Fear is a natural part of creativity. Every creative I know battles against fear on a regular, if not daily, basis. While fear isn’t something we’ll ever completely rid ourselves of, I believe that we can overcome fear, in the sense that we can take away fear’s power to direct or completely control our lives. There are many tools you can use to help yourself do this, but today, we’re talking about using meditation to overcome fear.
Meditation: A personal history
Until a few years ago, I saw meditation as a very “hippie” thing to do. Not that there’s anything wrong with “hippie” things, but it definitely was not my style at the time. Then I read a book that I saw making the rounds in both my personal and professional circles (not to mention hitting #1 on the New York Times Bestseller List): 10% Happier, by Dan Harris. Going into it, I wasn’t sure what exactly the book was, but it came highly recommended, so I dove in.
When I realized the book was about meditation, there was probably an eyebrow raise, and possibly even an eyeroll. But once I finished, it was pretty clear to me that there was something to this meditation thing. And as a person who has a deep commitment to self-improvement, creativity, and building a happy life, I decided I needed to give it a try.
Today, meditation is an important part of my daily life. It benefits me personally and professionally in multiple ways, but one of the most profound is that it helps me overcome fear.
How meditation helps you overcome fear
In the majority of situations, fear is an emotion that originates with your thoughts—whether conscious or not. And even if fear doesn’t start with your thoughts, thoughts can make fear much, much worse.
Fear and your thoughts
Let’s say you have a visceral, fearful reaction to public speaking. That inkling of fear might come on so quickly and so naturally that it’s impossible to “prevent.” Your heart starts racing and your palms start sweating, and it’s out of your control. But from there, your mind takes off with fearful thoughts:
“What if I completely forget everything I was going to say?”
“What if no one listens to me?”
“I might trip and fall on my way to the microphone.”
These thoughts, left unchecked, provide kindling to your spark of fear, and cause it to grow into a wildfire you can’t control.
If this happens often enough, your brain will start programming itself to jump from 0 to 10 on the fear scale very quickly, skipping any conscious thought and just feeling the fear smack you in the face. You’ll start to see those thoughts as objectively true, rather than possibilities (e.g. “I am definitely going to forget everything I was going to say”).
Meditation and your thoughts
Meditation is a way to stop this cycle of fear → thoughts → fear. It allows you to pause, step back, observe your thoughts, and move on from them, without letting them affect you negatively. When done effectively, meditation can help you discern truth from lies (or untrue thoughts our brain has practiced thinking).
Meditation also helps you become aware of the sensations in your body, so you can identify where the fear is and what it feels like, instead of feeling a nebulous, underlying fear that you can’t get a handle on.
These two aspects of meditation help you separate the visceral reaction from your thoughts, and gain control over both. You become the thinker of thoughts, rather than a servant to them.
Meditation and fear
Since fear is caused or exacerbated by your thoughts, and meditation can help you gain control over your thoughts, it follows that meditation can be an effective tool when it comes to helping you overcome fear. Specifically:
Meditation pulls you into the present.
Fear is all about the future: what might happen. Pulling yourself back into the present can help you break the cycle of fear and get into the “now.” As you become aware of your physical body, your surroundings, and your thoughts, you see that there is no fear in the present. You’re better equipped to recognize that fear for what it is—useless to you in the here and now—and to release it.
Meditation doesn’t require you to ignore the fear.
What would you say to try to help a child who is afraid of monsters in their closet? Probably things like:
“Monsters aren’t real.”
“There’s nothing in your closet.”
“Don’t be afraid.”
While statements like these are well-intentioned, they aren’t always effective in helping a child truly overcome their fear—and similar statements don’t work well for adults either.
If you tell yourself your fear isn’t real, you’re taking away your opportunity to overcome it. If you tell yourself you “shouldn’t” be afraid, you’re inviting shame into your life. Trying to talk yourself out of it will likely result in more confusing thoughts whirling around in your head. In other words, ignoring the fear, or ignoring the fact that you feel fearful, isn’t going to help you.
