes, one of his great surprises, is to find he can do what he was afraid he couldn’t do.” – Henry Ford

It’s natural to feel a powerful, even overwhelming urge, to avoid people, places, or things that tend to elicit fear or worry. There are times when fear is adaptive, and might just save your life… if you happen to be in a situation that presents actual danger. However, if fear reaches a point where it is interfering with living your life, it’s time to slow down and pay attention. Rather than plunging into the habitual tendency to run from, deny, or avoid fear, consider mindfully turning toward fear as an incredible opportunity for growth.

If you find yourself experiencing seemingly irrational fears, you’re not alone. In fact, according to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), 28.8% of adults in the U.S. will face an anxiety disorder at some point in their lifetimes. While fear and anxiety can feel overwhelming or unbearable, it is possible to cope with anxiety and develop a new relationship with difficult emotions.

It’s important to direct patience and compassion toward yourself if you are struggling with fear or anxiety. Remember that it’s natural to experience fear, but when fear starts to take over important domains of your life, it’s time to do something different. It’s understandable to want to numb your emotions, ease painful physical sensations, or dull unpleasant thoughts when they arise. The problem with experiential avoidance is that rigid attempts to control our internal experience often come at a cost. Potential costs include detachment from friends and family, lack of passion and vitality, or inability to experience a range of emotions.

Getting to Know Fear

When fear begins to interfere with your ability to meaningfully connect with others, “show up” as your most authentic self, or behave in ways inconsistent with your true values, it’s time to pay attention. Consider actively seeking to dive into your fear. Give yourself permission to pause and reflect on the answers to these questions, even writing down a few notes to return to at a later time.

  • How do you know when fear is showing up in your life?
  • What information is fear trying to convey to you?
  • What is the cost of avoiding people, places, or situations associated with fear?

It’s understandable to feel discomfort or distress when actively reflecting on the experience of fear. Remember that your emotional experiences are always valid… there is no such thing as an invalid emotional experience. However, I’d encourage you to challenge the thoughts and behaviors connected to intense or difficult emotions such as fear. While the emotion itself is not to be invalidated, it’s possible to change your relationship with that emotion by mindfully examining the thoughts, behaviors, and sensations that tend to surface when experiencing that emotion.

What is one small step you are willing to take within the next week to befriend your fears? Perhaps the next time you notice the familiar physical sensations, behaviors, or thoughts that you tend to experience when fear comes up, you will simply notice. Or perhaps you’re willing to sit down and write a letter to your fear… what would you like to say to your fear? What would you like to ask the fear? Consider how “getting to know” the fear can take away some of its power and make it feel less threatening.

As you practice befriending fear, try to think of fear as an opportunity to learn something new, something important, or something that can shift you out of a pattern of unworkable action. In “The Mindfulness Solution: Everyday Practices for Everyday Problems,” Dr. Siegel points out that “mindfulness practice helps us see that our minds and bodies respond similarly… and at least some fear or anxiety shows up quite regularly. It can help us work with both the little moments of fear and anxiety that pass through our minds all the time and the big ones that can be overwhelming.” Remember that anxiety and fear are a natural part of the human experience, but choosing to befriend difficult emotions can lead to decreased suffering.

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This article is for information purposes only and is not intended for self-diagnosis or as a substitute for consultation.  If you have questions about anxiety disorders or any other mental health issue described above, consult with a mental health professional.

Germer, C.K., Siegel, r.D., & Fulton, P.R. (2005). Mindfulness and psychotherapy. New York, NY: The Guilford Press.

Siegel, R.D. (2010). The mindfulness solution: Everyday practices for everyday problems. New York, NY: The Guilford Press.

Featured image: FEAR – Dublin, Ireland – Color street photography by Giuseppe Milo / CC BY-NC 2.0

About Laura K. Schenck, Ph.D., LPC

I am a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) with a Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology from the University of Northern Colorado. Some of my academic interests include: Dialectical Behavior Therapy, mindfulness, stress reduction, work/life balance, mood disorders, identity development, supervision & training, and self-care.

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