Overcoming Fear—the Buddhist Way

Overcoming Fear—the Buddhist Way

Getty/salim hanzaz

If you feel caught in a fear loop, work with these five Buddhist methods to ground yourself.

"The real destroyer of inner peace is fear."
—The Dalai Lama

Fear has only one beneficial purpose: to protect us from impending danger, thereby keeping us safe and alive. However, fear is unfavorable and disadvantageous when it interrupts life with ceaseless anxiety, loss of sleep, panic attacks, constant tension and, as the Dalai Lama says, eroding inner peace. That may be the reason philosopher Bertrand Russell said: “To conquer fear is the beginning of wisdom.” Though fear will not magically disappear, there are skillful ways to downsize it. Here are five Buddhist methods to disable and overcome fear.

Cut Back on News Consumption

A huge source of fear is generated by news media outlets. While being informed is useful, reading and listening to news constantly can become an addiction which produces not only fear but anxiety, anger, division, and intolerance. That’s why Buddhist teachers stress that too much news consumption is bad for spiritual and emotional health. Giving it up leads to less fear and more inner peace.

Brother Phap Dung, a Buddhist monk, says to stop following news and offers this alternative: “Go take refuge in nature, and find a cause where your heart doesn’t feel inactive and in despair. This is the medicine.”

Practice Strong Mind Management

Popular cultural wisdom asks: Are you managing your mind or is your mind managing you? How we think can support reality or distort it. This was something observed by British poet John Milton: “The mind is its own place and in itself can make a heaven of hell or a hell of heaven.”

Evidence of the mind falsifying reality can be seen in this incident from Ajahn Brahm, spiritual director of the Buddhist Society of Western Australia. He tells of being a young monk meditating alone in the Thai forest as the sun was setting. All was peaceful until he heard an animal rustling nearby. He knew that most jungle animals were harmless, but he had also heard stories from villagers about large tigers, elephants, and bears attacking humans. So, he began listening carefully to the animal which was approaching as the sun set.

By the sound, he determined it was a small creature. “Nothing to worry about,” he told himself as he resumed meditation. Soon, the animal moved closer and got louder. Brahm was becoming a little more concerned. He practiced mindful listening and soon realized he had underestimated the size of the creature. “From the way I heard it move through the jungle underbrush, it sounded like a midsize animal,” he recalls. Still, nothing to worry about so, again, he resumed meditation.

Then the animal came very close and the noises became louder and louder. “I could tell by the crunching of the leaves on the ground and the cracking of twigs that this was a large animal, a very large one, and it was coming right toward me.” He stopped meditation. His heart was pounding and he was now so frightened he opened his eyes, reached cautiously for the small flashlight he had, and began scanning the jungle for a tiger or elephant or bear approaching. In the beam of his flashlight, he saw the creature: a tiny forest mouse.

Here’s the mind management lesson Ajahn Brahm discovered: “I learned that fear magnifies things. When you are scared, the sound of a mouse resembles a monk-eating tiger approaching. Fear magnifies things…think about how we let that happen routinely—a cat scratch could become rabies, a headache may be the sign of a brain tumor, a meeting with a supervisor means one's being downsized.” That’s why practicing strong mind management is vital for lowering fears.

Promote Positivity

“Choose to be optimistic; it feels better” is wisdom from the Dalai Lama. When we are in a negative, fearful state of mind, those emotions cause us to recall previous unpleasant, contentious experiences, leaving us feeling even more insecure and unstable. That can be prevented by flipping a mental switch to move from the negative to the positive, from fear to hope.

The ancient yogic sage Patanjali offered this straightforward advice: “When presented with disquieting thoughts or feelings, cultivate an opposite elevated attitude.” When fear emerges strongly in your mind, promptly do a mind shift toward the positive such as recalling simple pleasures such as that of a child playing joyfully, an animal companion, the delight of a bright, sunny day, the presence of good health, or the love and support of a friend.

Swami Sivananda often reminded people: “If you know the method of raising an opposite thought, then you can lead a happy harmonious life of peace and power. Thoughts of love will at once neutralize a thought of hatred. A thought of courage will immediately serve as a powerful antidote against a thought of fear.”


Psychologist Sabrina Romanoff, PsyD, writes there is ample science supporting the idea that regularly practicing meditation eases fear and anxiety. This includes:

  • Reducing the size of the amygdala, or the part of the brain responsible for fear, anxiety, and stress. This can help lower your stress and anxiety levels.

  • Increasing the thickness of the hippocampus, or the area of the brain responsible for learning and memory.

  • Deactivating the default mode network (DMN), or the region of the brain responsible for mind-wandering and anxiety-causing thoughts.

  • Reducing physical symptoms of stress and anxiety, such as elevated heart rate and increased muscle tension.

Meditation for fear management was also promoted by Thich Nhat Hanh, a Buddhist monk and author, who said: “The therapeutic power of meditation is very great, as modern scientific studies are now showing. The practices of mindful breathing, sitting meditation, and walking meditation release tensions in the body and also in the mind.” He added that sitting quietly with a focus on gentle breathing permits the body to release tension while simultaneously bringing balance and healing.

“Animals in the forest know this; when they get wounded, ill, or overtired, they know what to do. They find a quiet place and lie down to rest. They don't go chasing after food or other animals—they just rest. After some days of resting quietly, they are healed and they resume their activities. We humans have lost the wisdom of genuinely resting and relaxing. We worry too much. We don't allow our bodies to heal, and we don't allow our minds and hearts to heal. Meditation can help us embrace our worries, our fear, our anger, and that is very healing. We let our own natural capacity of healing do the work.”

Challenge Mental Distortions

One of the most life-changing realizations you can have is, ‘I don’t have to believe my thoughts,’” says Tara Brach, a psychologist and meditation teacher. Her insight is a reminder to challenge mental distortions when they appear and thereby keep them from having a negative influence over us.

We humans tend to be easily drawn toward thoughts which heighten fear, lower confidence, fuel anxiety, and generally make us feel miserable. Therefore, it is critical that we challenge that type of thinking quickly. Peter Grinspoon, MD, a physician and author, makes this observation: “A big part of dismantling our cognitive distortions is simply being aware of them and paying attention to how we are framing things to ourselves. Good mental habits are as important as good physical habits. If we frame things in a healthy, positive way, we almost certainly will experience less anxiety and isolation. This doesn't mean that we ignore problems, challenges, or feelings; just that we approach them with a can-do attitude instead of letting our thoughts and feelings amplify our anxiety.”

Though there are many forms of fear and various reasons for it to arise, you can use skillful methods to overcome fear and lead a calmer, happier, more peaceful life. When fear emerges, bring to mind this motivating insight from Dainin Katagiri, founding abbot of Minnesota Zen Meditation Center in Minneapolis: “You are a Buddha, so learn to behave like a Buddha.”

Try these six tools for more freedom, the Buddhist way.

Overcoming Fear the Buddhist Way

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