Handling Fear

scared male lying in bed with covers pulled up to face

I remember walking home from school one afternoon aware of a looming confrontation between the United States and Soviet Union over the placement of nuclear missiles on the Island of Cuba. President John Kennedy and inner circle had pondered America’s response to the Soviet’s intent and decided to meet the challenge with a military blockade in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Cuba.

Why do I remember this particular experience as a ten-year-old boy? Because of how I felt. To this day, I remember the fear, anxiety and even dread deep in my gut. Of course, the crisis passed after several anxious days. But what did not change was the realization that fear and anxiety are part of the experience of life.

We are now living in a disruptive period in which so many are experiencing fear and anxiety. For many it has to do with Covid-19—concerns about their health (or that of a loved one), losing a job, online schooling, or the long-term economic consequences of the pandemic. Others are experiencing heightened anxiety about our current political climate and upcoming election. People are anxious about policing, or protests and riots. Some are worried about wildfires and hurricanes or even the long-term implications of climate change.

Using Fear for Good

It is important to know that these circumstances will change. Things are going to get better, more predictable and stable in the future. We have come a long way as human beings on this planet and, if we take a big step back, life is better for most of humanity than at any other time in human history.

However, what will not change is fear. We will continue to experience fear. It is a common human emotion.

The question is how we deal with fear. Too often we wait for it to be over and think we’ll then get back to living a normal life. But it is better is to see fear as an opportunity and use it to empower ourselves to become stronger at life.

So, in the rest of this article, I want to present four ways of handling fear, three of which are quite common and yet not healthy. Then I’ll talk about how to face fear in a way that is healthy and empowering.

Three Unhealthy Ways of Handling Fear 

Fear is a heightened emotional and physiological response to a circumstance which is perceived as dangerous. During fear, whether real and imminent or perceived and distant, the body produces a rush of chemicals and hormones which prepare it to deal with the threat. I want to suggest that there are three unhealthy ways of dealing with this fear.

First is to fight. The physiological arousal causes some people to become frustrated and angry. They become reactive and irritable and even controlling or over-controlling. They channel their fear into blame and lashing out at others, not paying attention to the more vulnerable feelings going on inside them.

Second is to flee. This is to retreat into oneself. Rather than lashing out, this person wants to withdraw from life, curl up into a ball and hide under the covers, so to speak. They feel the fear but also feel incapable of dealing with it and so become passive and want to hide emotionally. At it’s extreme, these people become immobilized. They obsess so much about the fear that they shut down emotionally. They feel very heavy and depressed and avoid anything that might heighten their anxiety.

Third is to ignore. These people act like it’s not there or real. They avoid it by distracting themselves through technology or other habitual behaviors. Or they avoid it by not paying attention or thinking about it.

Although we have a preferred response, many of us will vacillate between all three of these ways of handling fear, depending on the ups and downs of our emotions and what’s going on at the time. The problem, however, is that these are coping methods. None of them deals directly with the underlying feeling of fear.

A Better Way of Handling Fear

The best way to deal with fear is to process it. By this I’m talking about facing it squarely, feeling it, and then acting on it in a way that allows you to retain or regain your equilibrium and sense of power over your life. Below are the steps to do this.

Step One: Be Aware

Dealing with fear begins with awareness. You can’t transform something if you are unconscious or unwilling to admit what’s really going on inside you. You must admit to yourself that you are afraid or anxious. This admission keeps you whole and centered. It opens the gate to deal with it in a healthy way.

Step Two: Experience It

This means that you let it be rather than running, distracting, or converting it into another emotion. You allow it, knowing that it is nothing more than a feeling (chemical reaction) in your body. Experiencing fear doesn’t mean you’re in imminent danger. It simply means you’re human.

You can do this by taking a short pause in which you ask yourself what you’re feeling at the moment. Then quiet your mind and look inward. What physical sensations do you notice? What feelings do you notice? Rather than being caught up in the emotion, you’re being a witness to the feeling. The idea is to give your feeling space rather than trying to get rid of it. Relax into it. Allow it to be, knowing that it’s okay to feel anxiety or fear.

Do this with compassion rather than judgement. You don’t criticize or condemn yourself for what you feel but simply allow it. Where in your body do you feel it? What does it feel like? Come from a place of curiosity rather than judgement. You are being a witness of your experience, rather than acting it out through fighting, fleeing, or avoiding.

If it’s big, I sometimes deepen this process. I’ll actually lie down on a bed and then begin by noticing my breathing. Then I pay attention to any physical sensations, starting with my head and down to my toes. Then I pay attention to the feelings, allowing them to be, just noticing. (Click here for more instructions about how to do this.)

The incredible thing is that as you do these first few steps, you’ll find that your fear has diminished by about half. It simply won’t be as big as it was before you allowed yourself to be aware and experience it.

