Fear #1: Tiger Fear
OH MY GOD THERE’S A TIGER RIGHT BEHIND ME!
Run. Run away fast.
When you’re safe, the fear will pass.
Fear #2: Neurochemical Fear
Sometimes, nothing touches the fear. No amount of running away from tigers, no amount of emotional processing, no amount of spiritual practice makes the fear subside. This type of fear can be caused by chemicals in your brain, and can be treated by a professional.
Fear #3: Anxiety
When the fear isn’t an immediate threat like a tiger, and when it’s not caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain, it’s anxiety. Anxiety is fear that you experience when nothing’s wrong in the present (no tigers) but you fear that something might go wrong in the future.
This fear is either rational, or irrational. In other words, what you’re afraid of is either something that might actually happen, or it’s not.
If your anxiety is rational, you can say this to your brain: “Thanks, brain, for pointing out this potential threat. It’s a good thing to notice. I’ll take reasonable precautions. Now please turn off the ‘red alert’ alarm so we can think clearly and work together to solve this problem.”
If your anxiety is irrational, you can say this to your brain: “Thanks, brain, for being alert to potential threats. This one is okay. It’s not going to hurt us. You’ve done a good job and you can turn off the ‘red alert’ alarm now because we’re safe.
Anxiety is like a barking dog. Either the dog is barking at a burglar, or at the mail carrier.
Rational anxiety: dog version
If the dog is barking at a burglar, you can say this: “Thanks, dog, for barking at this potential threat. I’ll call the police right away. You can stop barking now; I’ll take it from here.”
Irrational anxiety: dog version
If the dog is barking at the mail carrier, you can say this: “Thanks, dog, for being alert to potential threats. This one is okay. He’s not going to hurt us. Good girl. You can stop barking now because we’re safe.”
Your fear is not your enemy. It’s a really stupid friend.
Your fear is trying to keep you safe. It’s just going about it in a profoundly unhelpful way.
Just like yelling at a dog for barking doesn’t help, being angry at your fear doesn’t help. Your fear is a part of you, and it’s trying to protect you, even if it’s doing it in a really dumb way. Trying to squash or deny your own fear is a form of self-violence.
So instead, say to your fear, “Thank you, fear, for letting me know about this potential threat. I’ll take it from here.”
Then fill up your heart, and act from fullness instead of fear.
In other words:
This panic with which you contend,
You’d like to erase or transcend.
But that’s a doomed feud.
Just treat it as you’d
Treat a nice but incompetent friend.