Fear is a choice so you can choose to remove your stress
“Because anger and hostility destroy our peace of mind, it is they that are our real enemy. Anger ruins our health; a compassionate attitude restores it. If it were basic human nature to be angry, there’d be no hope, but since it is our nature to be compassionate, there is.” Dalai Lama
We, as humans, learn what to be afraid of as we go about our lives. We can classify these learned fears into two categories:
Objective fears are factual threats to ourselves, e.g. eat spoiled food and you get sick, jump off a cliff and you get injured, get bitten by a cobra and you will probably die without an antivenom, etc. Subjective fears are where we create fears in the present moment based on the expected outcome of future events. We can also create subjective fears based on objective one, e.g. if you have a pathological fear of snakes you might have a fear of encountering a cobra while out hiking in the woods in England. The likelihood of encountering a cobra in the wild in northern Europe is rather slim. Hence, the objective fear is unrealistic.
The subjective fear is when there are threats to your Ego and the identity that your community and you have created for yourself. Your Ego is a conscious element of yourself that you have chosen to create based on your exposure to life and your experiences. Another way of defining the Ego is; it is an illusionary construct that we create based on our own perception of our experiences in life. When your Ego is raging, you can step out of its way and observe it, and you will wonder what it is and what function it has. When I get triggered by my children and I get angry, it follows a narrative; they have done wrong; I need to show them they are wrong by being angry, I cannot let the anger go to make sure they understand they’ve done wrong. That will then loop in my mind until I get distracted and get off the carousel. As I’ve identified the loop, I can catch it and step off and observe it and by asking “can I communicate to them in a more constructive manner that they’ve done wrong”, the loop loses its power and vanishes, as does the anger. It is the Ego that runs this carnival. The Ego is a defensive shield that you’ve built to protect your emotions, integrity, and identity. Unfortunately, we don’t realise that we don’t need this shield, nor do we need the Ego. However, once we have created the Ego, we have to put in the work to get rid of it.
Your identity is what you define yourself by; religion, politics, skin colour, sexuality, etc. Through this identity construct we exude, others will also use this to build a picture of who they perceive us to be relating to their own experiences with those blocks of information. The identity you built is one that is agreeable to those whose validation you feel you need. The problem is that your identity is not real; it is a construct and can thus change. However, if you no longer identify with your identity, or parts thereof, you will bring on stress and fear because you are venturing in to the unknown and your Ego is comfortable with the identity you built for yourself. Your Ego does not want you to change. Change your identity and you change your Ego, you can see the problem, right? Removing your identity is akin to a part of yourself dying, but the beauty is that you remain whole and for the first time in your life you will be free from self-imposed constraints. However, in that process, lining the path are fears that your Ego throws up to prevent your progress. So part of the results of removing your fears is that you come closer to your truth and who you truly are.
Whenever we experience fear, we enter fight-or-flight mode. In this mode, your body prepares to allocate resources to the bare essential functions. This is the reason your stomach tightens up, your muscles firm up, your vision gets very focused, your hearing gets very acute and you have a boost of energy from the release of adrenaline. Your sympathetic nervous system kicks in reading your body to take action, in whatever direction that might be. Another name for fight-or-flight is stress.
The level of fear we hold continuously is a personal choice. You may never have thought of fear as a choice, but you will be familiar with expressions such as “overcome your fear” or “face your fears”, etc. In my experience, we can overcome all our fears and I am thus left with the only conclusion that holding fear is a choice. Like most things in life, controlling our fear requires training, but primarily you need to recognise for yourself that it is possible. It may appear an insurmountable achievement as you most of the time either don’t think of fear as being the reason for your stress response and thus it is an unconscious decision, or it comes on without you controlling it, you see a snake and your hear is almost racing before you see the snake.
Fear is a negative emotion, but for our very survival, it is necessary. However, what if you trained yourself to just get a nudge that “hey, this situation produced a negative result previously” as opposed to “oh my God, dang, I know what will happen and it is all bad, do I fight or flee?!?!”? In the first case you allow your intuition to take over and navigate the situation to the best outcome for yourself instead of your ego going full steam ahead with the quickest first available solution. The training is thus not to eradicate the function of fear as an alert system; it is to rewire it from your sympathetic nervous system to your intuition. Your intuition always comes from your calm, peaceful, loving and compassionate nature; anything else would be your ego. In Dalai Lama’s quote, at the beginning of this article, you can replace anger with fear and thus your counter opposite to fear will be love and compassion. We should always avoid deciding from a place where we hold negative emotions; fear, anger, bitterness, guilt, shame, etc. When we go against that advice, we end up making decisions that have a negative outcome for ourselves and/or others. We want to make decisions from a place of peace and calm, resulting in outcomes positive for all in the long run (even if it doesn’t immediately appear as such).
