Did you know that there’s only one fear that has been scientifically proven to be an innate rather than a conditioned response? The fear of heights has been documented to appear in young children. Thus it’s highly likely that all other fears are rooted in conditioned responses. This is good news because it means that when we’re able to reign in our thinking, we can tame our fears. Let me explain how meditation is nature’s fear buster.
What Is Fear?
Fears are thoughts that we have created usually after having a negative experience. I say “usually” because fears cannot only come from our own experiences but also from those of others. We experience a negative event and we reinforce the fear by thinking about it and analyzing its negative impact on our lives. Thus fears are created, perpetuated, and sustained in our minds.
Breathing and meditative techniques train us to quiet the mind, which creates still and peaceful states. Using breathing and meditative techniques can also help us deal with our fears and even conquer them.
Two Strategies to Vanquish Fears
1. Focused breathing
In this approach, you’ll visualize something that scares you. The first step is to imagine being confronted by the fearful circumstance or object. In this example, I’m going to use the fear of snakes because it’s common to be terrified by them. Picture yourself walking into a room filled with snakes, or think if you saw a television program about them.
Now hold that scary thought. Then breathe as deeply as you can, hold your breath, and then release it. The key here is to recognize the fear and acknowledge how it feels unquestionably real. But rather than push it away as fast as you can, you are going to address your it by taking deep and extended breaths. Inhale as deeply as you can, and then hold it for as long as you can. As that fear emerges, keep breathing, and continue to concentrate on your breath whenever the scary feelings surface.
The key here is that you are focusing your mind on your breath. This technique can be used almost anytime your fears arise. Because you’re concentrating on your breath, you drawing attention away from what scares you. Although this is not necessarily a meditative state, the act of zeroing in on your fears promotes less stress.
Now let’s use meditation to address the same snake fear. Similar to focused breathing, you will concentrate on your inhales and exhales. But unlike focused breathing, you’re not holding your breath. Instead, you’re breathing slowly in and out.
As you inhale and exhale, you may find it helpful to repeat a mantra (some traditions call it a prayer word). For example, you’ll say to yourself, “I am” as you breathe in and think “peaceful” as you breath out. You say this over and over again, and with practice your mind will grow quieter and quieter.
Now that you have gotten into your relaxed, meditative state, you’re going to introduce your fear into your practice. Hold on to this meditative state as you recall what scares you. If it were snakes, focus on the slithery serpents. If you’re doing a good job visualizing them, you’ll most likely find your body tensing. Despite this, keep breathing slowly and deeply until you notice the anxiety subside. Then bring up your fear again, which will mostly likely cause you to feel scared.
This is a three step cycle:
1. Repeat your mantra with each inhale and exhale
2. Introduce your fear
3. Repeat your mantra
Once you feel like the fears have diminished, I’m going to add another challenge. Imagine yourself being in the same room with your fear as you breathe in and out. When the anxiety takes over, go back to breathing and saying your mantra.
Some fears take longer than others. It depends on how strong your attachment to the fear is. So if you try both techniques and you’re still afraid, don’t be discouraged. It just means that overcoming what scares you will take more effort.
I recommend that you meditate twice a day—once in the morning and again in the evening. And throughout the day, if an anxiety surfaces, remember to bring yourself back to your breathing. By becoming aware of your fears and addressing them through the techniques I’ve described, over time you’ll find yourself less afraid.
– Dr. Robert Puff
Dr. Robert Puff, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist, author, international speaker, and meditation expert who has been counseling individuals, families, nonprofits, and businesses for over twenty years. A contributing writer to Psychology Today, he has authored numerous books and creates a weekly podcast on happiness at http://www.HappinessPodcast.org He also creates a weekly podcast on meditation, http://www.MeditationForHealthPodcast.com and a weekly podcast on spiritual enlightenment, http://www.EnlightenmentPodcast.com