Fear, Anxiety and Phobia
My fear and doubts have vanished like mist
into the distance, never to disturb me again.
I will die content and free from regrets.
This is the fruit of Dharma practice.
Milarepa, from 'Fruit of Dharma Practice'
WHAT IS FEAR?
Fear plays a very important part in our daily life,
and in human society as a whole. Fear comes in many shapes and forms,
but it could be described as: an unpleasant feeling of perceived
risk or danger, real or not. It functions to make us alert and ready
for action while expecting specific problems.
As is often said, fear lies at the basis of all
religions. At the time humans were gatherers and hunters, little
was understood of the world around them, so without understanding
the causes for many everyday experiences there is logically existential
fear. In search for understanding the world around them, shamans
and mystics tried to explain the world with invisible and incomprehensible
aspects aspects like spirits, gods, nature itself, the sun and moon
etc. which also gave the possibility to do something about 'the
unexpected' by pleasing the gods and spirits with prayers and rituals.
Later on, more advanced ideas and philosophies developed, and of
course, organized religions.
Also Buddhism is to an extent based on fear; the
fear of suffering. The historical Buddha went out on his spiritual
quest when he realized that everybody is subject to discomfort,
problems and pain, and with the goal to find a way to end it alltogether
he discovered a 'way out'.
In fact, this is not too different from the main
motivation to develop human civilization: we fear discomfort so
we store food for more difficult times, we prepare ourselves for
dangers like wild animals, or to defend ourselves from other humans.
This fear of discomfort and attachement to comfort has driven humans
in their development from a type of smart monkey to a creature that
has gained control over nearly all other living beings on this planet.
Our most basic fear is the fear of death, which
functions to make us alert in dangerous situations, and can thus
be a very healthy emotion. But much less dramatic reasons of fear
are found everywhere in our daily lives: 'Did I lock the house?',
'Isn't this food unhealthy?', 'Is my health insurance high enough?',
'Shouldn't my daughter be home yet?'. These worries can be based
or quite baseless. Problematic types of fear can be when we are
afraid of things that do not pose any real threat, like fear of
spiders or large spaces. Fear and paranoia, together with attachment,
craving and hatred are usually responsible for wars.
In all cases, we could say that fear is a reaction
to something that may happen in the future, be it realistic or not,
it is always uncomfortable. And here we find one of the contradictions
of fear itself: it should work to keep us from discomfort, yet it
is uncomfortable itself.
Any happiness there is in the world ultimately turns to pain. Why? Consider the two sides of a coin: just because what we desire is to be seen on the front does not mean that dislike won’t soon appear on the back. Likewise, hope and fear are a single coin, one entity with two faces—on the other side of a moment in which we hope for more happiness will be our fear of more suffering. Until attachment is eliminated, we can be certain of having both hope and fear. As long as there is hope and fear, the delusions of samsara will be perpetuated and there will be constant suffering. Thus attachment is the nature of both hope and fear: looking at the ultimate emptiness of the self-envisioned magical illusion of hope and fear, we should hang loosely in the flow.
From The Great Secret of Mind: Special Instructions on the Nonduality of Dzogchen,
by Tulku Pema Rigtsal
As fear is based on something that we think may
happen in the future, it is clearly a mental process which tries
to predict the future - in that sense, the reason of fear is a projection
of our mind.
We can be afraid to fall, but once we are falling, we are afraid
to hit the ground, once we hit the ground, we may fear we have a
bad injury, once we know we have a bad injury, we may fear the pain
and the consequences of not being able to work for some time or
become disabled etc. So one could say that fear is always based
on something that has not happened yet, and is therefore a fantasy
of our mind rather than fact.
ADDICTION TO FEAR
Some people like fear, because in activities like
riding a roller-coaster or during bunjee-jumping, we get an adrenaline-rush:
a physical reaction to make us alert and ready for action - some
people actually get addicted to this natural drug and get into extreme
activities. This can easily lead to needing more dangerous situations
more often, so they may tend to take ever increasing risks - until
the parachute does not open, or the weather changes while climbing
a steep, dangerous mountain slope......
