Conquering Fear

I'm not really afraid of heights, I am afraid I will jump
An acrophobia (fear of heights) inducing view of a city skyline
Credit: Michael Duncan



“An unpleasant emotion caused by the belief that someone or something is dangerous, likely to cause pain, or a threat.”

“The only thing we have to fear, is fear itself.”
Franklin D. Roosevelt

“I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.”
― Frank Herbert, Dune

“There are only two types of guys out there – ones that can hang with me, and ones that are scared.”
Britney Spears, Circus

“I want to come down now”
“Okay, but you have to let go.”
“Let me down, now!”

I was shouting. People were looking at us all over the room. At least I think they were, I wasn’t sure, I wasn’t paying attention to them.

“Let me down! NOW!”
“I can’t let you down until you let go.”

My entire focus was on the 30-foot drop below me. I was clinging to the handholds on the wall at a local climbing gym, and my brother was belaying1 me – holding the other end of the safety rope my harness was attached to. I was barely coherent. I had been climbing, and I looked down and got scared – not unusal for me, I have been scared of heights my whole life. Unfortunately for me, in order to come down when you are attached to a safety line while climbing, you have to put weight on the line. The belayer keeps it short so you don’t have far to fall, and it needs weight to reel back out. And in order to do this safely, you should really be hanging clear of the wall, not clinging to it in fear. So, in order to come down, I had to do the thing I least wanted to do – I had to let myself fall. My brother was explaining this to me calmly, and telling me what I had to do. I, on the other hand, was too scared to listen to him, or even to care that I was causing a scene in the middle of a full gym. My mind was frozen, I couldn’t think.

After my first agonizing terror, I began to accept that the only way I could get down was to let go and let my weight fall into my harness. Eventually I did, and my brother slowly let out the rope to bring me to the ground. I was not much happier there, at first. The fear had left me shaken and angry.

In this post, I am not talking about the spine-tingling feeling of being in a haunted house, or the thrill of riding a roller coaster. I am talking about the mind-killing fear, the fear that makes you hesitate, or turn back. The fear that stops you in your tracks when you are trying to jump off the high dive – or keeps you from talking about something important to you, when you know you should.

What is really happening when we feel this, and how can we change it?

We talk about facing our fear, conquering fear, overcoming, pushing through, fighting, controlling – I disagree with that approach. I remember a conversation I had with a multiple Olympic gold medalist, Laura Flessel. She said that you don’t fight your fear, you learn to live with it – you become friends with it.

Fear is something that happens in the mind and the body. Racing heart, trembling, and sweating palms, are some things we feel in the body1. In the mind, well, that’s hard to describe

Two of the first studies I found in researching this – found here2and here3– indicated that there is separation between symptoms of fear in the body and in the mind, what they call the physical and subjective symptoms. Here, I will focus on the subjective symptoms – that is to say, how the fear is affecting your mind.

This study4 taught subjects to practice one of three different ways of managing their fear. Either suppressing their thoughts about the fear, paying attention to the fear, or really focusing in on the fear and feeling it. Then the subjects were asked to get close to something they were afraid of. Overall, the people who had practiced paying attention to the fear got closer than the people who tried to ignore it.

Researchers in another study5 looked at how an online mindfulness program affected people diagnosed with anxiety disorders. Along with showing more improvement than the control group, the experimental subjects, or the people in the mindfulness program, improved their overall quality of life – while the control group did not.

Along with those two, other studies have also suggested that mindfulness is helpful for problems related to anxiety. For example this one6 – for people on medications, mindfulness training increases improvement – and this one7 – indicating that mindfulness helps people with panic disorder be more comfortable with uncertainty.

By practicing mindfulness will help us with our fear – and that seems in line with what I learned from Laura Flessel, Olympic Champion. We don’t want to fight our fear, we want to let ourselves experience it – we want to become friends with it.

Another way of looking at your fear is that it is like water, and you are a dam holding it back. They weight of the water will grow to become too great, if you simply try to hold it. If there is too much water at once, you can be swept away – like I was, in the story at the beginning of this post. But, if you can let the water flow through you, the pressure will go down, until eventually there will be no water left – or no fear.

