Learning how to (gently) let go of fear

Kim Henderson
Reading time: 9 minutes

Let’s face it—life is scary sometimes. Even more so when you’ve received a frightening diagnosis. The fear felt during a traumatic experience can be downright crippling. It stops you in your tracks, time stands still, and it feels like you’re perched on the edge of a cliff, with the great unknown spread out in front of you toward infinity.

Our thoughts can create fears that are out of proportion to the actual level of physical danger that is present. These fearful thoughts then become abnormal and distorted, and these mentally constructed illusions can begin to overtake our lives, preventing us from moving forward.

Person standing on a wooden bridge looking down
Photo by Benjamin Davies on Unsplash

It’s helpful to understand that fear is a natural and necessary trait for human evolvement. Fear is there to protect us. A healthy dose of fear is what keeps us from doing stupid things that might put our lives in danger. It’s what saved our ancestors from being eaten by dangerous animals.

Abnormal fears can develop from past situations or traumatic experiences, hearing or seeing stories—especially tragic news stories—or they may relate to something instilled in us from our parents or relatives, such as always being told to “be careful”, particularly in situations that did not call for alarm.

The nature of the fear is irrelevant. Regardless of whether its a fear of flying or a fear of public speaking—it’s all the same emotion. And as thought is a precursor to emotion, you could say that you’ve literally ‘thought’ your fears into existence.

A lot of us spend our lives living in fear. Fear of failure. Fear of financial burdens. Fear of having our heart broken. Fear of getting sick. Fear of being in pain. Fear of dying. It’s a broken record playing a continuous loop in our minds. Sometimes it seems we are always on alert. To others, our fears may seem unfounded and seemingly irrational, but to us, they are a reality. This negative pattern of thinking can be overwhelming.

Fear can stop us from being who we are meant to be. Fear can hold us back from living a big, full and beautiful life.

A few short years ago, I was living in constant stress, worry and fear. I had been diagnosed with cancer, and that diagnosis sent shockwaves through all facets of my life. Fear became a daily occurrence in my life. I was utterly lost in fearful thoughts most of the time. I hardly slept or ate, continually worrying about what the future would bring. I was in extreme survival mode. I lived in the scenarios in my head - always on the lookout for the next traumatic event to occur.

I couldn’t function normally as a wife, mother or friend, and I barely left the house. I was not really living life. My naturally joyful state was diminished to the point of being non-existent.

Upon waking each morning (or even in the middle of the night!), I would immediately go into my ‘fear loop’ in my thoughts. My mind would continually tell me all the reasons I should be afraid. Then I would get annoyed and berate myself: “I shouldn’t be thinking and feeling this way,” and I would back-pedal in my mind to try and stop the thoughts and feelings of fear.

I began to fight against fear, unsuccessfully trying to ignore or avoid the fearful voice that possessed my brain. I tried avoidance tactics to keep the fear from overtaking, even reasoning with myself that my fears were unfounded. I constantly told myself to “snap out of it”. Eventually, I came to the conclusion that all of these strategies were making my fears even stronger. They grew until they took over my entire life. I couldn’t function any longer. I was slowly, but surely, being destroyed by the contents of my mind.

Then one day, my husband said to me, “Stop trying to force yourself not to feel scared. Just accept this is how you’re feeling right now and face this fear instead of fighting it. It’ll pass.”

Of course, I looked at him like he had two heads. But what the hey, I had nothing to lose.

The next time I started feeling the familiar panicked fearful sensations, I began talking to myself: “Ok, this is how I feel right now. It’s a terrible feeling of being so fearful. I feel awful, but I know that it will pass in time. I will go with it and fully feel this emotion fear and go with my fear until it eases.”

After going through this process for a short period, I discovered that this was the true key to letting go of my fear—to thoroughly go through it. My husband was a genius! This simple exercise reminded me of a sentence out of a childhood book my boys used to love when they were small: “Can’t go over it, can’t go under it, got to go through it”. Yes, indeed, I had to go through it. That was the only way to liberation.