Fear is generally a very uncomfortable feeling
- Buddhists would call it therefore a form of suffering. We do not
like to be afraid, but still, our fear can keep us from harm for
example as it makes us hold back when we see a snake or a fast car
straight in our direction. So, yes, we need to realize danger and
be alert, but once we are alert, we cannot do much more than whatever
we think is best in the situation.
If we let our fear take over completely, we can even 'freeze' and
become completely helpless. Similarly, many of us are afraid for
quite irrational things, meaning things that do not really pose
any threat to us. For example, fear of spiders, small enclosed spaces
or large spaces. Life can become really difficult, simply because
illogical projections and delusions are taking over our normal,
rational mind and small things can begin to determine our whole
life. In that case, we can start to talk about having a phobia.
The process of normal fear turning into phobia
is very similar in Buddhist psychology to when anger turns into
blind hatred or a liking of chocolate turns into addiction. The
difference is in the levels of the fear. Initially, anger or fear
may have a useful function in life (to protect ourselves from suffering),
but they are both based on mental projections. When these projections
grow into something like phobia, it only means that the mind is
strongly exaggerating the situation. For whatever reason, our mind
gets out of control, and it turns a spider into a monster or the
height of a chair into a ravine. So the remedy to phobia cannot
really lie in taking medicines, but must be to habituate our mind
back to 'normal' reactions.
WESTERN THERAPIES - GENERAL
Therapies for irrational fears work on the same
basic principle: discover by experience that the feeling of fear
(paranoia) is an exaggeration of what we perceive in the world,
and force our rational mind to keep in control of the emotion. So,
if you are afraid of spiders, perhaps the cure starts with simply
drawing them, then looking at a small one - far away locked in a
safe place - then forcing yourself to go closer (the rational mind
says that nothing can happen), in the end, usually the patients
will regain so much control that can even hold a poisonous, hairy,
huge tarantula in their hands - obviously the end of therapy! This
is not because they are exceptionally brave people, but they have
gradually learned to take control over their exaggerated emotions,
by realizing these emotions were not based on a real danger.
In extreme cases, people can be much harder to
treat. Specifically when the reason for the fear is vague and hardly
known, like imagining that you are being followed (paranoia), it
is not always straight-forward or simple to make people realize
that these fears are unfounded and the rational mind should take
Many types of fear/phobia are identified, I found
some in a web blog recently:
Acrophobia: Fear of heights
Arachnophobia: fear of spiders
Agoraphobia: fear of open spaces
Belonephobia: fear of needles
Brontophobia: fear of thunder and lightning
Claustrophobia: fear of confined spaces
Hamartophobia: fear of sinning
Suriphobia: fear of mice and/or rats
Necrophobia: fear of death
Pentheraphobia: fear of the mother-in-law
Thalassophobia: fear of the sea
Xenophobia: fear of strangers or foreigners
Also some fears may be more common than generally thought:
Athazagoraphobia - fear of being forgotten, ignored or forgetting
Atychiphobia, Kakorrhaphiophobia - fear of failure
Metathesiophobia - fear of changes
MY OWN FEAR OF HEIGHTS
I was quite scared of heights when I was young. I knew it was unrealistic:
"the building will not suddenly collapse when I come near the
edge of the balcony, but I just don't want to go there: every step
closer to the edge scares me more". It proved absolutely awful
in something like a church tower: already the feeling on these endless
spiral staircases gave a feeling of, "if I would fall now,
I couldn't stop falling". At a certain moment, all realism
completely disappeared, when I even got scared of towers when I
was standing in the street, just looking up at them!
