So . . . why are you scared?
When you feel fear, the answer to that question usually seems obvious. Your heart is pounding because you’re on your way to a job interview. Or you just learned you’re expecting your first child. Perhaps you’re about to climb into an airplane that’s so small you have to tilt your head to get into your seat. Or there’s a global viral pandemic that’s ongoing.
We typically assume our fears are generated by this or that situation. We feel certain that if we could just change the circumstances — or, better yet, if some higher power would kindly rearrange them for us — we would feel better. Yet according to psychotherapist Richard Schaub, PhD, such assumptions not only ignore the real source of our discomfort, they can actually feed our anxieties.
In The End of Fear: A Spiritual Path for Realists, which Schaub cowrote with his wife, Bonney Gulino Schaub, RN, MS, he suggests that instead of believing our fear is a sign that circumstances need to change, we can reframe it as the result of our “innate love of life.”
Schaub believes that fear is triggered in part because we love life so much. We don’t want to lose it, and this makes us hypervigilant about threats — a vigilance that often manifests as outsized, anxious reactions like lashing out or shutting down.
Such reactions may work to keep us alive in dire circumstances (precisely what the survival instinct is designed to do), but day to day, these protective responses can diminish the quality of our lives and relationships.
“Until we realize that our fears originate in our own awareness of inevitable change and loss,” Schaub writes, “we blame them on causes outside of us, convinced that other people, places, and things are making us feel vulnerable and threatened.”
He offers case studies to show how efforts to avoid our mortality — or, as he regularly refers to it, our vulnerability — ultimately backfire. A successful businessman is unhinged by a midlife crisis as he begins to sense that no amount of material success will keep him alive forever. A woman who has long found comfort in her faith discovers it isn’t enough to protect her loved ones from harm. Conversely, her husband, who had always taken refuge in his rational skepticism, finds that logic fails him when he’s faced with loss and change.
None of these very human attempts to handle fear — materialism, blind faith, entrenched skepticism — will provide the promised peace, Schaub believes. This is because each one relies on the idea that loss and death can, with the right formula, be cheated.
Does accepting vulnerability doom us to a life shrouded in a gloomy awareness that this is all going to end anyway? Absolutely not, says Schaub. In fact, if we can more accurately identify the real causes of our fear, it can help relieve us of the stressful experience of repressing our feelings — and allow us to become considerably more at ease.
“I consider fear to be absolutely normal, and something to be respected, so I don’t pathologize it at all,” Schaub says. “It doesn’t become a disorder for me. I think there’s a potential in fear to get to something good. It’s not like you just have to tolerate fear. You can find a skillful way to work with it, because it is, it exists, and it isn’t going away.”
He teaches simple methods to help quiet the mind and accept vulnerability as a natural state. They include taking a walk around the block while looking carefully at everyone through the lens of vulnerability — understanding that each person you see is just as susceptible to loss, change, and death as you are. This exercise has become altogether more salient during the coronavirus pandemic.
Another involves “turning toward fear with affection” and simply thanking it for trying to protect you and keep you living this life — one that, apparently, you really love. This fundamental desire for one’s own life can be a wonderful thing to notice, and it can wake us up to the present moment like nothing else.
“Surrender [is] an active decision,” Schaub writes, “an act of strength and courage, with serenity as its reward.”
Ultimately, cultivating an appreciation for our vulnerability teaches us that life can be enjoyed even if it can’t be controlled or prolonged forever. This attitude can also keep us from taking the people we love (and even the people we don’t like) for granted, since we don’t know how long they’ll be around.
Finally, it allows us to use fear, which usually springs up during moments of uncertainty, as an invitation to become curious — instead of worried.
“We believe that something bad or difficult is going to happen, but really, it’s all unknown,” Schaub concludes. “There’s a lot of unnecessary suffering about what might happen.”
When we understand the nature of fear, Schaub maintains, we can learn how to use it to wake ourselves up to a deeper love for life.
5 Steps to Transforming Fear
- Notice the sensation. Self-awareness is the “prerequisite to everything else” when it comes to managing fear, Schaub says. If you can notice an anxious feeling before acting on it, that’s the first step.
- Name the feeling. Schaub recommends identifying feelings by name, like, Wow, I feel nervous. This creates an opportunity for reflection and a more conscious response.
- Investigate the trigger. Ask yourself what’s frightening you, Schaub says, and establish whether it’s a genuine, immediate threat.
- Lower the alarm. Self-soothing is a key part of moving beyond a fight, flight, or freeze reaction, so do whatever works to calm your heart rate, like listening to music or taking 10 deep breaths.
- Cultivate compassion. Remember that everyone is vulnerable to loss and change, so there’s no need to judge yourself or others for being afraid. Take comfort in knowing that we’re all in this together.
Leaning Into Your Own Fear
Wisdom from psychotherapist Richard Schaub, PhD, on the connection between fear and vulnerability, and how embracing mortality can bring relief.
Experience Life | Most of us prefer to avoid things that scare us. How did you become interested in approaching fear and exploring it professionally?
Richard Schaub | I would say it was an awareness of my own nervousness and tendency to worry. I saw a lot of fear in people around me as well.
