The Truth About Fear

The author of "The Fear Cure" explains that changing your relationship with fear can change your entire life.

March 2, 2015

Fear is a part of life (even if you're not a fan of scary movies or roller coasters). But that doesn't mean that it has to—or even should—control your life. Even more surprisingly, fear, when understood properly, can help you on your journey to happiness and health. We turned to Lissa Rankin, MD, author of The Fear Cure and Anatomy of a Calling to help us navigate this path.

Rodale Wellness: What can fear do to your body?


Dr. Lissa Rankin: Fear isn't just an uncomfortable emotion. It's triggering stress responses that increase the risk for heart disease, cancer, autoimmune disorders, inflammatory disorders, diabetes, chronic pain—even the common cold.

The stress response is a natural survival mechanism. When faced with a threat, fear activates the amygdala in the brain, which activates stress hormones like cortisol and epinephrine, enabling you to respond to the threat to your safety. But the body was not designed to handle modern-day life. Because the amygdala cannot tell the difference from a real threat to your life and a fearful thought stemming from your imagination, the stress response has become a sort of warning system malfunction, activating the stress response when the body is not actually in danger.

Your body wasn't built to withstand the effects of chronic fear and stress. Stress hormones like cortisol and epinephrine not only deactivate the body's natural self-healing mechanisms, but they also stress the heart and put you at risk of the nation’s #1 killer, heart disease.

This leads to a vicious cycle. You fear getting sick, aging, or dying, and yet the fear can literally make you sick, age you, and kill you. Now you're probably even fearing fear itself! But don't worry. It's not only possible to break this cycle, but it's also the gateway to freedom, happiness, and the discovery of your true essence.

RW: How does fear hold this power over us?

LR: Fear is driven by these cultural beliefs that are a choice. That's what I call the Four Fearful Assumptions. They are: Uncertainty is unsafe, so therefore we need to guard against uncertainty at all cost; we can't handle losing what we cherish, so we have to cling to what we cherish; it's a hostile universe, and certainly the news is a big part of promoting that belief; and we're all alone. No wonder we're scared if we believe all that.


But Part Two of the book is about the turnarounds of those beliefs: Uncertainty is the gateway to possibility; loss is natural and can lead to growth; it's a purposeful universe, even a friendly universe, and everything is part of our soul curriculum, even if we don't understand it at the time that it's supporting our growth. And we're not all alone—we're all one.

More: Do This to Stop Toxic Thinking in Its Tracks

RW: Should you be afraid of fear?

LR: No, and this is the thing: Fear can absolutely be your friend. In the book, I distinguish between true fear and false fear, and both can be your friend if you learn how to be in right relationship with fear.

RW: What's the difference between true fear and false fear?

LR: One type of true fear is obvious: You're getting chased by a tiger and the body's autonomous nervous system gets activated, the fight-or-flight response. The body is filled with cortisol and epinephrine, your heart rate goes up, your blood pressure goes up—your whole body chemistry goes up so you can outrun the tiger. So that's obviously meant to protect you. Anything that threatens your physical safety is true fear.

Now, most fears are false fears. They exist only in our imaginations—it's only an imaginary tiger—and it doesn't actually threaten your physical safety. This is the thought that says, "I can't quit my job because there's no other job out there" or "I can't leave my husband because everyone will reject me." There's no evidence that will say that these things will ever come true.


But false fear can also be your friend because it's the finger pointing to everything that needs healing in your life. So welcome this! This is a growth edge for you.

More: 6 Tips to Fend Off a Freak Out

RW: What's the connection between intuition and fear?

LR: Intuition is a kind of true fear and also meant to protect you. Gavin de Becker, who wrote The Gift of Fear, is a threat-assessment specialist for the White House. He's hired to determine: Is this something we should be afraid of, or should we ignore it? So this is going on in our own brains all the time. And he's interviewed hundreds of victims of violent crimes, and what he's found is that almost every victim had an intuition that warned them about the criminal, but it wasn't logical. For instance, they had an intuition that said, don't leave the child with the baby sitter, but they ignored it because the baby sitter came highly recommended; she looked perfectly normal.

Now, how do we tell intuition from paranoia? Some of us are just paranoid and we have a thought that says "go check on the baby," and 10 times a day you're going to check on the baby because you think the baby's room is on fire, and it never is. So how do you know? The intuitive people tell me that intuition has a very grounded sense of calm. It's not panicky; it has no charge. If it has a charge, it's probably false fear.

The mind can take the intuitive thought and get scared by it, but when it first comes in, it comes in as just a thought, but there's no charge to it. If you check into the body, the body is at peace. If you have an intuitive feeling about something and you allow yourself to hold that intuitive feeling, then you can use the body as a compass. If the body gets panicked, it's probably not true intuition. In the book, there are ways to strengthen your intuition.

More: 6 Weird Signs That You're Way Too Stressed Out

R: How do you deal with "what if's"?

LR: "What if" is always a false fear. The minute the "what if" becomes true, then it's a true fear. It's not saying that the "what if" will never come true, but that it's not true right now. And if we're living our entire lives guarding against the 1 percent chance that something could happen, then we're closing the gateway to possibility.

And here's the thing: You don't need fear to protect you, because intuition will protect you. So a lot of the journey is learning to trust a voice that sounds like it makes no sense—because intuition sounds crazy to the mind. Part of the spiritual path is learning to take the very long journey from the head to the heart.