4 Ways to Manage Fear

In the face of disaster in Japan, can we stop our fearful thoughts? Can we even go a step further and maintain a calm state of mind that breeds more calm?
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This morning, I met a beloved friend for breakfast. I have not seen her in months. I will not see her for months after we part.

We sit at La Note in Berkeley, off Shattuck Avenue, a fantastic French café -- marble-topped tables and hard wood floors. We are together to enjoy a good meal, a lovely day and each other. As we sit down, I tell her I'm scared about what has happened in Japan. She says, "I'm scared, too." We then spend a good share of our limited time deep in talk about how afraid we are, and why. In our conversation, we breed more fear. I can feel it in my stomach, this twist of tension that makes me dizzy. The math is simple. One fear plus another fear equals two fears. When we part, my friend and I now carry twice the fear we had before we met. If we keep up this pattern, we are going to infect the next person we meet with two fears, and if that person adds their fear to our fear, you get fear plus fear plus fear.

We understand how a virus spreads, but what of our thoughts? We know we were able to put a man on the moon -- via one idea that occurred to one person, who then put that idea into the minds of others, who all worked with common purpose towards the goal. Everything we have created, as reflective human beings, began in our minds. So the question is, especially in the face of disaster in Japan, can we stop our fearful thoughts? Can we even go a step further and maintain a calm state of mind that breeds more calm? And if yes, how? Here are four ideas:

  1. Reflect, don't react. When someone tells you they are afraid, consider not telling them that you are frightened, too. Not right away. At first, try to listen and reflect. Try saying, "I hear you are scared, and I hear that these are the reasons why. Did I understand you? Is there more?" It seems a little weird, and no, we were not taught to speak to a friend in this way, but there is plenty of evidence to suggest that mirroring is a way to help calm the nervous system. This is what therapists have been doing for years, thus creating a multi-billion dollar industry. Therapists know how to listen. Harville Hendricks, Ph. D., writes in "Getting the Love you Want" that when you reflect how a person feels, you tell that person you are paying attention and you care. Reflecting is a way to love and connect. Reacting is usually the result of fear.

  • Write it down. Rather than tell another person you are scared, write it down and really let the fear fly on the page. Studies show that if you write about your traumas and your fears every day, you feel better. It's called creative therapy. The novelist and poet D.H. Lawrence once claimed that "one sheds one's sicknesses in [writing] books, and in the process of creating, repeats and presents again one's emotions to be master of them."
  • Take a yoga class. Over at NursingDegree.net, you can read about the 77 benefits that result from doing yoga. One of them is -- you've got it -- mood stabilization.
  • Pray. While there is no evidence that prayer impacts circumstances or even health, almost every faith and denomination presses followers in this direction. The Dalai Lama called for Buddhist monks in Japan to practice the Heart Sutra mantra after the tsunami hit, and churches around the world offered similar instruction to followers. Perhaps prayer is not effective by standards set in the science-based modes of research and statistics, but just because we cannot prove the effectiveness of something doesn't mean we shouldn't do it. Prayer is uplifting, calming, affordable and doesn't cause problems for anyone. And prayer is certainly better than spinning in a vortex of fear.
  • Marianne Williamson, author of "A Return to Love," wrote this of fear: "Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure." Can we be powerful beyond measure by becoming the ruler, not the slave, to our own minds and to the fears that live within? Perhaps if we are able to make this important shift, we can be of true and lasting benefit to ourselves, to our families, to our friends and to our communities.

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