What to do

When we are afraid, Mindfulness can help. But what does that mean? It means letting ourselves be aware. Mindfulness is another word for paying attention8, especially paying attention without judging. On the other hand, it can be difficult to pay attention to anything when we are afraid. So I will go through three things you can do if you are scared, or even just anxious, or nervous about something, that will help you focus on the moment and experience your fear.

The first technique is simple. You can do this sitting or standing, with your eyes open or closed. You can do it while doing something else, or all on its own.

1.     Breathe slowly through your nose, and focus on your breath. Try to breathe in for 5 seconds, hold for 3 seconds, breathe out for 5 seconds.

2.     Notice your thoughts.

3.     As you listen to what you are thinking, you will also notice words like ‘good’ or ‘bad’ or something like that. These are judgments. It does not matter if they are right or wrong, they are judgments. Noticing them is, well, good.

4.     Remind yourself that what you are noticing is not good or bad, it simply is.

5.     Refocus on the breathing, in and out, 5 seconds out, 3 seconds hold, 5 seconds in.

The second technique is writing down your thoughts about what you are afraid of. I suggest this based on this study9, in which students preparing for an important test wrote about their concerns for the test. This seemed to help students’ test scores, especially those who were normally anxious.

1.     Write down what you are afraid of, and why. Write what might happen, or the consequences you are worried about.

2.     Write for 5 minutes. If you have more to write, keep going for 10 minutes.

3.     After 5 – 10 minutes, stop writing.

4.     Repeat this as many times as you like, and give yourself 10 – 20 minutes between each time you write, or longer is fine.

The last technique I will describe here is called grounding. This means clearly feeling a physical sensation, to help us focus on the present moment.

1.     Pick one of the five senses. Make it one you can experience right then. For example, if it is dark, pick touch instead of sight, or if you are somewhere quiet but well lit pick sight instead of hearing. Taste and smell are fine if you have something to taste or smell.

2.     Find or create a sensation for that sense. For example rub your pants with your hand, and feel the fabric.

3.     Describe the sensation to yourself. ‘My pants feel smooth and cool against my hand.’

4.     Do this three more times with the same sense – sight, hearing, touch, smell, or taste.

5.     Repeat each of the 4 sensations a total of 4 times for the whole cycle.

6.     If you are still feeling nervous or scared, pick a different sense and do the same thing.

What is a scary moment you remember, and how did you get through it?


Couyoumdjian Alessandro, Ottaviani Cristina, Petrocchi Nicola, Trincas Roberta, Tenore Katia, Buonanno Carlo, Mancini Francesco (2016). Reducing the Meta-Emotional
Problem Decreases Physiological Fear Response during Exposure in Phobics. Frontiers in
Psychology, 7: 1105. DOI=10.3389/fpsyg.2016.01105

Julia Diemer, Nora Lohkamp, Andreas Mühlberger, Peter Zwanzger (2016). Fear and physiological
arousal during a virtual height challenge—effects in patients with acrophobia and healthy controls. Journal of Anxiety Disorders, 37: 30-39.

Nic Hooper, Nathan Davies, Laura Davies, Louise McHugh, (2011). Comparing thought suppression and
mindfulness as coping techniques for spider fear. Consciousness and Cognition, 20(4): 1824-1830.

Johanna Boettcher, Viktor Åström, Daniel Påhlsson, Ola Schenström, Gerhard Andersson, Per Carlbring
(2014) Internet-Based Mindfulness Treatment for Anxiety Disorders: A Randomized Controlled Trial. Behavior Therapy, 45(2): 241-253.

Borah Kim, Sang-Hyuk Lee, Yong Woo Kim, Tai Kiu Choi, Keunyoung Yook, Shin Young Suh, Sung Joon
Cho, Ki-Hwan Yook (2010). Effectiveness of a mindfulness-based cognitive therapy program as an adjunct to pharmacotherapy in patients with panic disorder. Journal of Anxiety Disorders, 24(6) 590-595.

Min Kuk Kim, Kang Soo Lee, Borah Kim, Tai Kiu Choi, and Sang-Hyuk Lee (2016). Impact of
Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy on Intolerance of Uncertainty in Patients with Panic Disorder. Psychiatry Investigation, 13(2): 196–202.
doi: 10.4306/pi.2016.13.2.196

Gerardo Ramirez, Sian L. Beilock (2011). Writing About Testing Worries Boosts Exam Performance in the
Science 331(6014) 211-213

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