3 Tools For Transforming Fear: A Doctor’s Prescription For Courage
“If only we’d learned how to harness and ride rather than hunt and kill the butterflies that live in the gut of every person who strives to create something extraordinary from nothing.”
— Jonathan Fields
OK, let’s talk about fear…
As I write this en route to play with giant tortoises on The Galapagos Islands, I am honored to introduce my good friend, mentor and informal stress-killing expert, Doctor Lissa Rankin, as our guest expert today.
Lissa has had a pretty significant impact on my life, happiness and stress levels since I met her at an unsuspecting dinner hosted by our mutual friend, Jonathan Fields, a few years back.
After her profession as a massively overworked practicing doctor left her terribly strung out, stressed and sick, she quit to figure out what really causes us to get sick (and to get better).
After years of medical research, this quest led to her runaway New York Times bestselling book Mind Over Medicine.
She’s since been all over PBS specials, TV, TEDx stages and keynoting conferences with the likes of Deepak Chopra and many other household names.
Her work led her to discover that stress and anxiety is one of the leading causes of most illnesses and early death. And the medical data to back this up is shocking.
For me, her findings were terrifying.
Because when I met Lissa, I too was deeply stressed and strung out, as Live Your Legend was growing like crazy, and I had no idea how to properly handle the huge increase in responsibility, among seemingly endless other pressures. Looking back, more than anything, I was scared. Really scared.
Without even asking, as a friend, she took me under her wing. Starting with a 4-hour session in the gardens of Green Gulch Zen Center, she shared what she knew, what she’d learned about coping with stress and anxiety, and helped set me on a path that eventually changed everything.
These were the first few steps of what became a 50+ step all-out attack that I launched on my debilitating stress early last year. I called it my Stress Management Campaign, which I’ll share with you later this year.
Most importantly, Lissa’s work and supporting data woke my ass the F up.
The most rewarding part is, with a few small and normal exceptions, the stress is gone and I’ve never felt more calm, centered and at peace, even as LYL continues to grow and the roles and responsibilities multiply – not to mention the added chaos of managing it all from a different foreign city each week this year. #ImNotComplaining!
Needless to say, I have a lot of gratitude for Lissa’s work.
This is why I’m incredibly excited about her latest book, The Fear Cure, that just hit bookshelves this week.
After discovering that fear is at the heart of so much of the deadly stress and anxiety we experience, and that it seems to dominate modern culture, she decided to figure out how to solve the problem. She got a handle on how to befriend fear so it cannot only heal and liberate us – but it also allows us to have a much better chance at living the lives (and doing the work) that we’re meant to do.
So she wrote a book about it.
And today she shares with us some of the most actionable gems from her years of research. She explains how to identify and transform the fear that just might be killing us, and turn it into a tool for realizing our dreams.
Now, over to the expert…
3 Tools For Transforming Fear: A Doctor’s Prescription For Courage
By Lissa Rankin, MD
When you’re on a quest to live your legend, you may find that it’s trickier than you expected. Even if you thought you had found your calling when you started your career, you may now feel burdened with stress, burnout, integrity breaches, disillusionment, boredom, and even health challenges.
As a physician who left my job in conventional medicine in 2007, I can relate.
By the time I was 33, I was taking seven medications for a whole host of health conditions my doctors assured me were incurable.
But after leaving my job as a busy OB/GYN in order to jump off a cliff that led to my life’s work, my health conditions resolved and my happiness levels skyrocketed. This is probably because I hadn’t yet found my true calling in life.
In a 2009 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association, Tait D. Shanafelt, MD researched whether viewing your work as a “calling” could prevent burnout. He made the case that for some people, their work is just a “job”. It’s a way to pay the bills – period. For others, it’s a “career”, a way to advance professionally, gain accolades and accomplishments, feel good about yourself, and move up the ladder of success.
But sometimes your work becomes a “calling”, filled with meaning, purpose, and a sense of living your legend. For most of us, our work contains elements of all three. Some tasks in your work feel like a job. Others feel more like a career. But certain parts of your work touch your heart and uplift your spirit.
In Dr. Shanafelt’s study, he found that if you view your work as a calling at least 40% of the time, it prevents burnout.
