Overcoming fears is one of the greatest challenges of humanity. Fearful minds create divisions, disharmony, chaos, and wars. Therefore, it’s imperative to understand the nature of fear, how it plays out in the unaware minds, and how to eradicate it.
In primitive times fear was used to assess a life-threatening situation, which triggered a fight-or-flight response. For people living in the caves, fear was a valuable asset as it helped protect from an external threat, such as an attack by a wild animal or invasion from a rival group.
Modern life is much more comfortable, and today we don’t encounter life-threatening situations regularly. Yet that fear remains. Now it has transformed from physical to psychological.
It mostly lives in our heads. It creates anticipation, restlessness, irritation, sadness, anger, paranoia, anxiety, and it blocks the creative beings that we are. It causes friction in our thought process by sprouting doubts. It creates conflicts and disillusionment by highjacking the rational thinking part of the brain.
Eradication of fear enables us to live a joyful life – a life of meaning and full of creative pursuits. It enables us to develop love, kindness, and compassion, not only towards others but also towards ourselves. we cannot love others until we learn to love ourselves.
We usually create fear internally in our minds through our thoughts. Thoughts create insecurities. Insecurities cause us to accumulate more, like more money, and other items of convenience.
Once we have all that we want, we create insecurity of losing them, which in turn creates more fear.
When we hear about a terrorist attack in some remote corner of the world, and that very moment we become fearful. We start imagining ourselves in that very same situation.
Imagine a situation where you have an immediate threat to your life, like when someone attacks you on the street, having fear in such a case would be natural. The danger here is imminent, uncontrollable, and requires immediate action (fight or flight).
Therefore, fear is a handy tool of the mind. But we have forgotten how to use this tool. We start generating fear in situations where it’s not required. It happens when our mind wanders away from the present moment.
We get stressed about situations that are not happening to us right now and in most cases are not even likely to happen in the near future.
For example, we get worried about, “Who will take care of my family if something happens to me”, “I left my cupboard open, what if someone breaks into my house and steals my stuff”, “My company is laying off people, what will happen if I get fired”, “I spoke rudely to my mother last night, what if she never calls me again”.
These are not immediate threats but still we invoke fear based on such thoughts. Our brain cannot differentiate between an actual threat and a perceived one.
Fears can be in our conscious, subconscious, or unconscious mind. Therefore, to eliminate fear we must carefully assess and understand where the fear comes from.
This process requires a thorough inquiry because fears can be varied, subtle, and abstract. Some of them lie in the deep recesses of the mind and can manifest in various ways.
In order to understand further, let’s take a look at the different types of psychological fears.
Fear of The Physical Pain
With physical pain, its not the neurological reactions that we recall but the emotions attached to the pain. In my late twenties, I was suffering a lot from tension headaches.
At times, the fear was so great, that I use to pop an analgesic pill as a preventive measure to avoid pain.
Just the very thought of going through that experience of headache made me so scared that I was ready to eat one medicine after another. I was scared that I would not be able to work for the rest of the day if I don’t take that pill.
At that time, I was avoiding the root cause of my pain. I was not acknowledging the fact that I had stress, insomnia, and anxiety. I was only focused on the symptoms, not the cause. And hence, my problems persisted. And not only that, they became worse with time.
What I failed to realize was that it was my social and environmental conditioning of the past that created huge expectations. As a result, there was a constant struggle to be something more than I was at that time.
The idea of success, fame, and the sense of accomplishment was so intensely programmed within my mind that I could not look beyond any of that. I could not see that the real joy lies in just being rather than accumulating things for sense pleasures.
I was hustling hard to achieve my goals, and as a result, I was not only punishing my body but also my mind by suppressing my thoughts and emotions, and that manifested as physical pain in the body.
Fear of Loneliness
Why do we fear loneliness? We create a false sense of security in being part of a group or a community. The problem is not the community itself but our attachment or clinging to its ideas and beliefs.
Every group that emerges creates its own beliefs. You are known to be a devout member only if you subscribe to their ideologies. If you show disinterest or cause resistance (which eventually happens in most of the cases), you’re ostracized from the group.
The problem is that we merge our identity with that of the collective. We feel that if we do not agree with their ideas, we would be abandoned, our existence would have no meaning.
In Buddhism, this is known as the “Bhava Tanha”, the desire to become something. The reason why we desperately want to be a part of a group is that it gives us a false sense of security.
As a child, I used to often accompany my father to the civil services club, an elite recreational place for high ranking bureaucrats in India. I used to see how desperately he wanted to be accepted as a part of that.
Although he used to be disgusted by most of the people in that club, still, the fear of loneliness, the fear of unbecoming was so great that he could not think himself apart from that group.
Not only that, but he was also projecting his insecurities onto me. The reason why he used to take me to that club was that he wanted me to get familiar with the environment.
So that when I join the elite government services, I would have strong connections along with a bloated ego to create a nuisance for others. That’s what bureaucrats do? Right? I’m just kidding.
Guess what. Not only did I fail the civil service exams, I also never saw those people again in my life after my father’s death.
Fear of Being Judged
Human beings have a tendency to form identities in order to deal with their insecurities. You are scared to be nobody. You want to be someone and want to be known by something you do. You form identities like lawyers, doctors, artists, sportsperson, etc.
Now that you have put all the years of hard work into building this identity, you are terrified of the thought of losing it. You are ready to fight tooth and nail to protect it.
Don’t blame yourself for this, as I mentioned above our social conditioning is responsible for it. Every day we are raising the bar of survival, as a result, stress, and depression are natural consequences of our actions.
