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How To Take Action When Fear Is Paralyzing You

Uncertain times can bring fear, worry, anxiety and overwhelm with them. They seem to walk hand-in-hand. Not knowing what’s going to happen stirs a prehistoric fear in most of us and has since the beginning of humanity.

On the many occasions when I felt paralyzed by uncertainty and fear and worry, I remember saying to myself,

I’ve got to get moving, got to get writing, but first I have to stop feeling afraid. I can’t do anything while I’m afraid.”

So I folded a lot of laundry, checked a lot of email, posted to Twitter, walked the dogs, checked email again, whined to wise friends, started projects that fizzled because they “didn’t feel right,” (which really meant I was too afraid to keep going), ate a lot of chocolate, and felt more and more frantic and paralyzed.

When you are fearful (or anxious, overwhelmed, worried, fretful), even if you don’t know you are, it’s pretty automatic to interpret your body’s natural fear response as a call to action – a directive to “Get busy! Do something to save us.”

But random action doesn’t take care of your real needs

The problem with trying to “busy” your way out of paralysis is that you don’t really know what’s the right thing to do because you haven’t addressed the real issue yet-you haven’t sat down with your fear so that you can learn what you really need.

You may not even know you’re afraid! I didn’t.

It wasn’t until my boyfriend Bob gently pointed out I was afraid that I began to see the role fear was playing in my stuckness. In fact, my paralysis was a direct result of my fear. I’ve since talked with wise people about this – especially the Comfort Conversations I had with Molly Gordon and Pam Slim (by the way, five of these fear-breaking Comfort Conversations are part of my upcoming Virtual Retreat)- and these talks explored  how avoiding feeling our fear is often the real reason we stay stuck – not whatever it is we’re afraid of but our running away from the scary feelings.

Who can blame us?

And sometimes, we get stuck because we think we shouldn’t be afraid as in, “I have a roof over my head, enough to eat, a toilet that flushes, others are so much worse off, what do I have to be afraid of? It’s just silly I can’t get going on marketing my business or meeting someone new or getting in shape, it’s just silly.” When we don’t allow ourselves to feel what we are feeling, the feeling grows, like a tired two-year-old who wants some attention.

Don’t overlook the biology of fear

When you feel the fear response in your body- the cascade of stress hormones, popularly called fight or flight — you automatically want to do something – anything. It doesn’t matter if it’s moving you toward your dreams or moving you sideways or even backwards. The key is to keep moving. Moving at least discharges some of your anxious energy and you feel like you are doing “something.”

The only problem is that this running can become habitual, creating a sort of anxiety fog that makes it very difficult to identify your next true step, so you become lost in a haze of inconsequential yet obviously very important actions. In other words – in a haze of procrastination, self-blame and general guilty “shoulding on yourself” (yuck).

My client Amy, a coach working with nurses in upper management, described her haze this way:

When my business was still pretty new, I fell into a good year of procrastination. It started when I had two major clients quit in one week. This was the first time I had been fired – I was mortified and certain I would have to go back to my previous job as a hospital administrator, which felt like dying to me. I began avoiding actual marketing in the most creative ways.

I got very busy drafting intricate plans. I signed up for a million how-to-market-yourself classes. I attended networking conferences. I even learned how to build my own website.  Then there were the causes I volunteered for – I don’t think I said no once that year.  It wasn’t until I saw the connection between my fear of being a failure and my lack of action that I was able to see how fast I was running away from my self and my business.

When I was able to start to taking care of the fearful part of me, able to sit down with the fear, rather than all my stories about the future, I was, slowly, able to move into action and save my business.  When I look back, there was this underlying feeling of not being okay and trying to get away from that feeling as fast I could that I kept trying to distract myself from. It seems so simple and obvious now.”

What Amy discovered is that often the only way to dissolve fear (and fear’s toxic hand-maidens, shame, guilt and self-loathing) is to be with it, to see it, to sit with it, even to talk to it to discover what emotional needs are hiding within it, instead of trying to outrun it.

Acknowledge your fear.  Like you, it wants to be listened to.

The first step is to acknowledge fear’s presence and give yourself time and space to be with fear. The Sufi mystic poet Rumi said it best,

This being human is a guest house
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.
Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.”

Treating fear as, if not a welcome guest, a guest who is, without question, here, shifts you out of running and into the present. Allowing fear to come in temporarily does not mean you must give it the run of your house or that it gets to run your life. The exact opposite is true: when you can see your fear and put your focus on the fear itself rather than your story (how badly you screwed up or unlovable you are or that you can’t get a job that pays as much as your old job, etc), fear, like pain, moves and shifts and even dissolves.

Fear will always visit and it can teach you but it does not ever get to rule you

Several of the Virtual Retreat sessions deal with exactly this topic, as it is so central to dealing with uncertainty, especially Emergency Calming Techniques and Dissolving Procrastination with Havi Brooks and Emotional Freedom with Judith Orloff and Healthy Comfort and Heart Felt Permission with me.

In the meantime, join me in a short guided imagery to help you feel grounded.

A little audio love with Jen (click to listen, right-click to download)

Stay tuned for tomorrow’s post: What to Do when you Feel Alone and Scared.

15 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Sarah Jan 9, 2009

    Wow, Jen. Really insightful! I’ve dealt with anxiety for many years now … and had recognized the busy-ness, but hadn’t ever thought of it as a form of paralysis. Thank you for this. There is much to think about and integrate, particularly since I’ve been feeling exhausted lately from a several-month surge of busy. I’m signed up for the retreat, I’m hoping there will be some tangible steps for learning to sit with the fear, to balance the busy. Anything you’d suggest in the meantime?

