Today’s contributor is New York Times bestselling author, physician and wellness change-agent, Lissa Rankin, M.D. Her new book, The Fear Cure: Cultivating Courage As Medicine For The Body, Mind & Soul, is an eye-opening exploration into the topic of fear, what it does to us, and how to dance with it.
Fear gets a bad rap in our culture, and with good reason. When you have an unhealthy relationship with fear, fear threatens to separate you from your true essence, that radiant, authentic inner spark that animates you deep at the core of who you are, limiting the breadth of what is possible, not just for each of us personally, but for our culture and our planet. But fear is not just an uncomfortable emotion; it can also make you sick.
While fear is biologically designed to trigger the “fight-or-flight” stress response so you can run away from a tiger if you’re in danger, most of us aren’t being chased by tigers in the modern world. So our fears exist mostly in our imaginations. But the amygdala in the limbic brain can’t tell the difference between being chased by a tiger and a fearful thought like “I’m running out of money.”
As I wrote about in Mind Over Medicine, the body is naturally equipped with self-healing mechanisms that fight cancer, prevent and reverse heart disease, ward off infection, and act as natural anti-aging factors. But fear stimulates stress responses in the sympathetic nervous system, activating stress hormones like cortisol and epinephrine, which effectively disable the body’s natural self-healing mechanisms. Then voila, you get sick.
If you like to nerd out on scientific data, Chapter 2 in The Fear Cure is full of the statistics that connect fear to increases in your risk of heart disease, cancer, autoimmune disorders, chronic pain syndromes, diabetes, inflammatory disorders, gastrointestinal disorders, even the common cold.
But FEAR NOT! I’m not here to scare you. Instead, let me invite you to change your relationship with fear. When you come into right relationship with fear, not only does it protect your health, it can radically uplift your life. Let’s get started by talking about 3 ways fear can be your friend, which requires learning to discern the difference between what I call “true fear” and “false fear.”
FEAR IS YOUR FRIEND Tip#1 Fear protects your body from danger.
If someone could wave a magic wand and make you fearless, you probably wouldn’t survive very long. Those who grow up to be diagnosed with antisocial personality disorder are often fearless as children, and such fearlessness puts them at great risk. Fear is critical to our safety and survival. When you feel afraid because you’re standing on the edge of a cliff, you come face to face with a rattlesnake, or your car almost gets swiped by a high speed Ferrari, fear is your friend!
In such situations, fear is a survival mechanism meant to protect you. It’s the kind of fear an animal experiences when a predator stalks it, triggering the fight-or-flight response that may save its life. When the stress response is triggered, you are better equipped to protect your body from danger. Such fear is necessary, so welcome it! I call this kind of fear “true fear.” True fear arises when you’re in clear physical danger. You won’t have to stop to figure out whether this kind of fear needs action. You will simply take action instinctively.
FEAR IS YOUR FRIEND Tip#2 Intuition can save a life
While it’s obvious if you’re getting chased by a tiger, true fear can also be subtle. True fear may show up as an intuitive knowing that says, “I’m not letting my child spend the night at that person’s house.” It can show up as a dream, an inner voice, or a gut feeling that something bad is about to happen.
These examples of intuitive knowing don’t necessarily reflect an immediate threat in present time, but the fear they carry may indeed be true fear. Such intuitive hits may lead you to alter your behavior in ways that protect against real danger. Countless stories of parents’ intuition helping to protect their children suggest that this kind of true fear may be particularly strong with regard to those we love most.
Gavin de Becker, author of The Gift of Fear, is a threat assessment specialist, a three-time presidential appointee who runs a firm that consults with the government, law enforcement agencies, and prominent media figures, teaching about how to accurately assess threats of violence.
In de Becker’s experience, victims of violent crimes almost always say they got an intuitive hit that warned them about the criminal- a red flag of sorts- before they were harmed. Yet they ignored these feelings because the fearful thought seemed irrational. From what their cognitive minds could determine, the fear had no basis. Before the violence began, the criminal seemed polite, helpful, and safe. Yet the victims were being alerted by a highly sensitive and accurate internal warning system.
As de Becker instructs, when our lives are in danger, gut (intuition) trumps head (cognition) every time. He explains, “We think conscious thought is somehow better, when in fact, intuition is soaring flight compared to the plodding of logic. Nature’s greatest accomplishment, the human brain, is never more efficient and invested than when its host is at risk. Then, intuition is catapulted to another level entirely, a height at which it can accurately be called graceful, even miraculous.
Intuition is the journey from A to Z without stopping at any other letter along the way.
It is knowing without knowing why . . . Intuition is always learning, and though it may occasionally send a signal that turns out to be less than urgent, everything it communicates to you is meaningful. Unlike worry, it will not waste your time.
FEAR IS YOUR FRIEND Tip#3 False fear is your signal to “Pay Attention Inside Now”
Unlike true fear, false fear does not protect you, but that doesn’t mean it can’t still be your friend! You’ll recognize false fear as worry, anxiety, and ruminations about all the things that could go wrong in an imaginary future. You may think that false fear keeps you safe, too, but fear is often misunderstood in this way. Perhaps you think that worrying about your finances will keep you financially secure. Maybe you think that fear of having your child abducted leads you to take better care of him or her. You might think fear of getting sick keeps you from engaging in reckless behaviors. Maybe you think you’re more likely to quit smoking or eat organic because you’re afraid your health will suffer. Many people think fear is the only thing keeping them from reckless behavior that might threaten their career, their financial stability, their marriage, their quest for excellence, their reputation, their health, and the safety of those they love.
