Knowing, Facing & Overcoming Fear

A mother, who already sustained a fractured skull and broken arm after being struck with a cane by a home intruder, proceeds to beat up the bigger stronger man after he knocks her daughter unconscious. Was she afraid? Her only thought was to help her daughter.

A fire chief leads 20 injured people and other firefighters to safety while the World Trade Center is collapsing around him. Was he afraid? All he could think about was that they needed his help.

When soldiers are asked whether they’re frightened in battle, they often answer that they’re not while they are fighting but they are while they’re sitting around waiting for the fighting to begin.

When the Dalai Lama speaks out about the Chinese government he puts his own life on the line. How does he do it? He has put his cause ahead of his own life.

Famous boxing trainer Cus D’Amato once said, “The difference between the hero and the coward is what they do with their fear.”

“Courage is not the absence of fear, it’s going ahead despite the fear.” -Anonymous

Does fear hold you back?
Does fear direct your life? Do you make many decisions based on fear? Unable to break out of self-imposed limitations? Do you stand up for yourself or back down in fear of conflict?

Any time you attempt to go outside of your comfort zone you are going to feel fear. Fear comes from self-doubt and uncertainty. Fear comes from ignorance, or simply a lack of information about a given subject.

The media, and where are we getting our information?
Studies have shown that it is the news media, as opposed to personal experience, where Americans have gotten most of their fears.1

Consider this: Crime rates plunged in the 90s but 2/3 of those polled believed it was soaring.2

The NYC metro area, with a population in excess of 21 million, had two deaths in the year 2000 allegedly caused by West Nile virus-both over the age of 65. Hundreds became sick and the environment was harmed by the subsequent spraying of pesticide all over ourselves.

Between 1990 and 1998, while the nation’s murder rate dropped 20%, there was a 600% increase in murder stories on network news (not including O.J. Simpson!).3

May 2002 episode of the TV series ER and movies such as Outbreak offer inaccurate story lines and created unnecessary fears about Smallpox and the Ebola virus respectively.

Flying is repeatedly proven to be safer than driving a car or even taking a shower, yet many fear flying since virtually every plane crash is a headline story. (Note: 1, 2, 3 From "The Culture of Fear" by Barry Glassner)

Since most people experience the world through the media (consider four to eight hours of TV per day for the average American home), people’s minds are full of misinformation about the world. Most of what people think is true about the world is just fantasy.

With the mind full of inaccurate pictures of the world, how can we know what is real? Unfortunately, we can’t. The mind can’t tell the difference between what is real and what is vividly imagined. You think maybe TV and movies, especially with today’s technologies, can shape what is “vividly imagined”?

What is fear?
Plain and simple, fear comes from thought. An acronym for fear says it all: False Evidence Appearing Real. Fear is in the mind. It comes from focusing on a negative outcome in the future. As author Gavin DeBecker puts it, “The very fact that you fear something is solid evidence that it is not happening.”

Think about it: if you want to change jobs and it takes you a year, then for a year you are projecting failure. If you see your self as being very successful why wouldn’t you do it right away?

Same can be said for a relationship. If you find yourself in a bad relationship and you continue to let time go by without doing anything about it, then for that amount of time you picture yourself alone or not finding anyone worth opening up to or some scenario worse than the one you are currently in. Again, if you could see yourself in a better, more loving, and healthier relationship, why would you wait?

Fear is a consequence of not dealing with the present. If you don’t give yourself a chance in the present how does that effect the future?

Imagine a worst case scenario where you are confronted by a knife wielding criminal in a dark parking lot at night and he has friends.

Well now, looks like you’re in for it, right? Maybe. But don’t make it worse than it is. Stay in the moment and realize:

  • The knife can’t hurt you. It’s an inanimate object that is not going to jump up and cut you all by itself. The man holding it is the problem.
  • The darkness can’t hurt you. Neither can the shadows you might be seeing.
  • His friends? Well, instead of seeing it as three or four on one, see it as one on one four times.

I don’t know if you or I could or would get out of it alive or unhurt. The point is don’t make the situation worse in your mind. Deal with it in the moment. That would be our best chance. As author Dan Millman has written, “When faced with just one opponent and you doubt your self… you’re outnumbered.”

Frozen with Fear
In the above scenario, many would be frozen with fear. They would be an easy victim. It is the very reason why most self defense oriented training teaches people to rely on gross motor movements-big whole body techniques-over the more refined type of martial arts techniques to specific targets that are traditionally trained. These experts believe it is virtually impossible to get off these traditional techniques in real life situations.

In the short term, I would have to agree. If self defense is the only reason someone is training, then big gross motor movements- such as repeated elbow, knees, and big slugging motions with whatever you’ve got.

However, if you’re training for the big picture-to discipline the mind, control the breath, manage your energy-to improve and to find the real Self-then the refined power and control that most believe is a myth and the ability to act appropriately and spontaneously in any situation can be yours, in time.

The problem is in not understanding what is happening to you. And understanding it will be a very powerful step in getting beyond it.

Fight or Flight
The fight or flight response, what can be considered biological fear, is a physiological response to input received through the senses. It is adrenalin being dumped into your system that works to supercharge the body to perform at higher levels than usual to fight for your life or run for your life.

This adrenalin rush helps you to run faster, jump higher, and even become less susceptible to pain.

So what your body feels in the moment of fear is that adrenalin rush. It doesn’t mean you lack confidence. It doesn’t mean you can’t do anything. It means you must do something-now!

