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fear is static

6 steps for coping with fear

Last week I wrote about how to find the positive when you’re not feeling well, something I’ve been struggling a lot with recently. After having had two minor surgeries over the past week (one of which was very unexpected!), I’m actually feeling better than I have in quite some time. However, though my physical pain has subsided somewhat, my emotional distress has increased immensely over the past week due to the more serious, under-anesthesia surgery I’m scheduled to have this week. Having never had “real” surgery before — and also being very iatrophobic — I’ve been struggling a lot with staying positive and present in the face of fear.

I’ve never encountered a fear like this before. I’ve faced my share of fears, but they’ve always been more abstract and emotional — fear of not succeeding or having my heart broken or taking a big career risk — and much easier to overcome. This fear is incredibly tangible and forceful. It’s physical and has a deadline with a very specific date and time. It’s doing its best to trample my attempts at staying positively present.

But, scared as I am, I’m determined not to let it take over. I’m trying as best I can to make the most of the time I have between now and my surgery date without letting fear rule my life. I know I won’t be able to completely eradicate the fear, but I can learn to cope with it. Here are some of the steps I’ve been taking to cope with my fear. (Note: Though these are highlighted by my specific upcoming-surgery experience, these six steps apply to coping any kind of fear!)

Step 1: Recognize that you’re afraid

The first — and maybe most important — step when it comes to fear is realizing you’re afraid. Fear can manifest itself in all sorts of forms that may make it seem like something it’s not. Personally, I’ve found that a lot of the time when I seem angry or annoyed, I’m actually afraid. It’s not always easy to identify the source of fear, but if you spend time thinking about it (much you as might not want to!), usually the root cause of the fear will be made clear. Also, fear is something we usually want to avoid so sometimes we ignore it or downplay it in order to convince ourselves (or others) that we’re brave. Remind yourself that being afraid isn’t a weakness, and the sooner you recognize the fear, the sooner you can discover ways to cope with it (and hopefully move past it).

Step 2: Get to the heart of the fear

After you’ve identified what you’re afraid of — for example, for me, I’m afraid of having surgery — it’s time to dig a little deeper and define why you’re afraid. For me, the fear of surgery is actually due to fears of (1) not being in control, (2) not knowing exactly how I’ll feel when I wake up, and (3) not having experienced anything like this before (aka, fear of the unknown). When trying to get to the root cause of fear, it’s helpful to ask these questions:

  • Have I ever been afraid of this before?
  • What are you really afraid of?
  • What makes you feel more afraid of it? Less afraid? 
  • How do you feel when you’re afraid? (Physically and mentally)
  • When are you most likely to feel afraid? 
  • Does your fear have a purpose? 

Recognizing what causes the fear, when you experience it most, and what’s at the heart of it will help with the coping process. Also, sometimes simply understanding why you’re experiencing something can make it a bit easier to manage, making the coping process a bit easier.

Step 3: See fear as an opportunity

Fear is no fun to experience, but it’s often presented to you as an opportunity to take on a challenge, overcome a difficult situation, or grow stronger and braver. (Cliche, I know, but I swear it’s true!) In the midst of fear, it can be difficult to find the opportunities there, but it’s worth considering what they might be, especially because this is an excellent exercise in striving to find the good in a bad situation. For example, in my situation, I’ve spent my entire life being iatrophobic, terrified of doctors, needles, any sort of medical procedure. Though I’m currently still quite scared, I’m hoping this experience will make me braver and make it easier to cope with any medical situation I encounter in the future. I also know for a fact that this situation has made me so grateful for my health and once this is all over with I’ll have grown more appreciative of what it means to be healthy.

Step 4: Focus on your body

The way your body reacts to situations and thoughts can give you a lot of clues about how you’re feeling, especially when it comes to fear. For example, you might tense up when hearing unpleasant news before you’ve even actually processed what it means. Or your heart might start racing when you think about an upcoming presentation. Our bodies give us so much information about our emotions, and we can use that information to our advantage. For example, if your palms start sweating and your mind starts racing when you start thinking of something you’re afraid of, it might be a good time to try the 4-7-8 breathing technique. Or if you find your heart beating really fast, you might want to try progressive muscle relaxation. Paying attention to the body’s reaction to fear is useful because you can then counteract those reactions with more positive ones (deep breaths, relaxing muscles, etc.).

