Fear and anxiety seem to have been more constant companions these last few years and with the war in Ukraine escalating, it’s gone up a notch for many of us. If ever we needed to know how to care for our feelings, in particular feelings like fear, it’s now. In this blog, we talk about how to best take care of our own feelings of fear, as well as how to be more understanding of other people’s fears.
Purpose of fear – when fear is helpful
Fear is an intensely uncomfortable feeling that shows up when there’s a perceived threat to your survival. Setting off the fight-or-flight-or-freeze response, it diverts resources from the day-to-day running of your body to enable you to survive this threat. It’s an essential part of your self-care kit. Think of it as your smoke detector. If it didn’t go off when there was smoke, you’d possibly be at serious risk. However, remember that it doesn’t distinguish between smoke from burnt toast and smoke from a fire that’s about to blaze through your house. Its job is simply to let you know there’s smoke. Your job is to check it out and, if needed, take the appropriate action.
Although intensely uncomfortable, it makes sense that fear isn’t all nice and cosy. If that was the case you wouldn’t take action to deal with the threat and, well, you wouldn’t survive for very long.
The issue with fighting your fear or trying to overcome it
Get curious about how you relate to fear. Do you tend to get engulfed by it? Do you tend to block it and pretend it’s not there? Or are you somewhere in between? You will have a habitual way of responding to your fear so get curious about what that is and check, is it helpful?
You may have grown up with the message that you must fight your fear and not let it rule and take over your life. You may have grown up with the message that the world is a scary place and it’s best to prepare for the worst and that everything else is a bonus. Getting curious about your beliefs and messages about the feeling of fear is helpful because it determines your ability to care for it and ultimately ease it. That’s why we should not fight our fears but care for them.
Signs of fear and how to recognise it using the ABC technique
Before you can do anything about anything, you need to become aware that it’s happening. This may sound blatantly obvious but bear with me. How often do you realise that you’re becoming afraid? Knowing how to recognise the signs of fear is key. The earlier you can do that, the easier it is to care for your fear. What are the thoughts, feelings, and behaviour that let you know that you’re becoming afraid?
Wendy had been practising the ABC (awareness – breath & body – choice) technique for a while and was becoming familiar with the indicators letting her know that she was becoming afraid. She noticed how she started to feel bad about herself, her inner critic finding faults with everything. She also noticed that she had a knot in her stomach. She had the urge to reach for biscuits and snacks, something she could put in her mouth almost like a distraction from her rising fear. It was reaching to open the cupboard to where she kept the biscuits that was the clue to get curious. She asked herself if reaching for biscuits was helpful (because sometimes it is). And she realised that no, in this instance, it wasn’t. It would only feed her fear. This is the A part of the ABC technique, becoming aware.
Now that she was aware of what was going on, she brought her attention to her breath and her body. Doing the 5/7 technique of breathing in to the count of five and then breathing out to the count of seven, three times, she focused on the feeling of breathing. Then she brought her focus to the rest of her body, shuffling her shoulders, sitting bones, and wiggling her toes – a great way to remind the brain of the other end of the body.
Now that Wendy had eased the fear a bit she was able to access the part of the brain that goes offline during times of heightened fear. She was able to check with herself and sherlock why she was reaching for biscuits. She realised that she was feeling powerless to affect what was going on in the world and eating was something she could do. She made the choice to focus on what was within her circle of influence – what she could actually do that would be helpful. She reminded herself that although she didn’t have influence over what was happening with the war in Ukraine (and other conflicts and war situations in the world), at least by looking after her own peace, she wasn’t fueling the fire.
The circle of influence and the circle of concern – caring for your fears
When you feel like you can’t affect what’s going on, you feel powerless. Because this is such an uncomfortable feeling, your inner critic goes into overdrive. Feeling powerless is likely to spill over into other areas of your life and you may find that you start picking fights or faults, retreating and isolating, or even feel paralysed. This is the fight-or-flight-or-freeze in action. The most powerful question at this point is: ‘what’s within my circle of influence’. In his book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey talks about the circle of influence and the circle of concern.
The first circle is about what’s within your control to influence. This is about focusing on what you can do within your current capacity – whether that is energy, time, money, or something else. Within this circle you can take action, so, nurture your sense of having a voice, of being able to take action. Your ability to take action in this way relates to self-advocacy, which we talked about in the last blog.
The second circle is about being mindful and respectful of what you care about and acknowledging that you do not have influence over what’s in this circle. Well, at least not directly. Because you’re unable to directly influence what’s going on in this circle, focusing on it only serves to amplify your feeling of powerlessness.
What are you focusing on during difficult times?
Buddhism has the metaphor of watering seeds. The seeds you water grow into strong and sturdy plants. Think of your focus as the water and the object of your focus as your seeds. When you water the seeds of what’s in the circle of concern (what’s outside of your influence) you grow and strengthen that feeling of powerlessness.
When you water the seeds of what’s in your circle of influence you grow and strengthen your feelings of being able to influence, to have a say, to take action. This is about watering the seeds of advocacy, confidence, and even courage – as well as figuring out choices and finding creative solutions. We talk about ISOPs. This is short-hand for ‘issue-opportunity’. This is the kind of opportunity that’s only possible because there’s an issue. It’s where you innovate and find perpendicular ways forward because the obvious way is not available.
In difficult times there is often such a sense of desperation that the focus is all on big actions and big interventions. Whilst this is valid and needed, if this is not within your circle of influence, don’t underestimate the power of small actions. Every action counts.
Peace start with you
His Holiness the Dalai Lama encourages you to examine your fears. Get your sherlock on. Your own focus, your own experience, is where you have the most influence. Start here. Take your fear by the hand, name it, and get curious about it. What’s driving it? Be specific. Write it down. Is it within your circle of influence or outside of it? What can you remind yourself of to bring your focus to what’s within your circle of influence?
When you are able to bring more peace to your own experience you are able to engage better with others and with less discord. Cultivating peace within yourself is within your circle of influence and the more of us that place our focus here, the more peace there’ll be.
Our invitation to you
Be kind to yourself and get curious. This is not the time to add to the aggression by turning on yourself. If you struggle to be kind to yourself or you struggle to get a handle on your fear, take that seriously. Get help from a trusted friend or a professional. Feelings are always information and whatever is going on for you now is what you need to attend to. And remember, it’s more helpful to be curious than critical.
Go gently, hold steady, stay the course.
All the best, Thor