How to Deal With Fear With Mindfulness and Acceptance

Updated: May 31, 2020

Fear is a part of everyone’s life. But fear seems to especially loom larger right now, magnified by the coronavirus pandemic. It seems like a good time to talk about fear.

I wanted to write about this topic for a few reasons. One of these is obvious: The coronavirus pandemic is changing everyday life in an unprecedented way. I’ve never seen grocery store shelves bare before. I’ve never driven downtown on the freeway during rush hour at 75 mph on cruise control before. I’ve never seen schools canceled for weeks at a time, or gotten on Facebook and realized everyone is posting about the same single issue.

Coronavirus is scary. There are also other things I’ve also spent a fair amount of time fearing lately. PA school is one of them. My husband and I will be living apart while I attend the Idaho State program, and I fear what negative consequences that might have for our relationship. PA school itself also makes me nervous, with the stories I’ve heard of how intense it is.

Another fear of mine has to do with my wonderful parents. I love them and feel constant love from them. At the same time, I’ve realized there will come a day when I have to live without them—which makes me afraid.

For these reasons, I’ve been trying to figure out lately what to do with fear. I wanted to share some of the things I’ve found to be helpful while spending time on this topic. I hope they will be helpful for you, too.

1. Acceptance: “I acknowledge that…” + smile

One resource I’ve found so helpful in this quest is the book Fear by Thich Nhat Hanh. This is the second book of his I’ve read, and though I don’t agree with his every word, I find his writing calming and incredibly helpful, as well as a wonderful launching pad for thinking through and meditating on life’s different problems.

Thich Nhat Hanh writes on the topic of our biggest fears, that “when we practice accepting these truths, we can realize peace and have the capacity to live conscious, healthy, compassionate lives….Invite your fear into consciousness, and smile through it; every time you smile through your fear, it will lose some of its strength.”

This quote brings up the concept of acceptance. Accepting something doesn’t mean you like it. It doesn’t mean you agree with it. Instead, acceptance is acknowledging what is. It’s observing something without judging it. It’s not about changing anything, or wishing anything to be different. Instead, it’s just sitting with that thing.

For me, the phrase “I acknowledge that…” has been so helpful for practicing this kind of mindful acceptance. I think: “I acknowledge that PA school will be difficult.” “I acknowledge that I will have to live without my parents someday.” Those things simply are. That phrase lets me sit with that reality. It lets me sit without bringing in my judgements on how I’d like things to be. It lets me sit without bringing in fear. It’s simply observing those facts, and letting them be just that: facts.

Just observe your fears. Sit with them. Acknowledge their existence.

And then…smile.

The concept of a “half smile” was one I learned in Dialectical Behavioral Therapy. It’s a skill that has surprised me—that something so small and simple could actually help change how you feel about things. Smiling slightly when you are sad or anxious is something that takes so little effort or energy. And it can help—though I’m not totally sure why it has an effect. Maybe it’s because it helps distract from the other things you’re feeling. Maybe it’s because it’s something your body does when you feel happy, and that physical movement tricks your brain into a more positive mindset. Maybe simply because it’s positive and peaceful action.

I’m not totally sure why a “half smile” can help, but, like Thich Nhat Hanh wrote, it’s something that also helps when you’re trying to sit with your fear.

Think: “I acknowledge that…” and then add a smile.

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2. Focus on the present moment

I recently heard a quote from Leo Tolstoy that stuck with me: “Remember then: There is only one time that is important—now! It is the most important time because it is the only time when we have any power.”

Tolstoy is so right. The only time we ever have is the present moment. Our entire existence can only be experienced in one present moment at a time.

Still, fear and anxiety trick us and rob us from the present. They pull our thoughts away from the moment, and have us focus on what might be, on what could be. They convince us to ignore what is, and to focus on a future moment that isn’t even real.

The concept of focusing on the present moment takes conscious effort and practice. I find, though, that the more I practice it, the better I’m able to do it. Focusing on the present has helped me learn to deal with symptoms of depression: I focus on just one thing at a time, on just surviving right now.