Step Three: Look at Your Thoughts

Your fear is not created by an event or circumstance but by your thinking. For example, a tree doesn’t fear a wildfire because it doesn’t have a brain. (ha, ha.) It can’t attach any meaning to the event. In fact, it’s indifferent to events and simply flows with mother nature.

You feel fear because of your thoughts, the way you’re talking to yourself about the event. So, once you’ve given yourself a little time to face and feel the fear, then you want to examine the thoughts that are generating this feeling. Ask yourself: What am I thinking? What am I telling myself this circumstance/event means?

Allow these thoughts to come. Don’t dismiss them. I recommend that you write the top three down on paper. “I wouldn’t survive if I were to get covid.” Or “I’m worried for my loved ones.” Or, “I’m afraid of losing my job.”

Then be willing to challenge your thoughts. If you step back from your thoughts and really examine them, you’ll find they contain distortions of logic. They are not 100% true. You have to be able to see that there is a difference between what is and your thoughts about what is. They are not the same. You begin to realize that as you examine them closely.

One distortion is fortune-telling. I tell myself what is going to happen in the future without really knowing. Another distortion is all-or-nothing thinking. Something is either one way or another, no middle ground. Another distortion is mental filter. I dwell on a negative aspect of a circumstance rather than looking at the whole picture. Catastrophizing is another distortion, which is only seeing the worst-case scenario. Another distortion is emotional reasoning-I feel it therefore it must be true. Another is over-generalizing and labeling.

Don’t simply let your thoughts run wild but step back and examine them. Challenge them to make sure they are objective and grounded in reality. Then change the thoughts to those that are more objective or realistic. This isn’t simply trying to be positive. You’re not trying to psyche yourself up. Your new thoughts have to be believable and empowering. You don’t do this to get rid of the fear but rather to understand it and how your own brain is contributing to it, making it something bigger or worse than it is.

Step Four: Practice Calming Yourself

Find strategies to cultivate peace and calm. The more you can calm yourself the better you’ll feel and more effectively you’ll be able to deal with the circumstances of your life. One strategy is to pause and focus on your breathing for four or five minutes. Another is to practice present-centered mindfulness. Another is to do some yogic stretches, or practice a few minutes of meditation.

These strategies aren’t meant to fully replace your fear. But you can experience peace and calm in the midst of fear. They can co-exist. Most of these strategies ground you in the present moment. As you focus on the present, you can send yourself calming messages that sound like “I’m safe in this moment.” “I can handle this moment.” “I’m okay right now because…” “I’m going to be okay in the future because….” “I am strong and capable.”

Find messages that will work for you, messages that will help you find peace and calm and act from your strength and power rather than fear.

Step Five: Take Action 

young woman diving into ocean

Finally, it is good to get into some kind of action. It can be big action or little action. It can be directly related to the source of your fear or, if not possible, an action that helps you move forward in life. Taking action helps you recognize that you’re not powerless. It gives you relief from your fear and helps you feel productive. You can be useful rather than just being afraid.

Think of it this way. All emotion, including fear, is energy. By taking action you focus and direct your energy in ways that are positive and productive rather than letting it eat at you. You turn fear into motion by creating solutions and making a contribution rather than simply obsessing about what’s going wrong.

Notice that when you’re focused on fear, you’re resisting life and focused on what you don’t want. Action allows you to begin focusing on what you do want. Instead of thinking about what makes you afraid and resisting that, you focus on a positive vision. Rather than thinking about the fear (what you don’t want), let the fear cause you to clarify what you do want. What is making you afraid? What do you want instead? Turn the fear around so that it becomes a motivator to make something more important happen.

One form of action is service, to reach out to people who have fewer resources than you. There is little more satisfying than becoming immersed in someone’s life and knowing that your actions made a difference to them.

A Final Thought

None of what I’ve shared with you gets rid of fear. Fear will always be part of the human experience, your experience. But these steps will help you deal with it so that it doesn’t overwhelm you or become the primary theme of your life.

People throughout history have dealt with fear, including your ancestors. Big fear, by the way. So, rather than waiting for circumstances to change, would you be willing to dig deep and act now to evolve and create a better life for yourself and the people around you? You can do this by handling your fear.

If you are committed, you can become good at handling fear. You can find the strength, resourcefulness, and other qualities inside yourself that are bigger than your fear. Of course, you gotta want it. Taking the steps above won’t be easy. However, I do think it’s worth it.


About Roger K. Allen
Roger K. Allen, Ph.D. is an expert in personal transformation and family development. His tools and methods have helped tens of thousands of people live happier and more effective lives. To learn more, visit www.rogerkallen.com>.

4 responses to “Handling Fear”

  1. Don Friel says:

    Thanks Roger for your guidance for my wife and myself. I hope your sharing will help us get through this difficult time.

  2. Joye Whitaker says:

    Thank you Roger. These thoughts are wonderful, helpful and life changing. If I took the time to process fear it would change my life. Do you mind if I post this to my Facebook timeline?

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