You give yourself all kinds of reasoning and justifications for what you are doing. You seek validation even from those people who you might not have seen for ages. Fear makes you behave like that. These are all irrational fears and you easily give in to them.
Fear of Survival
The question is, how do you define survival. We are worried about what will happen if we lose our job. Questions like, “How will I pay the mortgage?” “How will I fund my children’s education”, “I won’t be able to eat out in my favorite restaurant”, “How will pay my car loans”, torments us.
From the place where I come, I have seen people surviving on one meal a day and still, there’s always a smile on their faces.
If you travel to remote parts of a country like India, you will witness abject poverty, but that does not stop those people from celebrating life. Yes, they have their share of problems, but that never prevents them from being happy. If you don’t believe me take a trip and see for yourself.
The problem with survival nowadays is that we raising the bar constantly. We don’t have a clear cut definition of what exactly is survival. The rising cost of housing, healthcare, lifestyle sickness, homelessness, mounting credit card debts, indicate clearly that something is wrong.
I’m not an economist, nor do I have the intelligence to understand finance. But what I do understand is that survival shouldn’t be so tough. Basic human needs like housing and healthcare should not put people in debt.
When you overestimate survival, you create an atmosphere of insecurity and fear.
Fear of Rejection
Fear of rejection has a far-reaching impact on our lives. It affects our ability to succeed in adult life. We can feel it in the frontal body starting in the solar plexus, moving towards the heart, and finally the throat.
This fear can be acquired during childhood. If you do something that your parents approve of, you are rewarded, and if you do something they don’t approve you are punished. As a result, you start seeking their approval every time you make a decision for yourself.
At times you feel so scared that you suppress your true feelings and emotions towards something you are really passionate about, just out the fear that others might reject it.
A few years back, I was miserable in my corporate 9 to 5 (it was more of a 9 to 9) job and wanted to quit to start my own business. But I was scared that my parents would reject the idea. The idea of job security and month to month paycheck appealed more to them much more than venturing out into the unknown.
So just out of the fear of rejection, I cling onto my job for many years, till it reached a stage where I couldn’t take it anymore.
Another area where fear of rejection worries people is dating. Rather than just being with the person and getting to know them, we are most worried about our looks and the fact that they may reject us based on our appearances.
Such people appear to be very superficial in their dealings with others. The insecurities they have, not only drives them crazy but also chases away other people close to them.
Fear of Death
This is a very broad topic and someday I will probably cover this in a separate article. But for now, let’s just touch upon this subject briefly.
We all know the fact that every being who is born on this planet has a limited time here. This body is an accumulation of materials that we have gathered from mother earth, and one day we will have to give it back to her.
Fear of death is such a powerful fear that it drives people crazy. We as human beings tend to get too much identified by our bodies. I believe there is nothing wrong with that, but one must be conscious of the fact that our bodies are decaying with time and one day we will have to give it away.
This fear arises from the fact that we have not experienced anything beyond the physical and it is genuine fear. All we have seen is the decaying body but we are not sure whether our consciousness survives death.
Jiddu Krishnamurthy, in his book, the first and the last freedom, explains this concept beautifully. He explains that we don’t fear the unknown, but the known.
Since we don’t know what’ll survive after the body decays, we like to cling on to what we have accumulated, like name, fame, money, recognition, relationships, material possessions, etc.
Overcoming Fears Through Realization of the ‘True’ Self
An inquire into the nature of the true self, will eventually lead to root cause of the fear. This technique has been used since ancient times, and it has proven to be very effective.
It might seem like i’m trying to give you a belief, but you don’t have believe me. Verify this with your own experience by practicing introspection and self-observation techniques.
When we learn to sit still, and reflect and contemplate, all the troubling thoughts which we had been suppressing for years come to the surface of our conscious mind.
Soon we learn to create a space or a gap between ourselves and our thoughts. We see our thoughts from the perspective of a third person, as a witness that is completely detached with the thoughts.
Mindfulness makes us aware of the present moment and teaches us to witness our thoughts and emotions, without creating any kind of judgment or reaction. Thoughts can only either exist in the past or in the future. In the present moment, there’s only bliss. The bliss of simply being.
It teaches us to accept the afflicting thoughts, accept the fears, but not get affected by them. It creates a separation between the thinker and the thought. This separation helps in reducing the impact of fear on our mind and body.
Most of us succumb to our own negative thinking. We get too much carried away by the troubling emotions that we remain unhappy most of the time.
If we truly want to be fearless, we need to get to the very source of these negative emotions and learn to deal with them. Face them head-on, as we do with other situations we encounter in daily life.
A sharp mind knows how to use fear to its advantage, whereas the unconscious mind misses the opportunity.
Practicing meditation has taught me to be in the present moment and freed me from the burden of my fears.
I have barely scratched the surface of a subject which requires hours of detailed discussion. I’m planning to write more articles on the subject of fear and how to overcome it practicing Mindfulness.
We have always been taught that we should learn to face our fears head-on in order to be happy. Now that is easy if something outside of yourself creates fear in you.
But what if our own mind becomes our enemy, and the fear comes from within us. Mindfulness offers an approach that shows a clear way to deal with this. The only requirement is that you need to commit to it wholeheartedly.
Our worst enemies are not in the outside world; they are there within yourself, manifesting as fears. All you need to do is to accept them and give them some attention. Treat them with love and kindness. Let them come, allow them to play, and finally let go of them.