In my experience, the need to control is the greatest obstacle for us to overcome fear. It is primarily the need to control the outcome of any given situation, but also the need to control our reaction to past events. The key here is really to surrender and release and let things flow naturally. It all comes back to the saying “what you resist, will persist” (popular paraphrasing of Carl Jung’s quote). As I pointed out in the previous section, negative emotions will send your actions off in directions that will cause conflict and hostile confrontation. When we try to control the process and the outcome, we do so in defence of ourselves. If you are dealing with an imminent objective danger, a poisonous snake, a house falling down, a flock of seagulls attacking, whatever it might be, that autopilot is useful to get you out of immediate harms way (however, with a calm mind you could solve it in a better way). Reacting with that same need to control when you are dealing with subjective dangers does not serve you at all. There are too many variables that you cannot predict. The main constructs of a subjective danger are:
- It is based on the observer’s experiences;
- It is based on the observer’s perception of the situation;
- The observer makes assumptions of other variables; motives of anyone with influence, actions being taken in the process taken on the path to the outcome, and so forth;
Looking at the constructs would lead any mathematically minded person to conclude that statistically there are too many variables in the situation to conclude there is a danger. Because we cannot know other’s motives and actions, we cannot control the process and thus we cannot control the outcome. So why do we then persist in holding on to the fear of something that might never happen? In preparation, you might say? You will be far less prepared using up all your energy, constantly firing up the sympathetic nervous system. Your ego might now protest that you need to prepare for all eventualities! Good luck, I say. You are unlikely to process the infinite number of possibilities and assess the optimal outcome of each; we just do not have that conscious brain power. If you spend your energy trying to figure out the scenarios and outcomes you shut yourself off from the solutions that likely show up from left field because you will focus blindly on your “plan”.
I am not advocating that you throw caution to the wind relating to objective dangers, even there are unknown variables. For example, you do not zoom down a stretch of road next to a school, the risk of hitting someone is just too great. You take precautions to offset the obvious variables regarding objective dangers. The important part of that process is that you do not attach yourself to the fear of the negative outcome; you trust your intuition.
Accept that you cannot control the uncontrollable and you will flow with the situation. Releasing all expectations will clear your mind to assess what is happening real time and react to it with the best outcome using all the KNOWN factors involved. This is where your brain is the most powerful, instant processing of an event that is happening now. You must trust yourself that you will make the right choice when challenged. As long as your choice comes from the heart, you cannot fail. You must have faith in yourself.
The reason we want to realise the hold fear has over us is to manage stress. Stress results from over-stimulation of the sympathetic nervous system, i.e. the fight-or-flight state. We are walking around scared out of our minds all the time! It isn’t objective fears that cause stress but subjective fears. All the concerns you have; money, health, relationships, status, etc, are all fears. You have fears of not being able to provide for your family, not being able to buy the latest iPhone being perceived as a loser, you fear you don’t have enough time to spend working and time with your family, etc. We spend much of our waking hours mulling these issues over and over and over again in our head, causing your sympathetic nervous system to trigger constantly and put yourself in fight-or-flight mode. Today it is established that prolonged and continuous exposure to stress can cause:
- Hearts disease
- Gastrointestinal disease
- Accelerated ageing
- Premature death
As we’ve already established the vast majority of your fears are complete fabrications and exist only in your head, so what you are doing is to run yourself in to the ground and making yourself sick. Now that you have that knowledge, will you stop all your fears? It would make sense, but it takes a little more to reach that state than a mere decision. You’ve worked hard your entire life to build up these subjective fears and some even exist in your subconscious, so it will take some work on your end to rid yourself of them. Our parents did a very good job instilling us with these types of fears, as I am sure we have with our own children. Every ‘no’, ‘you have to’, ‘you mustn’t’, ‘you should’, etc. have been a building block to the palace of fear that you now “enjoy”. You don’t have to get married, have children and a steady career to be successful and happy, but that is what we were programmed with and thus any other path is undesirable and make us shake in our boots with fear. It is these types of programming that create the subjective fear that causes us unnecessary stress and anxiety.
