This has been a worrisome year. Every day there are new reports of deaths from COVID-19, possible variants of the disease, lack of vaccine availability and the adverse effects of prolonged isolation. These reports cause a constant strain, but worry is not good for us. Living in fear is detrimental to our health.
The deceptive thing about fear is that, because of its biochemical response, fear can feel exciting. In our stressful society, we become accustomed to the high of the adrenaline rush of fear 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. In response to fear, our adrenal gland secretes cortisol and adrenaline into our bloodstream to keep us aroused and alert enough to respond. Prolonged high levels of cortisol in the bloodstream can damage the heart, contribute to obesity (especially of the gut), weaken the immune system and exhaust our adrenals.
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 make people more susceptible to illness by prematurely aging immune cells. Cortisol suppresses the action of telomerase, the enzyme that keeps cells young.
Fear colors our perceptions, which create our beliefs
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. We perceive the world through the filter of our 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. Whether conscious or unconscious, our beliefs determine our biology and our behavior. In fact, cell biologist, Bruce Lipton, says that our perceptions and beliefs actually create our experiences.
Addicted to fear
If fear perpetuates more fear, then how do we change our relationship to fear? How do we respond to the overstimulation of the modern media? Are there news sources that do not trigger a release of adrenaline? Can we set boundaries on some or all media? Are we careful about the types of media we allow to affect us? About what media our children are exposed to? How do we protect ourselves from psychic overload? And, perhaps most 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 recuperate? Or are we, along with so many others, simply addicted to fear?
While we can become legitimately victimized by the fear and anxiety of others, we can also become addicted to the rush of fear. It has a certain tragic romantic appeal. One need only look at the proliferation of vampire fiction to see the popularity of the victim mentality. And yet, with all we know about the long-term adverse effects of prolonged fear and anxiety, it is healthier to look at life more proactively. The science of neural plasticity teaches us that we can lay down new, more healthy neural pathways in our brains. We can and do change.
Accepting things as they are is an antidote to 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. Here’s a Six Point Body Scan you can use to get back in the moment.
- Notice your position. Are you sitting, reclining or standing.
- Bring you attention to your body.
- Notice whatever sensations you are feeling right now.
- Accept these sensations as they are, feel them, rest into what is.
- Bring awareness to your feet. Take three to five breaths as you notice your feet.
- Bring awareness to your knees. Take three to five breaths as you notice your knees.
- Bring awareness to your hips. Take three to five breaths as you notice your hips.
- Bring awareness to your belly and lower back. Take three to five breaths as you notice your belly and lower back.
- Bring awareness to the area of your heart. Take three to five breaths as you notice your heart center.
- Bring awareness to your face, head and neck. Take three to five breaths as you notice your face, head and neck.
- Notice all the sensations of your body. Be still for at least three to five full breaths. Just notice your breathing and your body. Let your thoughts be as they are. Don’t judge them.
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 — a terrorist attack, financial ruin, falling meteors — or of an emergency actually taking place in the present moment, like the pandemic, 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 communicate.
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. Visualize an imaginary refuge in your mind 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 this because you have to practice being spiritual. The practice of positive thinking is the same. It is about acknowledging and working with what is, whether we like it or not. It is about seeing crisis as an opportunity.
Be steadfast with 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 a 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.
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 keep your focus in the present. Music can be a mantra. Prayer is a mantra. The rosary is a mantra. The sacred syllable Om is used as a mantra in eastern religions. The Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh offers up this mantra:
Breathing in, I calm myself.
Breathing out, I smile.
The “Litany Against Fear,” from Frank Herbert’s novel Dune, serves as a useful mantra:
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.
And, if all else fails, have a bath.
There’s always something to worry about. If things are going to work out, worrying about them will not help. If things are not going to work out, worry does no good. 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 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. Sign up for my free newsletter with my latest posts on parenting, social justice, and healthy living.