Overcoming Fear

There is an elephant in the room. It has been with us for well over a year.

A few weeks ago, I was a last-minute “fill in” speaker at a business meeting and I named the elephant. When I suggested that our economy’s turmoil had led to rampant fear within our industry, I evoked a strong denial reaction. Maybe the denial was intended to “protect” the younger audience members from further “negativity.” But it had the opposite effect. No one is fooling anyone with groundless optimism.

In my practice, I visit a lot of real estate businesses and observe office behaviors. Every day, I receive confirmation of this fear. There are a lot more closed office doors. People are hiding out. They can’t talk about what is taboo. They can’t seek support if they can’t raise the subject. So they hide. There are a lot more “out of office” meetings and a considerable uptick in “working from home.” I want to name the fear so that we can begin to deal with it. There is a tremendous amount that we can do about it. I know, because I’ve had to do it myself.

When I was 41, my then-dermatologist told me that a lump in my back, about which I had complained for years, was a malignant melanoma. My doctor told me that he thought that I had two years to live. As I said, I was 41 years old then. My wife and I had three children under the age of nine. And, at that point, I was hyperfocused on my land-use career, which had been rocketing skyward for years.

From the doctor’s prognosis to the time of surgery, six weeks had transpired. I arose almost every night at about 2 a.m. to a feeling which I came to label “dread.” There were no thoughts, only a sense of doom. I would remain awake for the balance of the night. I was paralyzed.

The tumor was removed with “clear margins,” and the melanoma likely had not metastasized. But that conclusion ultimately would not be confirmed for about seven years. I never would look at life in the same way again.

It has been 19 years now. I have had two subsequent melanomas, both of which were caught early. Neither presented appreciable risk.

But I have faced fear and learned to live with it. I then made a conscious choice to look it in the face when I volunteered at the Laguna Honda Hospital hospice ward. I have been serving the dying there for almost six years.

So I’ll give you some thoughts about fear, how to befriend it, how to transform it and, perhaps, how to take advantage of it.

First, fear can make you stupid. The part of the brain that triggers fear is primitive. It hijacks the thinking part of our brain and denies us access to alternative perspectives that would quell fear’s disturbance. The longer that the conscious mind remains hijacked, the more dysfunctional we become. You know you are hijacked when you can’t think clearly or you can’t remember things that were once at your fingertips.

Remember that fear is the name that we apply to an emotional state, which arises from a combination of physical cues and a perception of the environment.

Fear is just a word. In fact, the bodily state that we know as fear is extraordinarily similar to other emotional states, such as anger or excitement. At bottom, fear is energy which is ours to transform.

In his book “Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies and Why,” Laurence Gonzales analyzes outdoor recreation accidents, attempting to understand the stuff of which survivors are made. Gonzales notes, “To my surprise I found an eerie uniformity in the way people survive seemingly impossible circumstances.” Gonzales confirms that in an initial crisis the survivors do not allow themselves to be ruled by fear. Rather, they make use of it. Their fear, almost alchemically, turns to anger.

Anger motivates survivors and makes them sharper.

Ensconced in our offices, we are not clinging to a snowy escarpment or lost in a steamy jungle. Transforming fear into anger may not prove effective or even necessary. But you do need to move beyond fear into an awareness of your situation to reengage higher-functioning mental processes.

Conscious breathing, meditation, yoga, Tai Chi or Qi Gong all create quiet mental space from which such awareness can arise. Each of these requires discipline.

They are not an overnight “fix.” But any of these will serve you not only in the short term (getting through this crisis) but will build up your immunity from crises to come.

You have to get “out of the box.” Few of us actually examine the question “What is my life’s purpose?” The absence of an answer to that question explains much of the misery we experience. Sure, the economy is bad. Perhaps your career is at risk. But, excuse me, is that really all you are here for? If you no longer were successful or if you lost your job, would you have no remaining purpose in your life? For me, fear was transformed not by anger but by my quest to fi nd that purpose.

Following are four items that you have to attend to in transforming fear:

  1. You have to get to know how your body is doing. This is not about “being in shape,” although conditioning is critical. It is about the fact that your patterns of behavior, including emotional responses, are embedded in your body. All your good mental work can be undone by embedded physical conditioning. As you get to know your body, you can detect and subdue these destructive patterns.
  2. Since negative experiences are more central to survival, they trump positive ones. The only way out of this bind is to spend as much time in joy as possible. If you have trouble figuring out how to have a joyous experience, think what that tells you. Fun — and lots of it — is good for you.
  3. You have loved ones, friends and communities that nourish you. Spend more time in their company. Stay away from relationships that are toxic.
  4. Gonzales notes that “Survivors are always doing what they do for someone else, even if that someone else is thousands of miles away.” Psychologist and Auschwitz survivor Viktor Frankl argued, “If one cannot change a situation that causes his suffering, he can still choose his attitude.” Doing for others makes that shift possible. It is hard to stay in fear if you are dedicated to others. Don’t write checks. Do service. Let people know that you see them and hear them. And, above all, learn to care for yourself.

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