But does false fear really help you behave more responsibly? If you weren’t tormented by fear, would you throw away your money, leave your child unattended, and gorge on sugar? Is false fear what motivates you to make good decisions? And are the stress responses such fears activate worth the risk they cause to your body? No!
Physical therapist Val Zajicek defines “PAIN” as “Pay Attention Inside Now.” And I think false fear can be this kind of pain. By pointing a finger at what is causing pain in your life, false fear can be your friend because it shines a light on your growth edges and helps you recognize those areas where you might need to focus therapeutic attention.
False fear may be your friend by helping you look at your money issues, your bad habits, your parenting challenges, and any dissatisfaction in a relationship. False fear may also alert you when creative problem solving is called for. If you can recognize it as a signal- not to let stress responses run amok, but to explore the situation further, in a calm, relaxed, intuitive way- false fear may have something to teach you.
For example, maybe you’re afraid about getting cancer, even though you just got a clean bill of health from your doctor. Perhaps the fear stems from an intuitive knowing signaling you that your unhealthy lifestyle may be putting you at risk of cancer, even though you don’t have it yet. Maybe your instincts are telling you to stop eating so many processed foods, ditch the cigarettes, and start meditating so your immune system is better able to maintain healthy homeostasis. Or maybe you’re afraid of running out of money, even though there’s plenty of money currently in your bank account. Perhaps this is an alert from your intuition that the reckless way you’ve been spending needs to stop so you can build up more of a buffer in case something unexpected happens to your income stream.
The key is understanding that you don’t need the fear in order to motivate healthy, responsible behavior, because your intuition has got your back, so false fear can let go. When false fear is in charge, your mind gets smaller. You limit your ability to problem solve creatively. You’re paralyzed into inaction. But when you’re able to let false fear help you expand your consciousness, something opens up, and you’re able to make better decisions.
If you can learn to discern the difference, you can let true fear be your call to action in a way that protects you and your loved ones, while letting false fear be the finger pointing at everything in need of healing in your inner life.
How To Discern Between True Fear & False Fear
Discerning between true and false fear requires learning to identify how intuition shows up for you. As part of my research for this book, I interviewed many people who had experienced intuitive hunches that protected them or someone else. When I asked people how they knew to pay attention to the hunches and how they differentiated these hunches from paranoid thoughts, most said that they didn’t actually feel scared when the hunch came in. For example, what if you have a thought that says, “Go check on the baby. Something is wrong.” Is this just paranoia? Or might it be intuition warning you to protect the baby?
3 Tools For Distinguishing True Fear From False Fear
Discernment Tool #1 Engage your brain.
Don’t ignore the data your mind provides. Sure, let your rational mind weigh in and make a case for whether your fear requires action or release. Just recognize that most of what comes from the mind stems from the Small Self, and the Small Self can make one hell of an argument to convince you that fear is meant to protect you. So be sure to question your mind. Try this tool. Ask yourself “What’s true about my fear?” Make a list. Then ask “What’s not true about my fear?” Make another list.
Even just distancing yourself enough to realize that your mind can also make a case for what’s not true helps you stop identifying with false fear. You can start to become the witness to your fears, and this mental distance helps the discernment process.
Discernment Tool #2 Notice your emotional state.
Even though a premonition might have presented a scary image to the mind, true fear in the form of intuition doesn’t show up as a feeling of panic. Very intuitive people report that intuitive knowing has a feeling of profound calm. In fact, those who have really developed their intuition report that this inner stillness is often what helps them discern whether an intuitive feeling is real. The thought “Go check on the baby” isn’t something you conjure up. It just drops in with zero charge attached to it. You may feel a charge after it drops in, but when it first shows up, it’s just a direct knowing, which feels very different than a paranoid thought.
Discernment Tool #3 Use your body compass.
False fear or paranoia often show up as a gripping feeling in the solar plexus. You might even feel the adrenaline coursing through your body or your heart racing. On the other hand, intuition (true fear), often comes with a feeling of inner spaciousness, even relaxation in the body. The revved up feeling tends to be absent, unless there is imminent danger.
The Fear Cure.
So what is The Fear Cure? Well, not to be a buzz kill, but my book should come with a red label saying “THERE’S NO QUICK FIX MAGIC BULLET TO ENLIGHTENMENT.” Embarking upon the spiritual path is a journey beyond fear, but it’s not for the faint of heart. But you can start with two simple things.
1. Stop resisting your fear. Don’t make it wrong. Don’t try to fight it. And don’t add more self-help to your list of why you’re not good enough just as you are. Fear is your friend. Accept. Accept. Accept.
2. Meditate. If sitting still in silence is hard for you, download the free Prescription For Courage Kit at TheFearCureBook.com which, in addition to other material, includes 5 guided meditations I created with musician Karen Drucker, which are specifically aimed at opening your heart, calming your mind, increasing your trust in a friendly universe, and connecting to your highest self.
Don’t let your fear limit you. Let it wake you up instead.
Let it hand you the key that opens the soul cage and sets you free. As long as you require certainty, you won’t take risks, and you have to take risks if you want to know joy. You must risk your heart. You must risk loss. You must be willing to experience pain in order to realize your full potential—who you really are. This requires radical courage.
You will be asked to stand in a rush of love so potent that you can barely breathe; yet, in that moment, you will be overwhelmed with how vulnerable you are. To learn to be that vulnerable, to leave your heart that open, is the ultimate life test. There’s no limit to the number of times you can retake this test. No one cares whether you pass or fail the test. You can let courage take the wheel or you can let fear lead. Nobody will judge you either way.
But when you’re ready to let fear be your friend, the soul cage opens, and you are free.
For a more in-depth conversation about fear, courage and freedom, check out Lissa Rankin’s The Fear Cure at booksellers now.
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