To someone who does not have this fear of heights
this probably sounds absurd: and that is correct - it is an absurd
way of thinking! And that is exactly the problem. The fear became
bigger and bigger, until there was fear even without the possibility
The end of my exaggerated fear of heights I owe
to my big brother; during a holiday he told me in no uncertain terms
that I was behaving like a silly little baby if I would not dare
to go on small tower on top of a pier in the sea. The pier was made
of wood, and perhaps some 6 meters above the sea. He said, "now
look, you dare to walk here, but already you are 6 meters above
the sea - why don't you have problems here?" He was right -
somehow I considered the pier as 'ground', so there was no fear
of heights. Then he said, "look, the tower is only twice as
high as the pier, if you manage to get on top there, you are a real
man, and not a silly baby" - hard to argue against if you are
about 10 years old.... So I walked up the stairs to the top with
a heavy heart. Every few steps he said, "look down at the waves,
see, you are hardly higher now". At the top, he told me to
look over the railing, saying, "even if you fall off, you'll
only fall in the water, and you can swim, so there is no problem
even then". For me it worked, and from then on, I forced myself
to ignore the strange feelings in my stomach while standing in a
high place. All I have left now, is a healthy feeling of apprehension
if I stand near a dangerous precipice or so, which is good: I should
be careful in such a situation if I don't want to get killed.
Much later, I realised that most therapies against
phobia work in a similar way, if you are scared of spiders, you
are shown some photos and are asked to draw images of spiders, next
you can gradually approach a spider in a terrarium, watch videos
about spiders, and, lo and behold, after some time, most people
manage to survive a big, hairy spider in their hand.
How does this work? Simply by rational thinking,
calm and habituation - all important aspects of a complete meditation
An excerpt of a forum message from Susie,
which I discovered on Children's
"Fear is False Evidence
Appearing Real. And, the only
way to get through fear is to face it head on.
I also used to have a tremendous fear of both water and needles.
I was 30 when I took swimming lessons, and learning to have the
control in the water helped me to get rid of my fear of drowing
(thus, my real fear was not of water but of drowning). I got rid
of my fear of needles by simply breathing deeply when a medical
or dental situation arose where needles were needed. I started
off telling medical personnel I was afraid of needles, then they
would be very gentle. Now, a needle is a needle is a needle..."
And from Kelly in the same discussion:
"Most fears and phobias can all be bought back to the same
thing – a fear of not having control of a situation or aspect
of self…the phobia then becomes a product of that fear,
as we concentrate and focus all our energy on that one thing (or
on many things in some cases)."
fear be healthy? Certainly, when it keeps you alert in a very dangerous
situation for yourself or others!
In the Buddhist context, there is one type of fear
we even need to cultivate: this is the fear that if we don't do
anything about it, we will remain in the cycle of rebirth after
rebirth in lives filled with problems and suffering. We may think
we have miserable lives now, but just think about the situation
of a pony in front of a cart in India, they get too little food
to live, but too much to die and need to work their whole lives
without a break or a chance of release - unless they die. Or simply
think about the fact that a large part of the human species lives
in miserable, poor conditions; the fact you can read this on the
Internet generally proves that things are perhaps not that bad with
you, if you would not have the money to eat, you would probably
not have the money to sit behind a computer.
This long-term realistic fear of our future is one of the main drives
behind wanting to achieve liberation and enlightenment, as this
would be the one and only definitive end to our problems.
Fruit of Dharma Practice by the
Tibetan yogi Milarepa
"The fear of death and infernal rebirths
due to my evil actions has led me to practice
in solitude in the snowcapped mountains.
On the uncertainty of life's duration
and the moment of death I have deeply meditated
Thus have I reached the deathless, unshakable citadel
of realization of the absolute essence.
My fear and doubts have vanished like mist
into the distance, never to disturb me again.
I will die content and free from regrets.
This is the fruit of Dharma practice."
"Usually we think that brave people have
no fear. The truth is that they are intimate with fear. When I
was first married, my husband said I was one of the bravest people
he knew. When I asked him why, he said because I was a complete
coward but went ahead and did things anyhow."
Pema Chodron from "When
things fall apart".
THE BUDDHIST APPROACH
"The Buddha discovered how to conquer absolutely
what man fears: he discovered a practical method, now called Buddhism,
for eliminating suffering."