Many other studies, some of them listed in my book Mind Over Medicine, demonstrate the link between professional burnout, emotional stress, illness, and even premature death.
For example, when you’re not in touch with a sense of purpose in your work, your nervous system is more likely to flip into stress response.
You can even die from overwork.
The Japanese have a word for it – karoshi – and because they track statistics for people who die as a result of the stress of their jobs, we know that there are at least 10,000 cases of karoshi each year in Japan. Most of these deaths are the result of unexpected cardiovascular or cerebral disease, such as heart attack or stroke among people without known underlying risk factors from such diseases.
One study showed that those in a hostile work environment are more likely to die young. And another study demonstrated that, while being employed is generally better for your health than being unemployed, it’s better to be unemployed than employed in a badly paid, demanding, unsupportive job where you have little power or control.
Suffice it to say that saying “Yes” to doing work that lights you up leaves you feeling not only happier, more in touch with the meaning and purpose of life, and more connected to the people you’re serving; it also could save your life.
Take music lover Andy Mackie, for example, who reversed a medical death sentence once he started making his difference in the world.
At 59 years old, Andy Mackie had undergone nine heart surgeries and was taking fifteen medications to try to keep him alive, but the medicines left him feeling horrible, so one day, he told his doctors he wanted to stop the drugs.
They told him if he did, he would die within a year, so Andy decided if he was dying, he wanted to do something he’d always wanted to do.
So he took the money he would have spent on his medications and used it to buy 300 harmonicas, and he gave them away to children, complete with harmonica lessons. The following month, he was still alive, so he bought another 300 harmonicas.
Thirteen years and 20,000 harmonicas later, Andy Mackie finally passed away. Now that’s someone who lived his legend until the last heartbeat.
The Courage To Leap
The challenge many people face when it comes to finding and fulfilling a calling is that most callings leave us quaking in our fraidy-cat boots! You find yourself ruminating on what one of my clients called her “crazy ideas”.
You suddenly start buying cowboy boots, even though you live in the city and have never ridden a horse. Or you start fantasizing about taking a group of your starving artist friends to Venice to paint gondolas, when none of you can even afford to buy Spam. Or you start having dreams like I did of leaving your secure, lucrative, high-status career to become… yeah, right… a writer.
Surely, such crazy ideas are only reckless madness, right?
Crazy ideas are the signposts pointing towards your passion, the very clues you get when you’re on the way to living your legend. But in order to have the courage to do what matters, you’re going to have to deal with the elephant in the room – FEAR.
This is why I wrote my new book The Fear Cure, because not only is doing work you love good for your health; the world needs you to be fulfilling your life’s mission NOW. Not just in service to yourself, but to all the beautiful beings you will serve when you are aligned with your calling.
Fear not only limits us from pursuing our passions. It also makes us sick. It’s literally possible to be scared to death.
For example, in a 1971 review in Annals of Internal Medicine, George Engel compiled the accounts of 170 case studies of deaths due to “disrupting life events”. Many of these people died simply by watching something scary happen.
As part of my research for this book, I interviewed Harvard professor Martin A. Samuels, M.D., who has also been collecting stories about people who have been frightened to death. These stories include deaths on amusement park rides, deaths after people witness brutal attacks, the death of a morgue worker after finding a live person on a slab in the morgue, and a death occurring during a showing of the movie The Passion of the Christ.
Clearly, extreme fear can be fatal.
But it’s not just terror that leads to health issues. Chronic fear and anxiety are even more deadly.
The U.S. Health Professionals Follow-up Study examined 33,999 men with high levels of anxiety over a two-year period of time and found a 2.5-fold higher risk of coronary heart disease, including a 6-fold increase in sudden cardiac death.
Similar findings were demonstrated in the Normative Aging Study, which documented a 3- to 6-fold increased risk for heart attack and sudden cardiac death among highly anxious patients. The British Northwick Park Heart Study, published in the British Medical Journal, followed 1,457 anxious men for six years. The most anxious among them had a 3.8 times higher risk of heart disease, particularly sudden death.
Because much of the research on anxiety and heart disease had been done on men, another group of researchers at Harvard decided to prospectively evaluate 72,359 women from the famous Nurses’ Health Study, all free of heart disease, over a period of 12 years.
