Fear is a very common type of uncomfortable aversion, a feeling of unease about what is going to happen. Impressions from our past make us susceptible to fear in the present moment. For example, if something that is happening right now reminds us of a particular type of negative event that occurred in the past – such as an experience at work regarding our boss, a disagreement with a partner, or a family crisis – fear is likely to arise.
(You may be interested in Exploring Aversion even further.)
Every single human has a mind that forms thought patterns around fear as a way of helping to protect us in the future. These patterns are often habitual in nature. They are also called impressions: real physical circuits related to the brain’s neuroplasticity. We need to vividly remember threatening, negative events from the past, especially how they made us feel, so that we have a way of avoiding similar situations and more pain in the future.
The Primitive Roots of Fear
Fear has strong evolutionary roots. As a species, we prefer to have things remain stable, predictable and within our control because that gives us the best chance of survival. The problem is that in all of our lives, things are constantly and unavoidably changing. This ultimately gives us little control, which can leave us feeling vulnerable. While we would like to think of ourselves, our lives, the future and our bodies as being controllable and separate from those around us – even separate from the world itself – this just isn’t reality. In truth, we are all connected, we rely on one another and we are all always changing. You can see why fear is such a common theme in our everyday lives.
Whenever fear arises, there’s a good chance we have a feeling deep down that things are getting out of our control, that we are susceptible to failing in some way and, therefore, potentially facing social rejection. This might seem dramatic, but, in fact, modern neuroscience confirms it. As a species, social acceptance has always been very important to us and highly sought after because being a part of a “tribe” increases our likelihood for survival and offers us protection during tough times.
The very old, very primitive, sometimes called “reptilian” part of our brain, is concerned first and foremost with protecting us from harm. It’s the reason our mind is constantly scanning our environment for potential threats or things that stand out and seem peculiar. If something is unfamiliar or reminds us of harm we experienced at some point years ago, it alerts us with feelings of fear, usually without us even being aware. The interesting thing about fear is that it’s a negative thought and our brains are actually hard-wired to remember negative experiences more than positive ones – something researchers call “the negativity bias.” Fearful experiences are experienced much more rapidly and strongly than happy ones, plus they stand out in our minds more vividly when we look back at the past.
Understanding Fear Today
Today, a high percentage of the fear we face isn’t related to the potential for us physically being harmed or killed, since this rarely happens in most modern societies. Instead, it centers around social disapproval. Sadly, we often come to fear those we most care about, which makes sense because the stakes are very high in terms of the pain we would feel if they rejected us. At the same time, we also fear authority figures in our lives (like our boss, parents or coworkers) and often anyone who feels “other” or different from us.
Many of us go about our normal day-to-day activities without ever considering these types of fears. It’s hard to alter our behavior related to fear if we can’t first pinpoint the irrational fears we hold deep within. Fear has a very real way of changing our focus, perceptions, judgments and actions. We have no way of breaking the fear cycle until we tune into the origins of our fears.
The Antidotes to Fear
What is the origin of fear? Usually the culprits are our own habitual thoughts and core beliefs about ourselves.
This is where meditation comes in handy. It helps us notice the underlying currents that cause fear to arise and snaps us out of ruminating thought cycles where we ponder far too much about the past and the present.
(Get more insight on this in Yoga's Philosophy on Calming the Waves of the Mind (Vritti).)
Dissolving fear comes down to staying in the present moment and learning trust. Trust for others and ourselves. Without trust, first and foremost of your own inner goodness and potential, it’s not possible to live without fear. Negative experiences tend to create vicious cycles by making us more pessimistic, over-reactive, isolated and irrational. Trusting that the world is a fundamentally safe place and that we are not flawed is how we get to the root of our fearful problems.
Presence of Mind
When it comes to overcoming fear, dispelling ignorance and breaking our habitual thought patterns help to give ourselves a reality check. We do this first by focusing on being present here and now, rather than getting lost in worries about the past or future. We simply experience what’s actually going on right in front of us, non-judgmentally and without adding in anything else. This awareness is experienced by directly tuning into things with our senses, using our bodies and our intuition rather than our relentless minds.
(To help, here are 6 Techniques to Staying Present.)
Secondly, after we learn to stay with our feelings and avoid looking backward or forward, we can get to know our fears better by diving deeper, sometimes called “inquiring.” We kindly ask ourselves questions including: Is there truly something to fear in this moment? What’s the worst that could happen if things do in fact go wrong? What resources do I have, both inside myself and from those around me, that can help me get through my problem?
For example, feeling fearful of our boss’ evaluations of our work might be a bigger issue lingering on from our past. Perhaps it’s really about the fear of coming up short, failing to provide for your family and, therefore, fearing rejection. In the process of inquiry, we accept whatever feelings come up as they are.
Ultimately, dispelling fear requires lots of self-compassion, gentle inquiry, patience and persistence. We dive below the surface to reveal the buried, subconscious thoughts that are really at the root of our fears, many of which are simply habitual and totally outdated.
We don’t beat ourselves up for feeling fear; we show ourselves compassion and trust that we have the potential to overcome whatever scares us.
Fear is a part of every person’s life, not something we need to feel ashamed of or “problem solve” to get rid of. As long as we commit to awareness, staying with our direct experiences, being open-minded and practicing kindness toward ourselves, chances are we will find that most of our fears dissolve on their own with time.
(Continue reading in How to Choose Love Over Fear With Each Thought.)