In my first job out of college I was a caseworker, working with people who were addicted to heroin, and I saw that when they were in recovery, these were just sensitive people overwhelmed by the world. They weren’t the tough criminals they seemed to be on the outside. I had the sense that the people who appeared to be unafraid were really masking how they felt.
EL | In The End of Fear, you suggest that all fear is an indication of our underlying vulnerability. Is there a difference between fear and vulnerability?
RS | This is not an unusual confusion, because people think of vulnerability as a feeling. And it is a feeling, but it’s also more than that.
Vulnerability is our situation. It is a natural state, our human condition. We are vulnerable beings, period. We might think we’re solid and fine, but something could change on a dime. After this interview, for example, you or I could get a phone call with bad news.
So, that vulnerability is our human condition, and fear is the result of the fact that we are, in fact, vulnerable.
EL | What are the most harmful reactions to fear?
RS | All destructive fear reactions can be categorized as expressions of three natural instincts: fight, flight, and freeze. In my mind, the most destructive reaction is fight.
There’s a lot of anger that arises over experiences that stimulate our vulnerability. When people are not consciously aware [that what they are experiencing is vulnerability], they tend to react with anger and a “fight” response.
The fight reaction directly affects other people, and it comes out in many forms. There’s violence, obviously. But there’s also sarcasm, criticism, revenge, blaming. [When someone acts out of flight or freeze reactions, it can be] harmful to the person doing them, and can be harmful to people around them, too. But the fight reaction [can be] the most destructive communally.
EL | Do you consider all anger to be a mask for fear?
RS | I would say 99 percent of it. For four years, I ran a program for adolescents at a day hospital. They were thrown out of school because they were violent or vandals or whatever, and they were classic examples of disguised fear.
I mean, you could look at them and see clearly that their whole point was to look scary. But after you got to know them, it was obvious that they didn’t really know what they were doing. They were just hurt, vulnerable, and protecting themselves in this way.
I’m not excusing their behaviors, but it’s evident to me that they were primarily fearful and responding to the world with a fight reaction as a result.
EL | Can you teach kids who are really angry to consciously accept their vulnerability? It seems like that involves a degree of maturity not associated with adolescence.
RS | I think maturity can be translated as self-awareness, and that can be cultivated at virtually any age. If you can train someone to be more aware, they become more mature.
If someone can notice — and that’s the key thing — the state that they’re in, they have the possibility of changing it, of choosing a different response to their condition.
EL | What are some techniques you teach to help people respond to their fear more consciously?
RS | As noted, I think self-awareness is the prerequisite for everything else — that’s what changes things. So how do you learn self-awareness? You learn how to stop and name the state you’re in.
You might simply acknowledge, I’m really angry right now. Or you might notice you are feeling nervous and frightened and ask, What am I so anxious about?
Just that moment of noticing and self-inquiry gives you the chance to do something different with what you are feeling. From that point, once you’re aware, you are more capable of changing the state you’re in.
I think that the best way to change [fear] states is through clinical or practical meditation techniques, which doesn’t necessarily mean sitting in a lotus position for 20 minutes. It just means lowering the degree of alarm in the system.
It could be putting on your favorite music, just doing something else instead of automatically acting on the feeling inside you. Some people like mental imagery. Some people like breathing. Some people do self-talk, where they talk themselves through processing the feeling, but it’s all about calming the state of alarm in the brain.
Doing this for ourselves means that we are aware, and we are accepting that the state we are in can be changed.
EL | You’ve helped clients face the fear of death by teaching them about the “transpersonal” aspect of themselves. Could you explain that idea?
RS | The word “transpersonal” and the word “spiritual” are used interchangeably in some circles. “Transpersonal” is not a very well-known word, but it means beyond the personal, beyond the personality. People become convinced that they are just a mind and a body and a personality, but we’re actually much more than that. I get a lot of clients who are very ill, and they’re looking for something beyond the body because they know their time in that body is limited.
EL | What would an experience of the transpersonal look like?
RS | It’s more what it feels like. What it feels like is that temporarily you’re not you. What you are is a state of awareness. You are aware of being connected to or participating in something greater than yourself.
EL | And this helps calm us, because we know some part of us lives on and exists beyond the fragility we feel in the moment?
RS | That’s right.
EL | How might accepting our vulnerability change us?
RS | The first thing that happens when people accept their vulnerability is that they become more compassionate, both toward themselves and others. This doesn’t mean they automatically love everybody. It just means that they can see, Wow, that person is struggling, too.
I think the second change happens when people begin to have more insight into behaviors, including their own. In my book, I give the example of the business executive who’s sitting down at the conference table. Usually this guy would be intimidating and motivating everybody through fear. Instead, as he starts dealing with his own [fear], he just sits there, and he notices how each of his managers is actually reacting to his or her own vulnerability. So, because he’s accepted his own vulnerability more, he’s beginning to have insight into other people. And they start to respond to him less fearfully; it changes the whole relationship.
The road to accepting your vulnerability is made easier by realizing we’re all in this together. There’s nobody outside of this. Nobody.
This piece has been updated. It was originally published on April 17, 2013.