This study, published in Circulation, found that women with severe anxiety showed a 52 percent increased risk of sudden cardiac death and a 30 percent increased risk of fatal coronary heart disease compared with less frightened women, confirming that it’s not just men who can die from fear.
Though fear and anxiety most commonly predispose to heart disease, which is the #1 killer in the US, fear has also been linked to cancer, diabetes, thyroid disease, autoimmune disorders, chronic pain, depression, inflammatory disorders, ulcers, and even the common cold.
In other words, fear is not just some nuisance emotion that gets in the way of you living your legend. It’s also a serious risk factor for your health, perhaps even (dare I say it?) more than what you eat, whether or not you exercise, how many bad habits you have, and how many supplements you pop.
But don’t worry. There’s a way to get relief, and fear can even be your friend, if you’re willing to glean the wisdom I’m here to share with you.
So how do we muster up the moxie to say “YES” to living our legend? Here are a few tips.
3 Tools For Transforming You Fear
1. Discern “true fear” from “false fear.”
Fear is natural. The body’s fight-or-flight mechanism is a survival tool, meant to protect you when you’re getting chased by a tiger. But very few of our fears in modern life are “true fears”. Most are “false fears” that exist only in our imaginations. True fear may come as an instinct to step back from a dangerous cliff, or it may come as a strong intuition not to let a perfectly normal-looking babysitter take care of your kids.
Either way, true fear is your friend. Listen up.
But 99% of fears are false fears that exist solely in the imagination where there’s no real threat. False fears trigger the fight-or-flight stress response unnecessarily, which not only disables the body’s natural self-healing mechanisms and predisposes you to illness – it also limits your capacity to step fully into your life’s purpose, when your radiance, talents, love, brilliance, and creativity are desperately needed in a world that needs all hands on deck as we collectively wake up.
It can be tricky to know how to discern true fear from false fear, especially when the voice in your head is saying things like “But I can’t afford to pursue my passion. My bank account is almost depleted, and I have to feed the kids.”
Is that true fear or false fear? I’ll share with you all kinds of tools for discerning between the two in The Fear Cure, but here’s one example.
FEAR CURE TOOL #1: When you think a fearful thought, how does your body feel?
Do you feel relaxed and grounded when you think the thought? Or do you feel tightness in your chest or gripping in your solar plexus? Intuition (one form of true fear) tends to come with a very relaxed physical feeling, accompanied by a sense of direct knowing, whereas false fear tends to feel tense in a body and panicky in the mind.
2. Let fear cure you.
The title of my book The Fear Cure is sort of misleading because it suggests that we can cure fear, but really, you wouldn’t want to cure fear. Children who are born with a disorder that makes them fearless tend to die young because they become reckless.
True fear is here to protect you, and even false fear is something to be grateful for. I think of false fear as the finger pointing towards everything in need of healing in your life. Physical therapist Val Zajicek defines “PAIN” as Pay Attention Inside Now, and I think false fear is just such a pain, an uncomfortable emotion that invites us to Pay Attention Inside Now.
What gets triggered when you think about living your legend? Is there some pattern from your childhood that is playing out, something you can clear and release so you don’t need to be afraid of something that exists only in your imagination? Is your fear what researchers call a “generational fear”, meaning it’s not even yours – you inherited it from your parents? Is your fear based on a thought that isn’t true?
Once you know what needs to be healed, you can heal it from the root, and courage is a natural side effect of this kind of personal and spiritual growth work.
FEAR CURE TOOL #2: Ask yourself, “Which unwelcome patterns keep recreating themselves in your life?”
Do you keep starting businesses that fail? Maybe you have a limiting belief that says success equals stress. Do you keep attracting abusive romantic partners? Maybe you inherited a belief that love means you have to take care of someone. If you can find the patterns that keep appearing and question the beliefs that underlie them, you can mine the gold and grow your soul.
3. Question your beliefs.
Our culture tends to buy into what I call the “Four Fearful Assumptions”, which predispose us to false fear. But you don’t have to believe what you think! You can question them and turn them around instead.
