Why Managing Fear Won’t Reduce Stress


I’ve lived too much of my life in reaction to fear: Fear of being hurt, of being embarrassed, of not being good enough. It has kept me from being as strong as I could be. It’s contributed to a life riddled with anxiety and straitjacketed by stress.

So I’ve attempted to manage those fears by doing things you’ve probably tried yourself: asserting control, being “good,” being liked, being right. Inflicted worrisome thoughts as a way of inoculating myself against “real” danger. Ha! Like that worked. It just made me more miserable.

You’ve heard of the stress hormone cortisol, right? Well when I went to an integrative physician here in Manhattan a while back, he ran a raft of tests and told me I was, in layman’s terms, “out” of cortisol. He described my nervous system as a sponge that’s been squeezed too many times; there’s nothing left to wring out of it. That’s bad.

Managing fear is a losing proposition. It’s like trying to wrestle an alligator to the ground. It requires that you treat fear as real and then try to stop it from doing what it’s designed to do—overwhelm and terrify you. No amount of good behavior or tyrannical attempts to control it will help.

It’s taken years—therapy, yoga, reading, thinking, observing, and yes, some medical intervention and even dietary changes, to recognize that I was coming at this the wrong way. That to have even the hope of overcoming anxiety and the magnitude of stresses it spawns, I can’t defend myself against fear, but embrace it. To know that at its worst, it can’t do the damage that I can and have done to myself.

“Tackling fear and anxiety or sadness and depression can, at best, ratchet our lives from the negatives to zero,” explains Andrew Shatte, PhD, author of The Resilience Factor and the Chief Science Officer at meQuilibrium. “We need to build the positive—optimism, hope, good emotions, and meaning and purpose—to dial our lives into the positive, which, lets face it, is where we all want to be.”

Here are some of the strategies I’ve learned that help me filter out some of the automatic, habitually ingrained fear-based thinking and reduce stress in my own life:

Keep an eye out for iceberg beliefs. You and I have some deep-set ideas about ourselves and how the world works that aren’t necessarily correct, but they control what we do without our even realizing it. We call these “iceberg beliefs” and being aware of them is the first step. For me, it’s this idea that if I’m not doing everything, I’m failing. It’s nonsense, and I know it, but I realize that it’s the itch behind my discomfort.  (Read more about icebergs.)

Sit still. I don’t mean physically, because in fact movement helps me process ideas and metabolize my stress. But mentally, I need my brain to sit still more than it does. My own meditation practice admittedly goes in fits and starts. But whenever I spend even just 10 minutes focusing on my breath, I emerge from it decidedly more calm, always thinking, Why don’t I do that more often?!

Reach out. One of the inherent risks of attempting to “manage” fear and stress is that it causes you to become more internally than externally focused. You know that downward spiral as well as I do. So don’t give in to it—reach out. I call my sister, my mother, a friend, someone who’s going through a harder time than me. I send a loving note to someone who least expects it. It makes me feel stronger, more capable, more open. And there’s a beautiful boomerang effect: You send some loving, positive energy out into the world, and it comes speeding back to you, just when you need it most.

Terri Trespicio is the editor of meQuilibrium, the first-ever online stress management program.