The answer usually seems obvious. Your heart is racing because you’re headed to a job interview. Or you just learned your first child is on the way. You’re about to climb into an airplane that’s so small you have to tilt your head to get into your seat. Or you just received test results, and the doctor says the prognosis isn’t good.
We tend to conclude that our fear is generated by specific situations, and believe that if we could just change those circumstances — or, better yet, if some higher power could rearrange them for us — we would feel better. Yet according to psychotherapist Richard Schaub, PhD, such thinking not only ignores the real source of our discomfort, it can actually feed our anxieties.
In The End of Fear: A Spiritual Path for Realists (Hay House, 2010), which Schaub cowrote with his wife, Bonney Schaub, RN, MS, he suggests that rather than believing our fears are a sign that circumstances need to change, we can reframe them as resulting from our “innate love of life.”
His theory is that fear is triggered because humans love life so much that they are hypervigilant about any threat to it; this often manifests itself in outsized, anxious reactions like lashing out or shutting down.
Such reactions may work to keep us alive in urgent and dire circumstances (just 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 uses case studies to show that the various ways we avoid facing our mortality (or, as he regularly refers to it, our vulnerability) ultimately fail. 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 always found comfort in her religious faith discovers it isn’t enough to protect her and her loved ones from harm. Conversely, her husband, who had always taken refuge in his rational skepticism, finds that logic fails to provide answers when he’s faced with loss and change.
None of these very human attempts to handle fear — materialism or blind faith or entrenched skepticism — succeeds in providing peace, because each one relies on the idea that loss and death can, with the right formula, be cheated.
So, 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, those who understand the underlying causes of their fear are often in the best position to find relief from the stressful experience of repressing their feelings — and they become considerably more at ease as a result.
“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.”
Schaub teaches his clients (who have included hardcore substance abusers, middle-class professionals, Academy Award winners and hospice patients) 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, with the understanding that he or she is just as susceptible to loss, change and death as you are. (An added benefit to this practice is that it really knocks the life out of jealousy and competition.)
Another exercise 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 the life you have can be a wonderful thing to notice, and it can wake you 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 of vulnerability teaches us that life can be enjoyed even if it can’t be controlled completely, or prolonged indefinitely. This attitude can 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. And it also allows us to use fear, which usually springs up at moments when we don’t know what’s going to happen, 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.”
Read on to learn more from Schaub about the nature of human fear — and more constructive ways to deal with it. Read the full interview at Experience Life