Taking the first steps to managing stress
The state where you are constantly circulating these thoughts; your perceived problems and the ‘what if’s’, the Buddhist tradition refers to as “the monkey mind”. You have this monkey who is cheering you on as you make assumptions about your future and spurs you on to keep conjuring up problems that you might experience. The first step towards overcoming your fears is to recognise that you have a monkey and the second one is to observe your monkey go to town on your thoughts creating the stress in your body. When you step out of that negative loop and observe it for a few seconds, you will experience something extraordinary; the loop loses its momentum. As you continue to observe it, it loses its power altogether and vanishes and you will have a moment of peace in your body before the circus with the monkey show is off and running again. This first moment of peace and calm will be the baseline that you will yearn for and that will fuel your efforts towards longer and longer stretches of calm and a stress free life.
You will also have to determine the root causes of your stress. The method for this is tedious yet effective and you should repeat it every time you experience stress:
- Establish what triggered your stress;
- List all the fears associated with the stress;
- For each fear, try to find the first experience where you felt this fear;
- Work through the experience using the practices below;
It is useful to journal your stress experiences and the discoveries you make in each of the points above. This process allows you not only to get the root of your stress but also to step out of your own way and observe your monkey.
Building your practice
In my experience, the building blocks making up the foundation to a stressful life are:
- Love and compassion;
- Gratitude and appreciation;
These concepts have a few things in common, but the primary one is; they are all positive vibrations. I am not one of those philosophers who advocate positive thinking all the time, you cannot process the negative if you don’t allow it space and recognise it as a part of you. It is our approach to our negative thinking we have to change. We have to pay attention to where we dedicate our energy. Know what you can and can’t accept and communicate it so you and others know your boundaries.
“By doing this you are like a man who wants to hit another and picks up a burning ember or excrement in his hand and so first burns himself or makes himself stink.” Visuddhimagga IX, 23 (about holding anger)
If you approach every moment with love and compassion, you will have no fear. This does not mean you have to become a pushover, but it means that you approach, for example, conflict with a neutral attitude, seeing all sides of the argument, you assume nothing about the person you have the conflict with and you communicate constructively. If you get angry, you state calmly, “this makes me angry because [fill in blank]”. With a positive attitude you will not hold any fear because you know that it will all end up for the best. Even if the situation results in a negative outcome for you, find the silver lining and look for the lesson in the situation. There is always a reason you end up with particular outcome. Remember, how you act and react is your choice and your responsibility. Knowing that you approach every moment with love and compassion gives you confidence that you are doing the right thing and you have no reason to fear anything.
Be grateful for all the experiences you’ve had, even the challenging ones. You are only you for this one lifetime and you ought to use that time wisely. Your experiences make up your life, so the more gratitude you feel about your experiences the move joy you bring into your life. Every experience gives you the opportunity to grow as a person, even if it does not appear so when you are in the middle of the storm. Look back on all your experiences and ponder the growth you gained with each one, show gratitude to it. When you move through your next challenge, you remember that on there is growth and you can thus replace your fear of the perceived outcome with gratitude. It is after all your choice.
Forgiveness is a tough nut for most to crack. There are usually many emotions and memories blocking the ability to forgive. The misconceptions are that forgiveness is a) a weakness and b) benefits someone else. The act of forgiving is an act of bravery and strength. It requires maturity and growth to have the ability to move through those emotions and ask for or grant forgiveness. Forgiveness is something you do to and for yourself; nobody else. You don’t even need to interact with anybody else; you just need to be ready for yourself. By looking at experiences in your life where you still hold negative energy and forgiving yourself and others, you allow the release of those negative energies. Deep forgiveness prevents you from ever feeling fear or stress about any situation that reminds you of the one you forgave. You know you’ve fully forgiven yourself and others for a particular situation when you can recall that situation with no emotion coming up at the same time. For every situation where forgiveness is called for, both you and others involved carry responsibility. This means that you need to forgive all the involved parties, not forgetting yourself. There are no exceptions to this, however limiting your choices in your experience were. Forgive completely and wholly, and you will remove your subjective fears.
I would be amiss if I did not bring meditation to your attention as a tool in your practice. Meditation will allow you, over time, to find stillness to process all those experiences and influences that have led you to the library of fears that you hold today. It is much easier to find an anchor to hold on to when the storm is not raging as opposed to when you are being pushed around by the storm. Your monkey will always do its utmost to keep you from finding calm and stillness. For you to pursue love, compassion, gratitude, appreciation, and forgiveness, you need to clear your mind from distractions and find stillness. This is how meditation is useful to deal with stress. However, it is not only a remedy for the symptoms of stress, but also by using the practices in this text useful to deal with the root causes of your stress.
It is a process and you need to be patient. Be kind to yourself and remember; you can only do your best.