It has also helped me during times when I’m not totally sure what direction I’m going in: Instead of waiting on some point in the future to happen in order to be happy, or instead of expecting certain things in my life before I can be happy, I look around and focus on enjoying what’s happening now.

These ideas are true for fear as well. I fear losing my parents someday. At the same time, right now I have them! I talk with them, and ask them for advice. We have Sunday dinner together, and they come help me do yard work. I have that fear of living without them, but why should I focus on that point in the future when, the fact is, in the present, I have them! I don’t want that fear to steal away my attention. Instead, I’m focusing on right now.

I try to do this when I start getting overwhelmed with pandemic news as well. I start thinking: Right now, I am safe. Right now, I am healthy. (Sometimes it’s also helpful to turn off the news!)

Fear so often wants us to focus on the future and what may be. Instead, try focusing on the present moment, and what is.  

3. Moving from thoughts of fear towards thoughts of gratitude

Gratitude is another way of moving your thoughts away from a hypothetical future, and instead grounding them in what is. It is another wonderful exercise in dealing with fear through mindfulness and being present.

Trying to shift my fearful thoughts towards thoughts of gratitude has helped me deal with moments of fear. When I feel afraid of PA school and what might happen during that time, I start thinking: I’m grateful I got accepted to PA school—it’s an amazing opportunity to begin an excellent career. I’m grateful my husband supports me and is encouraging me with this goal. I’m grateful for our relationship. I’m grateful I have my husband.

When I start getting overwhelmed with coronavirus news, it’s also helpful to start shifting those thoughts towards gratitude. I start thinking: I’m grateful I have a job where I can work from home. I’m grateful me and my loved ones are currently healthy. There are a lot of things outside of my control with all of this, but I’m grateful I have things I can do to help keep us safe, like washing my hands frequently and practicing social distancing. I’m grateful we know so much more about disease transmission and staying safe than we did at the time of the Spanish Flu. And though we don’t have a perfect health care system, I’m grateful we live in a country with more resources than many places dealing with this issue.

You can challenge fear by shifting your thoughts towards things you are grateful for.  

4. Acknowledge that there are things bigger than you

I was recently reading through some old journal entries. I read as the past me tried to decide between taking a job or not. I read through what my past-self had speculated about the benefits of the job, and as I wrote about where I wanted to be in a year from then, and several years from then.

And…they say hindsight is twenty-twenty.

Reading those entries several years after the fact, I realized there was no way I could have known how my decisions would play out. There was no way I could have known what would happen next, or the twists and turns to my life path that would happen over the following years.

I read those entries and thought about my current decisions. Over the past few years, I’ve not been totally sure where I’ve wanted to go in life. I have fears surrounding starting PA school, I’ve wondered if it is the right decision. I started to realize, though: There probably isn’t a single “right” decision and a single “wrong” decision. There are just decisions. Each decision will have good things about it, and each decision will also result in hard things that happen to me. Every decision will. But with every decision, I can continue to work hard and do my best. I can continue to be present and enjoy the happy moments that come. I can remember to be grateful, and remember to live in the present. Any decision will just be part of life. And all of it--the good and the bad, the happy and the difficult--can help make up a life worth living.

I also started to realize: There was simply no way I could have known at the point of making that decision years ago where that decision would lead. I don’t think I would have chosen the consequences of that particular decision if I had known. Still, I’ve learned and progressed and grown up more since making that choice. It wasn’t ever a matter of making the “right” choice. Instead, it’s always been a matter of living life as it comes. Of learning from it, progressing in it. Of enjoying the present moment while we have it, and of celebrating the happy moments that come.

Still, I’d be lying if I said I wouldn’t like a crystal ball to tell me where PA school will take me in life. But that simply doesn’t exist. I don’t know where PA school will lead. But I simply can’t know. That’s something bigger than me. It’s something unknowable.

That seems true with so many things in life: We don’t know what the outcome will be, or where it will take us. That’s part of why we fear things. Just realizing that fact is a small comfort, though. It’s realizing that there’s more in life than what we can perceive or predict—and that we won’t ever be able to, even if we spend our time worrying about them and fearing them. There are things—like our fears, like the future—that are bigger than you or me.

I can’t know where life will lead me. I can, however, acknowledge that fact.

And smile.

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