Ven. Buddhadasa Bhikkhu
The Buddhist therapy of treating exaggerated
fears is probably not essentially different from the Western ways
of treatment. Treatment is based on trying to see that fear is
a form of suffering that we wish to get rid of, and using habituation
and the control of our mind to dissolve irrational fears. It is
only that Buddhism tries to take the solution of mental problems
to their very end, to stop our very potential for suffering and
problems by achieving liberation and enlightenment.
with Fear - Tonglen Practice by Ringu Tulku
What frightens us most is the thought of being
afraid. That is the greatest fear. Nothing puts us in more danger
than our own mind and when what we are frightened of actually happens,
it is never as bad as we imagined. There is no protection against
fear. Even when we think that we have found some safety, we still
wonder if our defenses are reliable and this uncertainty destroys
our security. We create fear and we can uncreate it. It is a habit
that can be broken. A good remedy against fear is to actively provoke
it. Instead of feeling helpless we confront our worst fear. If you
are frightened of losing something, give it away. If heights scare
you, climb to a high place. If you are terrified of speaking in
public, stand before an audience. This is the simplest way of mastering
The ultimate fear is the fear of death, the loss
of our ego and everything we have. In that sense, fear is nothing
but a form of attachment, in this case to our life, our concept
of 'self', and all our possessions etc. If we think about ourselves
in terms of rebirth, suddenly death becomes a much less 'final end',
it is only the end of this stage of existence, and after that a
new stage will begin. Of course, as we are unsure about what will
happen in that next life, we can easily become anxious and scared,
but just fear will not be of any help at all. It becomes much more
important to ensure that our next life will become a pleasant one,
without too much suffering.
Most other types of fear are related to possible
physical or mental pain, or loss of possessions. With the possibility
of physical or mental pain in the future, we probably need to start
working at it to prevent it from happening, rather than be frozen
in our own miserable predictions and depression.
So we should act, rather than crawl away. In the bigger perspective
however, as long as we remain in the cycle of rebirth, we cannot
escape suffering at all. We need to work to liberate ourselves from
suffering. The highest type of this motivation is that we also want
all other living beings to become free from suffering (the Mahayana
motivation of Bodhicitta).
The fear of losing possessions (including 'our'
family and loved ones) is simply a form of attachment,
another delusion we all have, and which is a major reason to our
'holding on' to life, and a reason why we are reborn instead of
| From the Dhammapada 212-216 (a collection of sayings
of the Buddha):
"From what is dear, grief
from what is dear, fear is born.
For someone freed from what is dear
there is no grief
-- so why fear?
From what is loved, grief is born,
from what is loved, fear is born.
For someone freed from what is loved,
there is no grief
-- so why fear?
From delight, grief is born,
from delight, fear is born.
For someone freed from delight
there is no grief
-- so why fear?
From sensuality, grief is born,
from sensuality, fear is born.
For someone freed from sensuality
there is no grief
-- so why fear?
From craving, grief is born,
from craving, fear is born.
For someone freed from craving
there is no grief
-- so why fear?"
Question: How can one work with deep fears most effectively?
His Holiness the Dalai Lama: There are quite a number of methods. The first is to think about actions
and their effects. Usually when something bad happens, we say, "Oh, very
unlucky," and when something good happens, we say, "Oh, very lucky."
Actually, these two words, lucky and unlucky, are insufficient. There must be
some reason. Because of a reason, a certain time became lucky or unlucky, but
usually we do not go beyond lucky or unlucky. The reason, according to the Buddhist
explanation, is our past karma, our actions.
One way to work with deep fears is to think that the fear comes as a result
of your own actions in the past. Further, if you have fear of some pain or suffering,
you should examine whether there is anything you can do about it. If you can,
there is no need to worry about it; if you cannot do anything, then there is
also no need to worry.
Another technique is to investigate who is becoming afraid. Examine the nature
of your self. Where is this I? Who is I? What is the nature of I? Is there an
I besides my physical body and my consciousness? This may help.
Also, someone who is engaging in the Bodhisattva practices seeks to take others'
suffering onto himself or herself. When you have fear, you can think, "Others
have fear similar to this; may I take to myself all of their fears." Even
though you are opening yourself to greater suffering, taking greater suffering
to yourself, your fear lessens.
