While grocery shopping at our local food co-op last Saturday, I ran into an old friend. He told me that he’d been walking the aisles in a daze of fear, wondering how much hydrogen peroxide to stock up on for the coming pandemic. Our conversation seemed to calm him down, but later I wondered how many others were so terrified.
The high of adrenaline
The deceptive thing about fear is that, because of the biochemical response that initiates fear, at first it feels exciting. In our stressful society, we become accustomed to the high of this adrenaline rush and think it normal. But it’s not. In fact, when our experiences regularly trigger the release of adrenaline, fear can kill us.
When we are fearful or anxious, our muscles need more oxygen and glucose, which means that our heart pumps faster and our blood pressure rises. Cortisol is one of the hormones involved in this process. Prolonged high levels of it in the bloodstream can damage the heart, contribute to obesity (especially of the gut), and weaken the immune system.
High cortisol production also leads to increased amounts of fatty deposits in the liver, which in turn can create a range of metabolic disorders. In 2008, a team from the University of California–Los Angeles showed that increased levels of cortisol prematurely age immune cells and thus make people more susceptible to illness. Cortisol suppresses the action of telomerase, the enzyme that keeps cells young.
Fear colors our perceptions
Not only is fear bad for our health, it colors our perception of reality. While we like to think that reality is an objective fact, we actually see the world not as it is, but as we are. That’s why everything looks bad when we’re depressed, and wonderful when we’re happy. Beliefs come from information we have learned and experiences we have had. Conscious or unconscious, our beliefs determine our biology and our behavior. We might even have unconscious fears from something we learned as toddlers—childhood programming becomes adult habits of perception and belief.
Perception creates beliefs
Our experiences shape our perceptions, which in turn create our beliefs. Our beliefs then reinforce our perceptions, because we now see the world through the filter of these beliefs. Unfortunately, even erroneous beliefs can be self-reinforcing. If we believe the world is a fearful place, for example, we may see other people as distrustful. If, on the other hand, we see the world as benevolent, we may expect people to be friendly and helpful. Some would say that we even create our experiences by our perceptions and beliefs.
How can we change our relationship to fear? How do we respond to the rampant fear stimulated by the sensationalism of our modern media? Do news sources exist that will not trigger a release of adrenaline? Do we simply shut out some or all media? Are we careful about the types of media we allow to affect us and what media our children are exposed to? And, perhaps more importantly, do we recognize when we have experienced a stressful situation or have been in a prolonged state of fear, and then give ourselves time to calm down, rest, and recover? Or are we, along with so many others, simply addicted to fear?
Addicted to fear
While we can become legitimately victimized by the fear and anxiety of others, we can also become addicted to fear. It has a tragic romantic appeal. One need only look at the proliferation of vampire fiction to see the appeal of the victim mentality. And yet, with all we now know about the long-term effects of prolonged fear and anxiety, as well as about how we can lay down new, more healthy neural pathways in the brain, playing the victim is not only unhealthy, it has become passé.
Self-acceptance as an antidote to fear
Often, when we’re afraid, we feel intimidated and act before we’re ready. But during such hard times, it’s more important than ever to act only when mind and heart are in alignment. However, when we feel gripped by fear, one way out is to communicate directly and act immediately to alleviate the fear.
Fear is often accompanied by worry, but worry is absent when we’re lost in the moment—so it’s helpful to cultivate practices and thinking that help us maintain a moment-by-moment focus. Meditation, yoga, biofeedback, and visualization are such practices.
Because we often worry when life feels out of control, setting comfortable limits and boundaries is essential, as is refusing to overextend ourselves to make things happen—even when others create a sense of emergency.
Other antidotes to fear
Whether it’s fear of something imagined—the possibility of a pandemic, a terrorist attack, financial ruin, falling meteors—or of an emergency actually taking place in the present moment, there are things we can do to escape the grip of fear and therefore bring more oxygen to our brains so that we can think more clearly and make better decisions. Here are some things to do:
Name that emotion. The next time you feel out of control, practice naming your emotions: This is anger. This is envy. This is disappointment. When you feel strong emotions, they may seem stronger because you are experiencing several at once. Differentiating them helps you to have a better relationship with them, and to understand what they’re trying to tell you.
Change your thinking. Even when you’re in a foul mood, resist the temptation to let your thoughts wander in negative directions: to what’s wrong with you, to old problems, to things that make you feel insignificant. Think in ways that you know will bring out your positive emotions. For example: Rather than a problem or a bad experience, focus on actions for the current day or plans for the future.
Focus outside of yourself. Try to direct your thinking away from problematic thoughts and emotions. Think of a lovely fantasy vacation, something you want to make, something you’re looking forward to, someone you love. Make a special refuge in your imagination where you can go when you’re experiencing prolonged stress.
Practice positive thinking. Positive thinking is a skill that must be practiced. People talk about having “a spiritual practice”—it’s called that because you have to practice being spiritual. The practice of positive thinking is the same and is about working with what is, whether we like it or not.
Stand by yourself. Often, when we’re afraid, we lose perspective on our good qualities. When you’ve experienced something stressful, treat yourself the way you treat your child when she’s had a bad day. Have a nice meal. Drink a cup of hot tea. Cover up with a blanket. Sit by the fire. Listen to relaxing music. Don’t turn against yourself in hard times—take care of yourself.
Use a mantra. A mantra is a word or phrase that can be repeated over and over again. It can drown out negative thoughts and help you keep your focus in the present. Music can be a mantra. Prayer is a mantra. The sacred syllable Om is used as a mantra in eastern religions. My adult children have helpful, secular mantras such as “It’s all good” and “No worries.” In the wonderful Israeli film, Ushpizin, the mantra is “All is God.” The Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh offers up the mantra:
Breathing in I calm myself.
Breathing out I smile.
The “Litany against Fear,” from Frank Herbert’s novel Dune, serves as a mantra of sorts, and is especially helpful during pregnancy and birth:
I must not fear
Fear is the mind-killer
Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.
I will face my fear.
I will permit it to pass over me and through me.
And when it has gone past, I will turn the inner eye to see its path.
Where the fear has gone there will be nothing.
Only I will remain.
Keep your sense of humor. Humor is the universal antidote to fear, anxiety, and worry. Sit yourself down in front of a funny or uplifting movie. Listen to Monty Python or stand up comedy. Play some games. Cultivate your inner prankster. When we’re thinking funny or silly thoughts, fear and anger vaporize.
There’s always something to worry about. If things are not going to work out, worry does no good. If things are going to work out, worrying about them will not help. Either way, worry is useless. It’s a sign of being off balance, over- extended, overtired, or out of control. It robs our energy, ruins our health, and sets a bad example. Therefore, we must somehow find the courage to fight fear in hand-to-hand combat, cut off its head, and claim our birthright: Paradise is a state of mind.
About Peggy O’Mara. I am an independent journalist who edits and publishes peggyomara.com. I was the editor and publisher of Mothering magazine for over 30 years. My books include Having a Baby Naturally, Natural Family Living, The Way Back Home and A Quiet Place. I have conducted workshops at Omega Institute, Esalen, La Leche League, Hollyhock and Bioneers. I am the mother of four and grandmother of three. Please sign up for my free newsletter with the latest posts on parenting, activism, and healthy living.