How to Handle Fear


When we lived in Camden, New Jersey back in the 1950s and ‘60s, we had a basement. The walls were whitewashed cinderblock, and the stairs made of rickety wood that squeaked.   It held an old oil heater, the freezer, the washer and dryer, and a ping pong table, along with shelves and bags and all kinds of forgotten detritus, more than likely with cobwebs festooning their dark corners. I went down there every day for one reason or another. And from the time I could walk until we moved out when I was 13, I hated that basement. I knew there were ghosts.  And monsters.  And I had no idea how to handle fear.

My fear was a common one, simply because I was a child.   When we are small fry, our imaginations are still fertile and untrammeled. Reality does not yet have a stranglehold on our lives. When we’re young, life can be populated with things our parents don’t believe in, but we know are there: fairies, Santa Claus, leprechauns, ghosts – and monsters.

As we get older, we get logical. Rational. For the most part, we know that Santa Claus is a folk tale, and leprechauns are a myth. Fairies and ghosts – well, prove it. And monsters are simply the newest horror movie.  But that isn’t QUITE Spiritual Awakening.  That’s losing a particular flavor of Scary.

At that point, there are other things that scare us, grown-up things: scarcity. Losing our jobs, or homes. Something happening to those we love, either through accident, a foreign war, or illness. Being alone, abandoned, and unable to navigate the world as we know it. Death itself. Even though these things are often not in our reality when we first feel the fear, they are always just a few steps away from the fearful heart.  So we have to find out how to handle fear differently.

Fear can sneak up on us. We can be busy with our daily tasks, not being very mindful, and all of a sudden we realize we have been dwelling on the negative, the might happen, or the unknown shadow we can’t even name. We find that we have a racing heart, a clouded mind, and a throat closed tight by anxiety.

When that happens, it can be hard to pull out of the panic pit.

But panicking about the panic, madly scrambling to get AWAY from whatever frightens you, doesn’t work. Neither does berating yourself for feeling the panic, not being able to pull yourself together.

Now, go back to that toddler, dealing with ghosts and monsters – fearful, feeling terribly alone, crying about things under the bed. Rebuking the child, hitting it or punishing it – so much of which was done in decades and centuries past – doesn’t make the fear go away. It just makes the child cringe at letting others know about the fear clawing at it inside. Feelings are pushed aside, neglected, and frozen. And oh, how many of our adult problems come from all those frozen, old feelings we’ve forgotten we have?

It’s time to learn how to handle fear better than your six-year-old self.

It is no more helpful to do that to yourself than it is for you to yell at the child’s night terrors. Better would be to be with the child quietly. Listen to the fears, calmly. And then point out, gently but with assurance, that the monster is not to be seen and does not exist in the present moment.

This is how you can handle those night terrors of your own — about health, about money, about life. It’s a simple mantra, and it’s always available to you.

Bring your attention to your surroundings – really know where you are. If you are in bed, feel the sheets and the blankets, the cool pillow. Feel the mattress give gently under you weight as you move and settle more comfortably. If you have a partner, sense them next to you in their own dreamworld, but as close as a touch. Listen to the night noises – crickets, the hum of the heater in the room, the whirr of a fan, the soft snuffles of the cat at the foot of the bed, the snoring of your partner.

If you’re driving, feel your hands on the steering wheel. Listen to the quiet rumble of your car’s engine, the heater or air conditioner fan. Become aware of the road you’re on, the scenery rushing by, the other cars traveling on the highway, even the secure feeling of the seat belt snug around your waist and chest.

Wherever you are, whatever you are doing, simply become very aware of the physical surroundings. Do not judge them. Just be aware of them. They will anchor you to this place and this time.

As you find yourself anchored in the present moment, notice your breath. Feel yourself breathing easily, in… and out. No hurry, no rush.   Just a slow, sweet intake of air, and another slow release. Keep breathing, slowly and easily, until your breath finds its own easy rhythm

And then, remind yourself of exactly when and where you are.

In this moment…you are safe.

In this moment…you have a roof over your head.

In this moment…there is food in the refrigerator, a car in the driveway.

In this moment…all is well.

Where does your fear lie? In the future? Then hold this thought: In this moment, I am safe.

Are debts keeping you awake? In this moment, I have enough.

Do you dread that someday you will lose your partner? In this moment, I am loved and he/she is safe.

Do you fear illness? In this moment…I am well.

And that deepest of fears – do you think about dying? In this moment…I am alive.

Stay with this present mantra. Repeat it calmly, lovingly to yourself. Don’t dress it up, don’t add to it. Just use that blessed self-assurance until you are calm, or at night until you fall asleep. It is not failing to acknowledge the future. It is owning the present. And in the present is where all the changes to make a better future begin.