  • 2 Carol Jan 9, 2009

    This is me, BIG time when it comes to my business!!! One of my goals for the New Year is to break the stuff I’m afraid of (managing business accounting, taxes, etc.) down into manageable pieces over the next 12 months.

  • 3 Joely Black (@TheCharmQuark on Twitter) Jan 9, 2009


    For the last two years or so, I’ve been completely stuck by a fear I can’t even feel. I know I’ve got blocks and limiting beliefs, so for two years, I just worked on the limiting beliefs I had around getting an agent and being a published author.

    No matter what technique I used, the beliefs always came back. It was the fear underneath that kept re-instating them, so I wouldn’t actually look at the fear itself. That’s how scared I was – and still am.

    This Christmas I went into a bookstore to get Yet Another Book On Dealing With Issues and stopped myself. “But I’m OK,” is what I kept thinking.

    Since then, I’ve noticed the beliefs dropping away, and at last I can actually feel and deal with the fear I’ve been hiding from. I’ve started doing the work with somebody’s help to really get Amnar out there. It’s amazing how we get blocked in ways we can’t even see.

  • 4 Jennifer Jan 9, 2009

    @Sarah – there will be lots of ideas in the retreat for fear and overwhelm, and I would start with Susan Piver’s book How Not to Be Afraid of Your Own Life and also really like Steve Chandler’s book fearless and Havi’s posts on fear… those have all helped me. I think I’m going to create something around this stuff, an e-book and audio thing, but only after the retreat because that may give us the tools we all need. :)

    @Carol, small small steps are the very best idea. They are so easy to dismiss – or are so easily dismissed by the mind – but they work. Small, so small you just can’t not do it (how’s that for a double negative!)

    @Joely, boy am I happy you commented because it made me feel less alone with my long block… I wonder if the only way out of what I and you and others have experienced is being with the fear? Acceptance and awareness?

  • 5 Helga Jan 9, 2009

    Jen’s dead-on post and your oh-so-relatable comments reminded me of a little piece of paper I always carry with me. It holds, from the SciFi classic “Dune” by Frank Herbert , the ‘Litany Against Fear’ of the Bene-Gesserit, a powerful female-led mystical order:

    “I must not fear.
    Fear is the mind-killer.
    Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.
    I will face my fear.
    I will permit it to pass over me and through me.
    And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path.
    Where the fear has gone there will be nothing.
    Only I will remain.”

    As always, take what you need, leave what you don’t.

  • 6 Mynde Jan 9, 2009

    What a great article on fear. I love articles on fear, being a studier of fear myself.

    I still remember that moment, when I actually considered what it (my fear) really looked liked in my life and that’s when I realized it was all around me. Not necessarily showing up with a big neon sign or announcing itself.

    I also love that you bring up “busy-ness”… a total fear response for me when I’m freaked out… say about my business failing. Now I get to see that what I really want is safety and now I can think of ways to give that to myself, right now in this moment.

    Only if, I stop to ask myself what the busy-ness is about, do I get that gift.

    So yes, it’s about turning towards it, the scary stuff – your fear. Like you say, “find a way to be with it” as opposed to the old automatic response of getting out of there.

    Thank you for writing about this big big topic. I heart my fear, not all the time but I can actually say that and mean it. Fear is a wonderful pathway of self-discovery.

  • 7 Lynne Jan 9, 2009

    Thank you so much for this… I have been having a very difficult day — lots of procrastination (like, serious stuff) going on here (that I know is completely fear and shame based) and I’ve been spending the day beating myself up pretty heartily. This article helped a lot… understanding always does. Truly appreciate the insights!

  • 8 Timmy Jan 10, 2009

    Michele said:
    “Of course, it’s easy to turn reaching out to others into a “should,” something that drains your energy and makes you more exhausted and afraid. To prevent that, be sure and do only do things you really want to.”

    I’m afraid I have to disagree with that. How selfish of us to mentally deny help to someone simply because the action in itself isn’t enjoyable to us. When helping others, actually enjoying what you’re doing is only an added benefit. That is, if you were doing it for yourself, you would still enjoy it. Well, if you’re doing something you like to do, AND it will help another person or person, well that is even better! But when helping others, the joyous satisfaction one receives from just helping them should be sufficient. If you don’t already feel that, then you might need to practice helping others lol. Don’t you want help with dirty work sometimes? Or sometimes there is something you are not able to do. You’re old and need your gutters cleaned but can’t afford to hire anybody, you need your driveway shoveled but your back can’t handle it, etc.

  • 9 LifeMadeGreat | Juliet Jan 11, 2009


    I think that there is so much online about productivity and how to increase productivity, but very few of these articles and methods actually even hint at possibly of addressing the underlying cause of lack of productivity before making lists and checking e-mail only twice a day etc.

    I believe it is crucial to look at why one is procrastinating and you have made a very good point about the fear aspect.

    At the end of the day it all comes down to fear of some sorts even if it isn’t directly related to the task at hand.


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  • 12 Kat Jan 14, 2009

    I’ve been inviting my fear to tea for some time now. I picture a huge, blue, scaly beast who gingerly perches on an overstuffed chair with a doily on the back holding a tiny cup of tea while I sit in a chair opposite. We talk and I listen to the pain and fury that often comes out of my fear beast. In this manner, I’ve let go of much fear – particularly of an abusive ex and am claiming more and more of my power. I recognize the patterns earlier of procrastination and busy-ness and am far more gentle and forgiving of myself when I am afraid.

    PS I am blessed to be present for the inauguration – huge excitement around here!

  • 13 Spiritwoman Mar 9, 2009

    I have known fear for a long time, but when it is overwhelming I stand in the center and draw a circle of fear to enclose me, then I step out, out of the circle, out of the fear. In these difficult times I also include my loved ones in the circle with me, holding hands I see us as an inner circle of strength, then we all step out together.

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