Step 5: Distract yourself from the fear

Last week, I wrote a little bit about distraction in my post about finding sunshine when you’re under the weather, but I’m bringing it up again now because it’s been a lifesaver for me lately. Seriously, if I didn’t have a ton of great distractions, I’d probably be curled up in a ball shaking in fear for the next few days! Fear and anxiety can spiral out of control very quickly if they’re allowed free reign in the mind,  and one of the best ways to keep it under control is to focus on something other than the fear. Over the past week, I’ve become a master at distraction, doing anything I can to focus on anything other than my upcoming surgery. Here are some of my favorite distractions: reading, writing, watching movies (especially old favorites), grown-up coloring books, jigsaw puzzles, crossword puzzles, and being around other people. When I’m distracted, fear doesn’t completely dissipate, but coping with it is much easier.

Step 6: Visualize the best case scenario

One of the most scary things about my upcoming surgery is that I don’t know exactly what kind of surgery I’m having until the surgeon begins the procedure. There are a variety of situations that could happen, ranging from not-too-bad to ugh-whyyyyy. My mind has, unfortunately, been wandering toward the negative side of things, imagining what will happen if I have to have the more complex surgery (that often involves additional surgery), but thinking this way is doing me no good. What I need to be doing is focusing on the best case scenario and visualizing that as my outcome. I read this quote recently and it’s so true: “Worrying is like praying for what you don’t want.” Instead of focusing on what’s the worst that could happen, it’s much better to take a look at your fear and ask yourself this, “What would it be like if everything goes perfectly?”

Though I’m admittedly still battling a lot of fear about my upcoming surgery, these six steps have really helped me to better cope with my fear. If you’re facing any kind of fear or change in your life, I hope these steps will help you too!

I’m not sure exactly how long I’ll be in recovery so if you don’t see posts from me in the next couple of weeks, don’t worry — I’ll be back as soon as I can sit up and write again! In the meantime, I’ll probably still be posting over on Instagram (@positivelypresent) so follow along over there for some daily bits of positivity. 🙂

Finding-Self-Cover

Facing fears can offer up a great opportunity to reconnect with yourself. Start some soul-searching with the Finding Yourself workbook. Discover more about yourself, and uncover what you want most by downloading a copy of the e-book Finding Yourself: A Soul-Searching Workbook for Surprising Self Discovery. Filled with inspiration, questions, and activities to get you thinking about what it means to be you, Finding Yourself is a must for learning more about who you are and about what matters most to you. Learn more about the workbook here and purchase your own soul-searching copy here.

Comments (14)

  1. I’m glad you’re already starting to feel better, and I wish you an uneventful surgery and quick recovery. I know it’s scary, and I think it’s great that you’re acknowledging and coping with your fear. Last year, I had a scary experience (abnormal mammogram that turned out to be nothing–only it took quite some time to determine that) and I was TERRIFIED. This post could have really helped me then! I spent a good bit of time distracting myself, but not so much on the other points! I will keep this post in mind for future reference.

  2. Kathy – Thank you! 🙂 I’m sorry to hear you had to go through a scary experience yourself, but I’m so glad it turned out to be nothing! So often that’s the case, isn’t it? What we fear most doesn’t actually happen!

  3. I’ m sorry to hear that but I believe you would past it so strongly as usual. I’m sure you would get over it ASAP and I hope you start writing your inspiring articles immediately as I am one of the keen followers.
    I hope and I am sure everything is going well and I pray for you :-*

  4. Stay strong Dani, it will be over before you know it! Sending you lots of positive thoughts & good wishes x

  5. Dani-
    Thanks for this post. Perfect timing for me! I love that you mentioned 4-7-8 breath work. I rely on that technique quite often. Watching the video in the link was a great refresher.
    Wishing you the best possible outcome for your surgery. Quick and easy recovery! Be gentle with yourself.
    🙂 Kristen

  6. Somi – Thank you so much! Your words of encouragement really help!
    Claire – Thank you! I really appreciate those positive thoughts and good wishes. 🙂
    Kristen – You’re welcome! I’m so glad this post came at the right time for you. And thanks for the well wishes on the surgery! 🙂

  7. Thank you. I am reading this post at the exact right moment. My dad died in April (of old age), and my mom has decided to move from St. Louis to Texas into a space of her own in my brother’s house. In a way I feel like I’m losing both parents, even though it’s a short flight to visit her, and we’ve already set up a family trip for Christmas. I loved spending a moment thinking of the best case scenario – that’s a welcome and fantastic mental shift for me! I’m definitely bookmarking your thoughts to read again and again.
    Gratefully, Nicole
    PS – I own and <3 your book. You're sharing a lot of love and light in the world!

