Breaking free of fear

Myrna Greenberg, MSW, RSW
Counsellor, Employee Assistance Program
May 2, 2021

All of us experience fear. It holds us back and pushes us forward. It stops us in our tracks. It limits our freedom and takes a toll on our emotional and physical well-being. So how do we break free of it?

Whatever we focus on tends to expand in our vision. When we feel fear, it is like using a close-up lens on a camera and the subject of our fear fills up the whole picture, becoming all we can see. Our thinking becomes distorted and we tend to overreact to situations and what others say or do. We lose the ability to see the long-term consequences of our actions. We can no longer relax and enjoy the moment.

Fear triggers a genetic response in our bodies known as the fight or flight response. This automatic process was designed to protect us from an external threat by stimulating a part of our brain called the hypothalamus. Stress hormones such as adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol are released into our bodies, which prepare us to fight or flee. Our breathing becomes shallow, decreasing the amount of oxygen we take into our cells. Our pupils become dilated, our sight sharpens and our awareness intensifies. Our perception of pain is diminished. Blood is diverted from our digestive tract to our muscles and limbs. We perceive our environment as a threat to our survival. We see everyone and everything as a possible enemy. The changes taking place in our bodies can trigger emotional and physical symptoms.

Emotional symptoms of fear:

  • Frustration
  • Confusion
  • Feeling trapped or imprisoned
  • Decreased concentration
  • Hopelessness

Physical symptoms of fear:

  • Headaches
  • Upset stomach
  • High blood pressure
  • Fatigue
  • Immune system disorders

When we feel fearful, we are in a state of resistance and we struggle. It is often said that what we resist, persists. So when we resist what is, the challenges we face not only feel more pronounced than they actually are, but they tend to hang on longer.

We are so used to planning ahead, being in control and having our hands firmly cemented to the steering wheel. We need to let go of trying to control things. We rarely look at the good things in our lives or celebrate that we did something right. Instead we focus on the tiniest negative things and believe we messed up. When we are able to let go of the struggle, we can create a space for the things we fear to change.

How to Break Free of Fear

Deep breathing

One of the simplest ways to decrease fear is to breathe deeply into the abdomen for five minutes, with your eyes closed. Deep breathing sends a message to your body that you are safe and when you feel safer, you calm down.

Changing our focus through meditation

Meditation is a practice that involves noticing our thoughts and seeing how they affect our emotions. We can activate our internal witness by watching our thoughts, labelling them and letting them pass by. That is what meditation is all about. It is not about stopping ourselves from thinking. We can’t, but we don’t have to be at the mercy of them either. We have the power to choose which thoughts we want to keep and which ones to let go of. We can change that close-up lens on our camera to a wide-angle lens, which allows us to see so much more in the picture.

Physical exercise

Any exercise you do that makes you perspire for five minutes will metabolize excessive stress hormones. Yoga can also be helpful because it allows you to focus, quiets your mind and lessens your fear.


When you yawn and stretch, your brainwaves automatically slow down and you enter an alpha

brainwave state. This brain state is the same as when you are doing a light meditation and will alleviate fear.

Progressive muscle relaxation

Progressive muscle relaxation is the practice of alternately tensing and relaxing each muscle group throughout your body. Start at your head by tensing and relaxing your facial muscles, then do the same at your neck and shoulders, your arms, abdomen, upper and lower legs, feet and end with your toes. Contracting and relaxing each muscle group from our head to our feet will promote relaxation.

Listening to music

Modern recordings are made using binaural beats where the sound of one frequency goes into one ear and another frequency goes into the other ear. The difference in cycles results in musical beats at an alpha frequency and the brain resonates with this, producing a state of relaxation.

Eating well

Our dietary choices can play a role in how we respond to fear and anxiety. High levels of caffeine and sugar, for example, can fuel our flight or fight responses. Dietary tips to help manage our fear and anxiety include increasing our intake of complex carbohydrates, eating smaller, more frequent meals, drinking plenty of water, and limiting our intake of caffeine and alcohol.

Anything you do that helps you to become calm and more peaceful when you are fearful is the perfect thing to do. Reminding yourself of all of the times you faced challenges in your life and survived them will boost your confidence.

Practice, Practice, Practice

A daily breathing and meditation practice would be highly beneficial. Five to ten minutes a day would be a good start. As with learning any new skill or exercise, we need to be patient with ourselves. It is always

harder to do something at the beginning and it gets easier the more we do it. If we practice breathing and meditation on a consistent basis, we will not only become more successful in letting go of our fears, we will begin to notice other positive changes in our lives, such as increased focus, ability to stay calm in upsetting circumstances and improved physical well-being. If we practice when we are calm, it will be easier to remember to do it when we are in fear. It will become more automatic, like a muscle we use frequently.

So we breathe, we change our focus, we meditate and we let go of needing to control things. Most importantly, we let go of judging and criticizing ourselves. Judging what we are experiencing is a form of resistance. It intensifies our negative feelings and makes it more difficult to do what we need to do to become calm and more peaceful. We remember to be patient with ourselves, we persist and we break free of fear.