I began doing the opposite of what I instinctively wanted to do—which was to fight the feelings and deny them a place in my mind. Instead, I fully faced my fear, without resisting, fighting or judging my feelings. I allowed the fearful emotions to wash over me and soak into my consciousness. And slowly, but surely, my fears began to dissipate. I began to feel free.

You may be feeling the same as I was—scared, alone or frightened. You may be wondering how you, too, can let go of fear so you can live the life free from fear that you have imagined.

There is a part of us, deep inside, where fear does not reside. This is a state of peace, and it’s my life’s work to uncover that peace and allow it to emerge in every situation in my life.

Everything you want is on the other side of fear.

Jack Canfield

So, how do we let go of fear?

It’s all about perspective. By carefully choosing the thoughts we want to think about and being aware of the contents of our minds, we can begin to have more control and start to step back from fear. Most people find this easier said than done, but as with anything in life, the more you practice, the better you will get at it.

How do we gain control over our thoughts? By taking small, incremental steps toward creating a life where fear is not a player. When we begin to view fear as a teacher, not the enemy, it begins to lose control over us, as we realise it is here to guide us and awaken us to possibility.

Here are some signposts to help you on your journey. Remember: words alone do not teach. It’s only through life experience that you learn. But my intention here is to plant a seed, so perhaps you can awaken to the fact that you do indeed hold the power over your own mind.

Adopt a mantra

For example, saying something to yourself like: “All is well”, “Wellbeing is my natural state”, “I am in perfect health”, can go a little way towards dissipating those fearful thoughts.

Retrain your mind

You can intentionally choose to think about things differently. To view the situation from a new perspective. The key is catching yourself when you begin to think fearful thoughts, and then slowly, ever so gently, retraining your mind to think differently. Choose a thought. Examine how that thought makes you feel. If that thought is painful or fearful, try to choose another thought that feels better to you.

Ground yourself

Bring yourself back to the present moment. It’s hard to be scared if you are fully aware of the present moment, instead of skipping ahead to an imagined, frightening future. A trick I learned was to choose five things that I could see, hear, smell, taste or touch. Becoming alert to your surroundings will help ground you in the present moment.

Embrace your emotions

Some days its better to sit with your feelings for a while. Embrace each emotion as it occurs, and allow it to wash over you until you feel the force of it. Acknowledge it and honour it. Breathe it in. Notice the strength of it. Observe the feelings in your body. Take note of any other thoughts that are attached to that particular emotion. Keeping a journal can be helpful for processing and releasing these emotions.

Mindfulness and meditation

Take a few minutes every day to check in with yourself. Even if you think you are too busy and don’t have time, step away from your phone for a few minutes, go to a quiet place and focus on your breath. It’s the very least you can do for yourself. You are worth it. You do have time for it, and I promise it will make you a better person. When you fill yourself up, you have more to give to those around you. Which leads onto my next two points…

Connect with others

When you’re not in a good headspace, sometimes it feels like you have to be happy and positive with other people all the time. But—spoiler alert—we are allowed to say how we actually feel. We might even find that if we open up to our loved ones and express our negative emotions—in a constructive way, of course—we will be understood and deeply loved in a way we didn’t think was possible.

And open your heart

When you’re paralysed by fear, it’s our natural instinct to shut down, become small, contract and shrink. We stay in our comfort zone and have no desire to step out or step up to do anything for anyone else. Here’s where you absolutely have to remain conscious of keeping your heart open, even in the face of adversity. Keeping your heart open and actively looking for opportunities to help other people shrinks fears automatically, as when you are focused on the needs of others, you may find it will bring your fears back into proportion.

It takes real courage to face your fears, but the rewards are totally worth the effort. Once you let go of your fears, you can reconnect with everything you had been missing out on in life.

Those moments you might have spent living in fear can now be replaced by wonderful new experiences which allow you to feel breathtakingly alive.

Peace. Unity. Love.