The truth is, eliminating fear from your life isn’t possible (it’s not even a good idea). Instead, it’s more helpful and beneficial to recognize and face the fear, rather than pretend it isn’t there or try to convince yourself that it’s irrational. Meditation can help, because it allows space for recognizing your fearful thoughts. It’s not self-delusion or “fake it ‘til you make it.” It’s honestly seeing and acknowledging your fears so you can face them effectively.
Meditation helps you observe the fear rather than let it control you
When you meditate, you try to clear your mind. You want to become completely present, letting go of all thoughts and judgments and allowing yourself to just be. But of course, thoughts come unbidden into our minds all the time, so what do you do with those?
Learning to note your thoughts, without letting them overtake you, gives you a sense of control over them. Once you’ve acknowledged the thought, you feel more capable of releasing it.
One of the best descriptions I’ve heard of this is from this video by Headspace, a company focused on meditation and mindfulness. Basically, it likens meditation to sitting on the side of the road and simply watching the cars (your thoughts) pass by—instead of feeling like you have to stop some of the cars or chase after them.
This way, when a fearful thought comes up, you can let it be, without going into a frenzy over it. This interrupts the harmful fear cycle, and instead allows you to observe the fear and move on.
How to meditate to overcome fear
When many people think of meditation, they think of a person sitting cross-legged on the floor with their eyes closed and their hands resting palms-up, chanting “Om.” Yes, there are some people that meditate this way, but in reality, meditation can be much simpler.
There are many (many) resources that can help you learn the basics of meditation (Headspace and Calm are big favorites), so I won’t go into too much detail here. But essentially, when you meditate, you:
- Get comfortable. Choose a position you can hold for several minutes . You can sit up straight in a chair or on the floor, or you can lie down.
- Close your eyes and breathe. Take deep breaths. Start by breathing in through your nose and out through your mouth. Once you’re aware of your breath, you can breathe normally.
- Become aware. Become aware of your breath, your body, and your surroundings (the temperature, any background noise, the floor under your feet, etc.).
- Notice and release your thoughts. When thoughts try to interrupt your focus, notice them, release them without judgment, and return your focus to your breath.
The simple act of being still, becoming aware, and allowing your thoughts to gently come and go can help bring calm, focus, and happiness into your life. I know it’s brought those things into mine.
When it comes to specifically working to overcome fear, even the basic practice outlined above can help. But there are also guided meditations on fear that can focus your efforts even more.
Quick tips for making meditation part of your daily life
Meditation is referred to as a “practice” for good reason. It takes time and trial and error to find your meditation sweet spot. Here are some tips that might help you as you try to make meditation a habit. (Check out this post for other ideas about reinventing yourself through your habits.)
- Start small. Start with 5 minutes a day. Meditation is meant to be a calming practice, not to add another activity to your already busy schedule. Once you start to see the benefits of meditation, you can slowly make your sessions longer until you find a length of time that fits in your day and works well for you.
- Use guided meditations. Guided meditations are great for helping you stay focused during your sessions, especially if you’re new to meditating. Meditation apps are widely available (some require a paid subscription), and guided meditations are available on YouTube as well.
- Pick a time. Schedule your meditation into your day. Put it on your calendar like you would an appointment or event.
- Set reminders. Whether it’s an alarm on your phone or a sticky note on your mirror, a small reminder can go a long way toward establishing any new habit, including meditation.
- Track your progress. Find some visual way to track your progress as you work on meditating regularly. Put a mark on the calendar, a tally in a notebook, a penny in a jar, or find a habit-tracking worksheet online. When you see how far you’ve come, you’ll be motivated to keep going.
Fear is real, and it’s powerful. But using meditation to overcome fear really does work. I’ve seen it in my life and in the lives of so many creatives that I work with. So I challenge you to try it. Face your fears, regain control over your thoughts, and give yourself another tool to help you as you work to create a happier life.
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