Meditation for Fear
Everyone experiences fear, whether it’s the fear of something happening, or an event, situation, or person you fear encountering. Fear knows no bounds, and it is a highly subjective topic. It can also escalate into a phobia. So for a lot of people, it’s not as straightforward as “feel the fear, and do it anyway.” When we’re in the grip of fear, it can be deeply unpleasant, terrifying, or for some people, debilitating.
When we meditate, we embark on a journey to a calmer, less reactive, and less fearful mind. In calming the mind, we not only quell our fears, but we increase the chances of conquering them. But it takes practice and patience to understand and unravel fear to the extent that it no longer has a hold over us.
Fear is something we may have lived with for a long time. As children, we can be afraid of a multitude of things, such as the dark, monsters under the bed, strangers, dogs, or the water. It’s when our fear of certain situations — like fear of the unknown — first takes root. Our imaginations then conjure all kinds of scary thoughts or creatures.
As grown-ups, the objects of our fear may change. We could add, say, a fear of public speaking, a fear of heights, spiders, crowded places, or even the government to our list. We can even start to fear feeling a certain way — whether it’s anxiety, depression, or even intimacy.
Whether we are children or adults, shining some light on our fears is the first step toward managing them. “The more you try to suppress fear, either by ignoring it or doing something else to displace it, the more you will actually experience it,” said Kristy Dalrymple, a clinical assistant professor of psychiatry and human behavior at Alpert Medical School of Brown University.
When we are looking to do a meditation to overcome fear, it is important to first acknowledge that many of our fears identify with an earlier time in our life, an imagined terror, or a traumatic experience. It’s why we feel so crippled by events from the past and project them into the future, fearing a repeat. In this respect, we are creating an experience that hasn’t happened yet … but it’s that imagined experience that we fear.
This is where meditation comes in.
Through meditation, we train the mind to observe uncomfortable — even scary — thoughts and feelings without getting caught up in them. We become aware of when fear and anxiousness creeps in, and in seeing these states more clearly, we are better equipped to manage them. We are not trying to turn off those thoughts and feelings; we’re simply observing them, and then learning to let them go. With a little distance, we get a healthier sense of perspective, more calm, and clarity. We get … head space.
What is fear? That is the $64,000 question. We’ve all experienced it, yet there is no consensus in the scientific study of fear, and there is no agreement between scientists and biologists as to whether our brains are physically wired to be in fear.
According to Kerry J. Ressler, MD, PhD, director of the Neurobiology of Fear Laboratory at McLean Hospital, “Fear is the most evolutionarily conserved behavioral reflex for survival. It produces the same responses in people now as it did at the beginning of human history.” Fear propelled us to run from the beast crouching in the brush, and we still need it. “The question is, how do we not let the emotional response of the fear reflex run wild?”
Well, it’s complicated. “Humans have evolved so quickly that we now have brains that are super sensitive to threat, but also super capable of planning, thinking, and looking ahead,” said Ahmad Hariri, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke University. “So we essentially drive ourselves nuts worrying about things” because we have more time than actual threats to our survival. As a result, “fear gets expressed in some maladaptive ways.”
Fear is largely caused by our thoughts, often irrational “what if’s.” Think of them as False Expectations Appearing Real. For instance, say you’re about to give a PowerPoint presentation to some bigwig colleagues. You think, “What if I mess up, what if people laugh, what if they get up and leave?” Our fearful thoughts aren’t always logical — even if you do make a mistake, chances are, no one is going to get up and walk out of the room.
Nevertheless, whether rational or irrational, our bodies respond to these thoughts with physical sensations: our pulse quickens, maybe our face flushes or our stomach lurches. Which in turn feeds our anxious thoughts, and we get caught up in a cycle of negativity.
Meditation for fear and anxiety can help by essentially interrupting that mind-body loop. "Through meditation, we train the mind to stay in the present moment, to notice an anxious thought as it arises, see it, and let it go," said Megan Jones Bell, chief science officer for Headspace.
"What changes here from the typical response to anxiety is that we aren't holding on to these thoughts or reacting to them. We step back from these anxious thoughts and see the bigger picture. This can help us feel more calm, clear, and grounded."
When it comes to meditation and fear, there are specific meditation techniques that are geared toward easing our anxiety. Noting is one of them.
By identifying thoughts and feelings when they arise during meditation — by noting them — we gently acknowledge what is arising. Imagine a feather softly touching a fine crystal glass, because that’s how gently we note something. Having noted a thought or feeling, there’s a sense of having dealt with it, which makes it easier to let it go, and we can return to the object of our focus. “You're changing your relationship with thoughts and feelings by … seeing them as mental events rather than truths,” says Jones Bell. You can have a busy mind “and still find peacefulness within it."
Another technique is zeroing in on body awareness. In a fight-or-flight moment when panic arises, a guided meditation for fear and anxiety can help us step out of our thoughts and focus our attention on the body. When we become more present in the body, we essentially short-circuit that fear response, so we begin to feel calmer and clearer. The Headspace app has a Fear of Flying meditation, and SOS singles for when fear turns to anxiety.
Try this short, 3-min meditation for panicking
This should help you to feel more centered and truly grounded. “Having this safe space to return to is important for those with anxiety,” says Jones Bell. “It lets you have a concrete experience that you can re-access whenever you need it.”
This Headspace meditation to release fear around getting on a plane uses the same technique to step out of our thoughts and focus our attention on the body. Again, becoming more present in the body helps to root us in the present moment, and as a result, both the body and the mind begin to feel more at ease.
Try a guided meditation for fear of flying
Fear of Flying
Anxiety disorders are fundamentally based on fear. Findings from Johns Hopkins University suggest that mindfulness meditation can help ease anxiety. People with anxiety have a problem dealing with distracting thoughts that have too much power. They have a hard time distinguishing between a problem-solving thought and a nagging worry that has no benefit. “If you have unproductive worries, you can train your mind to experience those thoughts differently,” said Elizabeth Hoge, MD, a psychiatrist in the Boston area. You might think, I’m late for work, I might lose my job, it’s a disaster! “Mindfulness teaches you to recognize, ‘Oh, there’s that thought again. I’ve been here before. But it’s just that — a thought and not a part of my core self.’”
You can learn more about meditation for releasing fear and anxiety when you try Headspace’s 30-session Anxiety course (available with your membership or free trial). You’ll gain a different perspective on anxiety, plus learn tips and insights for better managing it.
If you’re looking for other types of meditation to try, explore all that Headspace has to offer, from meditation for compassion and sleep to focus and sport. Sign up now, and learn the basics of meditation for free! Train your mind for a happier, healthier life.