  8. I haven’t commented here in awhile…and I confess I haven’t read lately. I used to read here at least a couple times a week. But my absence is not because what you write is less than great. It’s because for me, when fear and other things hit, I kind of go stoic…or shut down. I abandon activities I like, or even should be doing. I stop doing a lot of things. That is what my anxiety condition does to me. I do look at your IG posts almost daily still though. I do that, because I know it will often uplift me. That magazine giveaway still helps too. =)
    Writing about fear here, hits home for me, because I live with an anxiety condition. But sadly, having that is not always in my control, though I can certainly help it with a lot of effort. Anxiety conditions are the pits. It is funny how anxiety and fear work. For some, it can result in panic or agitation, or lots of stress and hyper-type symptoms. I find that is easier, in some ways to address or even manage. But I often wonder, what can be done for people like me, who most often, well, pretty much like a tire….go flat. The more stress, anxiety, and burden come at me, the more I just shut completely down. My body mimics it too, to the point of constant fatigue. I wind up avoiding things completely, even to my detriment. It is painful to go through, because at times, I can feel powerless, and almost like I am watching it happen with my hands tied.
    Mind you, I do make many efforts to help it. I find just getting some sunshine each day helps, and making myself move, even if I really don’t want to. Luckily my other half is almost always game to take a walk with me every day. But even that does not help some days. It is weird too. People will talk about breathing exercises and what-not for anxiety…because we think of anxiety as being too fast moving as well as fearful. But it stumps me when my anxiety does the opposite. It is like an off switch that I sometimes just cannot turn back on.
    I guess I share this, because I want to know I am not alone…not necessarily looking for answers. Or even just a release. Connecting to others really does help. Especially when my sweetheart feels a little helpless. I am wondering, if you ever deal with this type of anxiety, or even any other readers.
    Anyway, enough of my rambling here. I am sorry to hear you are going through any medical difficulties. I hope your surgery is/was successful, and you recover quickly.
    It sure is nice to come back to your blog and see that your wonderful, down-to-earth writing still continues. It is a comfort. Thanks for that, and so much more.
    All my best,
    Kat

  9. Nicole – I’m sorry to hear about the loss of your dad. I imagine that’s an incredibly difficult thing to cope with (and with your mom moving too). It can be a challenge to focus on the best case scenario sometimes, but I’ve found that it really does help. Also, I’ve noticed that, even if the worst case scenario ends up happening, if you spend time worrying about it beforehand, you’re really experiencing the difficult situation twice — once while worrying and once when it actually happens — so it’s much better to anticipate the best!

  10. Kat – I have a lot of anxiety myself (which is one of the reasons I started this site, to help me stay more in the moment and focus on the positive) so I understand where you’re coming from. I generally have racing thoughts and a more “active” type of anxiety, however, so I don’t have a lot of experience with the shutting down kind of anxiety. Something that can really help (and has helped me in the past) is seeking help from a therapist or professional who specializes in anxiety. S/he can help you come up with tactics and methods to cope with your specific type of anxiety. If you find the right kind of therapist, it can be life-changing. S/he might also recommend medication, which can really help with anxiety too. Thank you so much for commenting (and for following along on Instagram too!). It’s so nice to have a loyal Positively Present reader! 🙂

  11. Dani, your post is really honest and at the same time it makes you think a lot about how we normally are and how often our minds play tricks on us…thank you for this! Stay strong 🙂

  12. Dez – Our minds are very powerful things and can definitely play tricks on us. It’s so important to stay aware of our thoughts and not let them run away from us!

  13. Excellent article, as psychologist frequently use statements related to the 6 steps you mention. Fear paralyzes us and everyone must confront and overcome it , thanks for your magnificent and optimistic view.

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