See if any of these fear-inducing beliefs sound familiar…
- Uncertainty is unsafe (so I have to do everything I can to control my life)
- I can’t handle losing what I cherish (so I have to protect myself from loss)
- It’s a hostile universe (so I’d better be on guard)
- I am all alone (in a hostile, uncertain world where I might lose what I cherish)
The truth is that these beliefs are specific to Western culture. When I was living in a Q’eros village at 16,000 feet in the Andes in Peru, I realized that these joyful, fearless indigenous people were operating from a whole different set of courage-inducing beliefs.
FEAR CURE TOOL #3: If your beliefs are making you afraid, question whether they’re true.
To question your beliefs, you can use techniques like those taught by Byron Katie, which is what I did with these fearful assumptions. Once I questioned these beliefs, I realized that another set of beliefs feel MORE true. Can’t you see how these new beliefs might make you brave?
- Uncertainty is the gateway to possibility (when we don’t know what the future holds, ANYTHING could happen! Exciting!)
- Loss is natural and can lead to growth (sometimes loss breaks us open to our true selves and opens our hearts to how fully we can love)
- It’s a purposeful universe (we may not understand why bad things happen to good people, but we can learn to trust that we’re always learning to be more resilient, even when we’re hurting)
- We are all One (mystics and sages have been saying it for years, but there’s actually evidence that we are all interconnected in ways science is only now beginning to be able to measure)
FEAR CURE TOOL #4: Examine your life and see if you can find evidence to support this new set of beliefs.
Even if your soul knows the fear-curing truth, your mind may question these beliefs. So examine the evidence!
Has uncertainty ever opened up possibilities and led to improvement in your life? Has loss ever led to growth? Can you see times when things seemed to happen for a reason, even if it felt like tragedy at the time? Have you ever had experiences that suggest that we are all One (like knowing someone will call right when the phone rings?)
Isn’t life less scary if you’re willing to leap into mystery with curiosity, knowing that even if you lose what you cherish, you will grow in resilience and learn key soul lessons?
Isn’t it comforting, and even fun, to think that life isn’t hostile and random but purposeful, even friendly?
Albert Einstein said, “The most important decision we make is whether we believe we live in a friendly or hostile universe.”
I also think we need to know we’re not alone, that we’re all in this together, and that the whole soul of the Universe is here to support us when we’re living our legend.
It’s time to start suffering from Pronoia!
I’ve been told I have a raging case of pronoia, and since you hang around Scott, I suspect you do too. What is “pronoia”? It’s the opposite of “paranoia”. It’s the belief that everything in the Universe is conspiring to support you, and I can tell you from all the evidence I’ve collected, not just personally, but from hundreds of individuals I’ve interviewed about fear and courage, that you can trust that everything in the Universe IS conspiring to support you.
All you have to do is say YES. Then keep charging forward with what matters most to you. I think you’ll be surprised at the “coincidences” that tend to fall your way.
Now, here are a few more tools to put to use right now…
AN EMERGENCY FEAR-BUSTING TOOL:
If you get accosted by a false fear thought, try this emergency practice.
- When you get hit by a fearful thought that causes you to suffer, take a time out. Remove yourself from others, if possible. Get quiet and close your eyes.
- Imagine the scared part of you as a young version of yourself at some age less than 10 years old.
- Visualize the nurturing adult part of you holding the young, scared child with loving arms.
- BREATHE. As you’re breathing, allow the child in you to feel any emotions that come up.
- Instead of thinking, “I am scared” or “I am anxious,” distance yourself one level by adding “with” to your emotion – “I am with scared” or “I am with anxious.”
- Hold yourself in your mind’s eye until the feeling of fear or anxiety passes and you feel comforted. This usually happens fairly quickly if you allow yourself to actually be with what you feel.
10 Signs You Have WAY Too Many Stress Hormones
And that you’re more afraid than you think you are…
1. You’re not sleeping well.
Cortisol levels are supposed to drop at night, allowing your body to relax and recharge. But if your cortisol levels are too high, you might notice that, even if you’ve been tired all day, you get a second wind right around bedtime. Then you toss and turn all night — and feel tired again the next day. Scientists theorize that higher levels of ACTH and cortisol triggered by the stress response also reduce surges of nighttime melatonin levels and thus encourage insomnia.