From A Policy of Kindness: An Anthology of Writings By and
About the Dalai Lama
Fear of Flying
"Just before departure and during the
flight, it is very good to recite the names of the ten directions’
Buddhas. If you keep on reciting the names, in whichever direction
you are flying, if you recite that Buddha’s names and pay
one-pointed attention to this, not only will you be free from
danger, but your wishes will be fulfilled. So not only is this
for safe travel, but for the successful fulfillment of whatever
goals you had for going in that direction.
It is very good to pray not just for your own safety, but on behalf
of all the people in the airplane—all 300 passengers and
crew, or however many people there are—for them all to have
a safe journey. Not only that, but you can pray that whoever this
airplane carries may always be safe. It’s very good to pray
Fear of Snakes
A German woman had had a fear of snakes since she was a child.
At the age of nine, she saw a smashed snake in her parents’
garden, and a woman in Germany, who was clairvoyant but not Buddhist,
told her that in a former life she had destroyed people.
"You do not need clairvoyance. This is
explained by karma. In a past life, after dying because of a snake
killing you or dying out of fear of snakes, this often goes into
the next life.
Some beings are born in a shape that gives fear to others. It
is just like that. Often it is a result of anger. One did some
unpleasant things to others, and now one fears the result.
Even I would run away when I see a snake. That is normal.
Think of the suffering of the snake: It has no chance. If it had
a choice, it would take another form. The snake itself has a fear
of eagles. Use the snake to generate compassion and to develop
bodhicitta. If you had the opportunity, you would also choose
another body, not a body that nobody likes. Snakes are very afraid,
they hide themselves and disappear as soon as someone comes close.
Meditate on compassion, and you will reach enlightenment, by understanding
the suffering of the snake. Now the snake becomes so compassionate.
Now the snake is actually giving you enlightenment, and you are
able to liberate all sentient beings. When you have compassion
and bodhicitta, no snake can give you harm.
For example, when St. Francis of Assisi met a dangerous wolf,
the wolf actually lay down on its back. St. Francis tamed the
wolf’s mind by the power of his compassion. He told the
wolf to stop harming others, and the wolf did. No being could
harm St. Francis of Assisi; even the elements such as fire and
water can be controlled by the power of compassion."
HANDLING UNREALISTIC FEAR
Below is a summary of various approaches to fear.
They obviously will be most efficient when used with a calm and
concentrated mind, either during meditation or at the moment you
realize that something needs to be done about your fear. Obviously,
the problem during an actual fearful situation is to have a calm
and concentrated mind - a regular meditation practice can be of
great help then! One of the best ways to really make progress with
understanding and changing the functioning of our own mind is to
try out analytical meditation, combined with the following kind
"Do the thing you fear most and the death
of fear is certain."
ANTIDOTE 1 - Acceptance
Meditate with these kind of thoughts, without expecting this
thought to change anything about the effect fear has on myself:,
I know fear exist, I know it's making my life tougher then it needs
to be, but it is not only me that has to deal with it, fear is a
problem for all beings, big and small.
“The presence of fear means only that
fear is present, and nothing more,”
Zen Buddhist teacher Suzanne Segal
"Sometimes rats get into my house, because
I live near a river and leave my back door open. I would lay
awake wondering where they were, with irrational fears of them
deciding to nibble on my toes. What I eventually did, was just
let my imagination run full force. I'd purposely invoked thoughts
of hundreds of rats coming and biting me, and me getting up
and going to the hospital. Then I'd imagine the hospital telling
me that they rats gave me some horrible disease they couldn't
cure, and I was going to die. Or they were going to have to
amputate all my limbs. I'd explore this fear in detail, and
wear out every aspect of it.
The idea being, allow the worse of you fears to be realized.
Don't allow them to wait in the shadows of your mind. What I
found, was once I did this with one thing and saw the result.
I started searching my mind for the really horrible repressed
memories, the kind that make you twitch, when even a glimmer
of them would begin to show. If you start seeing a little memory
coming to the surface, even when you aren't prepared, grab it
and yank it out and bring the roots with it. Be in control of
it, be the one allowing it to the surface. Look right at it,
and explore all the aspects of it you were always afraid to.