Are you acting on what you’re feeling or are you freezing due to what you’re feeling?

The Comfort Zone
A person becomes accustomed to a certain kind of life. We all have our beliefs seeing the world a certain way and we don’t like when something comes along and disturbs those beliefs. The disturbance results in an uncertain feeling and we don’t like that. Our brains have actually been wired in a pattern that makes our beliefs real for us. Anything outside of that is unacceptable and causes discomfort. We have set patterns and to move outside of those set patterns takes effort and causes fear. This fear is of the unknown-what might happen if I…

Anytime you venture outside of your comfort zone more than likely you will feel fear. You will feel this rush of adrenalin into your system.

Question is, how small is your comfort zone? How limited are your experiences in life? The smaller or more limited your world is the easier it will be to get dumped all over with adrenalin.

You might be afraid of spiders; uncomfortable talking to others; social events may make you uneasy; you worry about your investments; you worry about losing your job, your house, your significant other. Maybe storms scare you. Snakes. Driving. Taking a test. Riding a horse. Whatever it is you are afraid of, if you don’t avoid it, it will cause stress-and the biological adrenal rush. And this can continue to where fear controls your life.

Studies are showing that stress significantly contributes to nearly every major illness. This stress is a constant low level fight or flight response in the body. As we are exposed to anything that makes us uncomfortable, we experience the adrenalin rush. Yet, most of time, nothing is done about it. It is not used as it was meant to be used (physically). So it beats us up over a lifetime, stealing life away from us.

Take a good look
Krishnamurti has said, “One of the functions of thought is to be occupied all the time with something. Most of us want to have our minds continually occupied so that we are prevented from seeing ourselves as we actually are. We are afraid to be empty. We are afraid to look at our fears.”

How can we understand our fears if we are afraid to look at the fear itself?

When people are afraid you rarely find them asking, “Why?” “Why am I afraid to break off this relationship?” Why am I afraid to ask for a raise?” Why am I afraid to ask that person for a date?” “Why am I afraid to buy a house?” “Why am I afraid to change jobs?” “Why am I afraid to say what I really feel?” etc., etc.

Asking, “Why?” can help you start to look at your fear. Maybe you just need more information about it (i.e. if you’re afraid of snakes-which ones are dangerous?). Find out what it is you are actually fearing and why it is, then you’ll know exactly what to do about it.

Once you know what your fear is and why you’re afraid you can then respond to a threatening situation strategically instead of emotionally and all over the place.

Exposure
We all know there are people with no fear of insects; no fear of flying; no fear of sky diving; no fear of snakes; no fear of job hunting; no fear of confrontation; no fear of public speaking or whatever it is we are afraid of. Why is this? The simple answer is that they have been exposed to it more, have developed more self confidence through this exposure, and know there is no reason for the fear (or they do it in spite of their fear). If there is an inherent danger, they better know their options and how to deal with the situation if something goes wrong.

I was one of the many people that would feel terrible anxiety if I had to speak or perform in some way in front of others. If a teacher announced an oral report, I would get a load of adrenalin in my system. I also hated it when a teacher or presenter would go around the room so everyone could introduce themselves. Like most, I spent the whole time thinking about what it was I was going to say instead of focusing on the others’ own introductions.

So what’s different now? Exposure. By doing it more the fear became much less of a factor.

Fear is an opportunity for you to evolve as a human being. Go through it and become a better and more confident person. So many people in the world are living in fear of things that have no validity whatsoever. If they would only allow themselves to face it, they would experience a whole new world.

Becoming one with the fear
There is a Chinese proverb that says, “To rid yourself of a disease you must first become one with that disease.”

When something upsets you or stresses you out, instead of trying to side step it or ignore it, take a good look at it. What exactly do you feel? Accept it. Really feel it. Become one with it. This approach is very different than the opposite and can really help you to understand what is happening and why it is happening. If you allow yourself to feel at one with the fear it will begin to dissipate. You can learn to function quite well with this sense of fear instead of it debilitating you.

Realize that you are the fear. Your thoughts have created it. Now you can consciously work to settle it down instead of fighting with it. Find the thoughts that are creating the feeling and work on changing those thoughts.

Use the breath
The first thing to remember here is that the breath connects the mind and the body. If you want to change a physiological response to some form of threat (the boss is on you; argument with boyfriend/girlfriend/spouse; you have a presentation to do; stock market crash; credit companies calling; stranger approaching you in a dark parking lot), then consciously work on taking a deeper breath.

You’ll notice that when under stress the breath become short and shallow. You can change this once you realize it and the body will respond to it by calming down and slowing the release of adrenalin. Also, having an understanding of this biological fear and knowing that it is perfectly normal allows you to better deal with it. Become one with your fear and it will lose its power over you.

 

Originally Published October, 2005

Author:

Shifu Ahles
Shifu Raymond Ahles, the owner and Chief Instructor of the Blue Dragon School, is a certified instructor of Ba Gua Zhang Kung Fu & Chi Kung and a 7th Generation Lineage Disciple in the Ch’iang Shan Pa Kua Chang Association. In addition to his 30 years plus teaching experience in the martial arts, Shifu Ahles also holds a B.S. degree in Exercise Physiology, he’s a Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) and has an extensive background in the healing arts of Oriental Medicine including certifications in Advanced Amma Therapy, Chinese Herbs and Acupuncture. He is a licensed Acupuncturist and Chinese Herbalist in NJ.