2. Even when you sleep well, you’re still tired.
Not only can stress cause insomnia, which leads to fatigue; over time, high levels of cortisol deplete the adrenal glands and may result in “adrenal fatigue syndrome”, a condition related to stress that is rarely acknowledged by conventional medicine. Chronic stress can lead to feelings of exhaustion, even in the face of adequate sleep time.
3. You’re gaining weight, especially around your abdomen, even when you eat well and exercise.
Cortisol tends to make you thick around the middle, even when you’re doing everything “right”. Cortisol raises your blood sugar, putting you at risk of diabetes. High glucose levels then bump up your insulin levels, which in turn drop your blood sugar, and all of a sudden — yes, you guessed it — you’re struck with wild cravings for Twinkies. Stimulation of the sympathetic nervous system may also cause the stomach to release the amino acid ghrelin, which makes you feel hungry and can lead to weight gain, especially if you tend to numb negative emotions with food.
4. You catch colds and other infections easily.
Cortisol deactivates your body’s natural self-repair mechanisms, which means that that immune system perfectly designed by nature to keep you healthy goes kaput, leaving you vulnerable to every pathogen you encounter.
5. You feel dizzy for no good reason.
Stress can manifest as occasional dizziness or even chronic vertigo, most likely as a response to changes in the autonomic nervous system stimulated during stress responses. Alterations in vital signs, particularly elevations in respiratory rate, can lead to hyperventilation, which can alter the acid/base balance of the body and affect the nervous system’s responses to balance and coordination via the cerebellum and the eighth cranial nerve.
6. You experience backaches and/or headaches.
When your cortisol levels are high over a long period of time, your adrenal glands start to get depleted. This raises prolactin levels, increasing the body’s sensitivity to pain, such as backaches and muscle aches. Excessive cortisol also hypersensitizes the brain to pain, such that even the slightest twinge can excite the nerves of the brain, causing headaches.
7. Your sex drive disappears.
Consider cortisol the anti-Viagra. When stress hormones are high, libido-inducing hormones like testosterone drop, and voilà… nothing.
8. Your gut acts up.
Your gastrointestinal system is very sensitive to stress hormones like cortisol. Stress commonly leads to gastrointestinal distress in the form of nausea, heartburn, abdominal cramps, and diarrhea. The effect on the gastrointestinal system is most likely mediated by the increased amounts of ACTH generated during the stress response: in response to ACTH, the stomach empties less effectively, leading to stomachaches and abdominal cramping.
Heartburn can occur not only because stomach acid levels increase, but also because activation of the sympathetic nervous system reduces the stomach’s pain threshold, increasing the perception of pain in response to heartburn and predisposing you to stomach ulcers. The stress response also restricts the stomach’s ability to expand, which in turn stimulates contractions of muscles in the colon that can lead to diarrhea and bowel cramping.
9. You feel anxious.
Cortisol and epinephrine can lead to jitters, nervous stomach, and feelings of panic, even paranoia.
10. You feel blue.
High levels of cortisol suppress production of serotonin, and next thing you know, your mood takes the plunge into feelings of sadness. Over time, this can even predispose you to clinical depression.
Most importantly, do something about it!
Fear is a lot more common and a lot more dangerous than people think.
But with the right tools, you can not only control it, but harness it to inspire possibility.
For more tools and free guided meditations meant to calm your nervous system and increase your courage, feel free to download the free Prescription For Courage Kit that I created just for living legends like you. Download it on this page.
With love and faith in your journey,
– Lissa Rankin
Lissa Rankin, M.D., New York Times bestselling author of Mind Over Medicine and The Fear Cure, is a physician, speaker, founder of the Whole Health Medicine Institute, and spiritual seeker. Passionate about what makes people optimally healthy and what predisposes them to illness, she is on a mission to merge science and spirituality in a way that not only facilitates the health of the individual; it also heals the collective.
When doing what she can to sprinkle pixie dust on a fear-based culture, Lissa loves to hike, ski, and dance. She lives in the San Francisco Bay area with her daughter. Read her blog and learn more at LissaRankin.com.
And if you have any questions for Lisa, leave them in comments. I’m sure she’d be happy to chime in!