All that said. I still have things I haven't faced, and stuff
I'm still fearful of... however, I got a lot less of them now,
then I had before. Plus the ones I have now, don't have quite
the same sting to them."
ANTIDOTE 3 - Realization of the Noble Truth
Once one understands that problems and frustration is a basic fact
of life, it can reduce our expectation that life without problems
is possible. In other words: nothing is perfect, so don't expect
it. Because of my belief that things can be perfect, it is easy
to feel hurt. Deeply realizing that things can and will go wrong,
I should try to avoid negative actions, they are the real (karmic)
reasons for the problems.
ANTIDOTE 4 - Understanding Karma.
As explained in the page on Karma
real reasons for our problems are our own actions, which are in
turn caused by our own negative states of mind. If something threatens
to go wrong, it has a sobering effect if we dare to think that the
real reasons for this situation are our own past actions, and the
this is just a circumstance for our own negative karma to ripen.
Rather than fearing the future, we need to avoid negative actions
that create our own problems.
ANTIDOTE 5 - Changing or Accepting.
Basically, we can find ourselves in two types of unpleasant situations:
ones we can change and ones we cannot change.
- If I can change the situation, I should do something about it
instead of getting all upset. Not acting in such a situation will
cause frustration in the end.
- If I cannot change the situation, I will have to accept it. If
I don't, it will only lead to frustration and a negative and unpleasant
state of mind, which will make the situation only worse.
For some reasons unclear to me, Westerners (including myself) appear
to have big problems with accepting unpleasant situations which
we cannot change. Could this be a result of impatience (a form of
anger) with imperfection (an unrealistic expectation)?
ANTIDOTE 6 - Realistic Analysis.
What am I really afraid of? If it is about losing someone or something:
have a look at the attachment
Am I afraid of being hurt - is this idea logical and realistic?
If yes, take action to avoid it, if no, try to gradually get control
over this unrealistic habit of the mind: this is a very unpleasant
feeling, and the only way I can get rid of it is to stand up to
it! You could have a look at the page on self-confidence
a very effective process to overcome unrealistic emotions like fear.
Also, I find this quote by Ambrose Redmoon quite interesting to
reflect upon: "Courage is the judgment that something is more
important than fear."
ANTIDOTE 7 - Realization of Emptiness.
See the page on Wisdom
. To summarize
it briefly, if one deeply realizes the emptiness of inherent existence
or interdependence of the other person, the situation and oneself,
there is nothing to be afraid of. The realization of emptiness is
therefore the ultimate means of ridding oneself of unrealistic negative
emotions like fear.
ANTIDOTE 8 - Take Responsibility for Your Problems
Fear is something that our own mind creates, so only our own
mind can do something about it! Exaggerated
fears can have their basis in wrong decisions or experiences as
a child, try to find out what caused the problem to begin with,
and it may gradually dissolve. Also, admit your own suffering
because of your fears and get help! Do not let the fear of being
afraid turn your life into misery.
If you are afraid of the therapy that can cure you from your paranoia
of spiders, simply because they will talk about spiders, you have
chosen to feel miserable for the rest of your life. Think about
your self-confidence perhaps...
ANTIDOTE 9 -Taking and giving meditation (Tong-len)
See the description
of this type of meditation; in this case, you can imagine
taking all the fear of others unto yourself and give courage and
protection to others. This meditation is really a mind-blower;
if do try it seriously you will probably notice its incredile
power to change our own attitude.
Being a hero is about the shortest-lived profession on earth.
The major difference between a thing that might go wrong and
a thing that cannot possibly go wrong, is that when a thing that
cannot possibly go wrong goes wrong,
it usually turns out to be impossible to get at or repair.
Health nuts are going to feel stupid someday, lying in hospitals
dying of nothing.
If at first you don't succeed, skydiving is not for you.
What do you call people who are afraid of Santa Claus? Claustrophobic.
There is only one thing worse than boredom, and that is the fear
updated: December 23, 2012