Some years ago, I heard a story from my spiritual master; it was about a group of students in an Indian school attending a lecture when suddenly a storm turned the lights off. While he struggled to keep the group under control, one of the students started screaming in panic at the sight of something lying on the floor that looked like a snake. The room was dark, and because no one could see what it was, confusion and panic ruled. After a few minutes, the teacher could find a lantern and approached the “snake” only to discover that it was a piece of rope left behind. When the lights returned, the students felt shocked and embarrassed about their chaotic behavior.
The teacher then shifted his lecture’s message, focusing on the dangers of imaginary fears and how easily they can distort our perception of reality.
Research psychologists have confirmed that 90% of our fears are imaginary. And identified they are due to projected, displaced, or conditioned past experiences that affect our sense of security, and that propel chemical reactions in our body preparing it for a fight, flee or freeze—all coming from a very primitive part of our brain.
When fear is valid, these responses help us to be safe from danger and ultimately survive. But when anxiety is a fabrication of our hyperactive mind, then the chemicals released in our body, with no useful purpose, create much stress and strain.
In this particular case, I am referring to the type of imaginary fear that has no apparent stimulus, brings high levels of anxiety, and most of the time, the worse possible outcome.
On one occasion, while in the office of a coworker, his phone rang and before answering he said to me, “it’s my boss calling to fire me.” There was absolutely no reason for this kind of speculation. Actually, his boss just wanted to schedule a meeting. Yet, his thoughts and intense emotions popped up out of nowhere.
“My life has been filled with terrible misfortunes that never happened.” Mark Twain once rightly said. I believe that we start generating imaginary fears when we give room to What if thoughts:
What if things go wrong, what if she has an accident, what if I am not good enough, what if he doesn’t love me anymore?
When these thoughts become mindless and repeated practice, they start materializing at unexpected times and situations, stealing our joy and peace of mind.
Fear is an intense emotion, and if charged with negative energy, it has tremendous power of derailing us from achieving our goals and desires, with a significant impact on all facets of our lives.
Many people recommend meditating, praying, and deep breathing to tame and eradicate imaginary fears. Others state that being in close contact with nature and positive people makes a difference. All of these practices work in the long run.
However, I am exploring a different approach to dealing with imaginary fears.
As soon as I feel the emotion arising, I bring awareness to the present moment and accept it.
Secondly, I make an effort to explore the experience further. Where in my body, I feel it? What has triggered this emotion? What part of this emotion is real, and which part is an assumption? What is this fear blocking me from doing? Most times, answers to these questions come immediately, as thoughts or as sensations in our body.
Finally, I kindly ask for the fear to go away. Awareness and dealing with our imaginary fears have an immediate liberating effect. Denying, fighting, or concealing fear has the opposite effect; it can easily control and hijacked our behavior. The more we practice awareness, the less fear will bother us, and the happier we will live.