Awareness that Heals

How to Develop Self-Caring & Wisdom When Dealing With Fear

“Would you try to feel worse than you already do?”

How to Develop Self-Caring & Wisdom When Dealing With Fear - ATH BlogI ask this (seemingly) absurd question whenever a friend, a client, or even I am experiencing and feeling deep suffering. I ask them this question to help them understand their current attitude about their suffering — and that there’s potential for them to learn and emphasize a friendlier, more self-compassionate dialogue with their negative feelings. 

“Why the hell would I do that? It’s already bad enough!” is a frequent, angry response. Inevitably, there is initial bewilderment and confusion. This is when I explain that my intention to help them (and us all) supports a capacity to observe our feelings. This importance of developing self-tolerance and self-acceptance helps them realize that they’re not putting themselves in a painful feeling on purpose. 

This little exercise makes it clear that we aren’t wishing an unfortunate situation or feeling on ourselves. This awareness frees up energy to inquire: how can we best take care of ourselves in this challenging situation? 

Over time, this question can also serve as a long-term reminder that we aren’t making ourselves unhappy on purpose (rather than it being a fleeting moment of awareness). 

When we ask that question above, it slowly and steadily leads us to greater empathy, wisdom, self-acceptance, and self-compassion. 

“I know you’re not doing this on purpose.”

“I’m sorry you have to go through this.”

“This is really hard/This would be hard for anyone else too.”

Statements like these are a sign of empathy and caring towards ourselves, making it easier to care for ourselves and still do whatever we need to do to make whatever situation we’re facing the best possible one. 

Time for reflection — when could I have cared better for myself?

I encourage you to take a moment to pause and think about a current situation in your life where you could have cared for yourself like this. Really pause — and let yourself think of the sentence that would’ve been the most self-caring and useful in the situation that you were facing. In time, this practice will help you care more deeply and stop you from unwittingly injuring yourself through critical comments and judgments. 

This might sound simple and easy, but most of us were raised quite differently. At best, we’ve only been taught to identify the feelings and what we’re going through first. Only after that might we develop a supportive dialogue with helpful guiding thoughts beyond the illusions our feelings currently make us believe. However, when we recognize that challenging times and feelings often feel like they’ve put a spell on us. It’s counter-instinctual for almost all of us to find this kind of caring for ourselves at this time. 

Don’t underestimate the importance of this life-long work and the improved quality of life it offers us all. Through this creative and constructive inner communication, you’ll teach yourself how this ongoing inner dialogue helps you to organically and gradually lessen the stranglehold that distorted and irrational feelings like fear, anger, and anxiety have on you. In time, you will gradually dis-identify from the feelings of fear and, most importantly, the harmful, repetitive, catastrophic thinking.  

All this will inevitably expand your quality of life, and it can only be done by first facing your feelings and developing a caring and realistic thought process. It is hard to realize that the feelings aren’t the major source of suffering but is the follow-up thoughts that significantly distort what you’re facing and can catapult you from fear to terror, anxiety to panic, and anger to rage.

Here’s a real-life example from my client’s life to make this clearer:

My client’s daughter had discovered a lump in her breast that the doctor wanted to do a biopsy on. The daughter was 32 and had a routine mammogram showing a 2-3 cm-sized lump.  

I knew that due to his previous medical issues, he was more susceptible to his fear being magnified into terror, even though facts indicated there wasn’t a serious danger of severe illness, according to the doctors. 

After sharing an empathic response that it must be scary, I asked my client a couple of questions. As someone familiar with breast cancer, I asked him if the tumor was near the lymph nodes or the chest wall. I knew these locations were more at risk for danger beyond the breast. He had been reassured that the lymph nodes were clear and the lump was not near the chest wall. 

My client came in and told me about the situation with his daughter and was crying in what felt like a life-and-death terror and panic. He told me, “I’m so terrified that my only daughter might die from this. I can’t believe this is happening to her!”

I knew that I couldn’t just tell him directly that the odds were massively in his daughter’s favor — he was in the middle of a feeling that didn’t reflect what he had told me the doctors had conveyed to him. 

I validated his feelings by often saying, “I can really understand how scary this is.” 

He replied, “It’s terrifying.” 

I was careful not to use words like ‘terrifying’ because it was clear the worst-case scenario wouldn’t be death but a lumpectomy if the biopsy came back positive. 

He came in for the second session and was even more anxious as his daughter was going in for the biopsy in a couple of days. I had been seeing this client for many years, and we already had been through enough medical scares that I could reflect back to him that it’s important not to jump too far ahead and really try to listen to what the doctors had told him.  

“I’m trying, but it’s just so damn scary that this could be more serious than what they know. It can happen, as nobody really knows.”  

At this time, I began focusing on the thoughts that followed the feelings of fear and panic. I said with as much gentleness as possible, “George, you remember the other scares you’ve been through before? Do you remember how you had a hard time letting in the specific reassurance that you had gotten from your doctors?” 

“It’s my daughter this time and it’s different, he protested.”  

I followed this with, “That’s particularly why you want to try to be careful with what you’re thinking. It would be good to do your best to let in the reassurance with the information you’ve been given as much as possible, as your daughter is likely to pick up on your feelings. I know it’s hard.”  

He stayed silent, seemingly unable to let in what I was saying. At this point, I decided that the benefits outweighed the risks of being direct with him.

“George, you seem to be reacting like your daughter’s life is in jeopardy, and it seems clear from what you told me that your doctors believe the worst-case scenario is a lumpectomy. I know this would still be extremely disturbing.”   

“Yes, he said, “but they don’t really know.”   

Before you continue reading, please pause for a second and apply the feelings talked about in this situation to your life. If nothing comes to mind, it’s a good idea to remember this for when (similar)  future situations arise.

Be careful in what you say to yourself in difficult situations

I realized it was vital that I start to really address directly that he was reacting out of a fear of loss and the disease spreading — none of this was realistic, according to the doctors.  

I continued, “George, you need to be careful in what you say to yourself. You’re making yourself even more terrified than what you’ve heard — more than what could be the worst-case scenario.”  

He didn’t know whether to yell at me for being insensitive or thank me for the reassurance from the mixed emotions I saw in his facial expression. Finally, after a pause, he said with resistance, “I guess you’re probably right, but it’s so hard.”  

“Yes,” I agreed and continued to tell him, “the stakes are very high, not only physically but also emotionally. What do you think about repeating what the doctors have told you? We are not talking about the biopsy revealing a danger beyond a lumpectomy, and we just don’t know if it is cancerous.”

After repeating this several times over the next couple of days until right before the biopsy, he finally asked me, “What would you say to yourself?”  

I told him I’d tell myself: “I know I’m scared of that lump being cancerous, but at least I’ve been reassured that it isn’t near any dangerous areas. In fact, I know that I would be shocked if it was a danger beyond removing it with a lumpectomy. There is only a 5-10% chance it’s cancerous.”

He seemed to take these words in and kept repeating them to himself again and again. He stressed that it was very difficult, but saying this made him calmer amidst the anxiety. Over the next few hours, his state of terror and panic changed to one of anxiety and worry (which was a large shift from where he’d been).

This was the beginning of his development over the next five years, and the doctors were right after all — the lump wasn’t cancerous, and his daughter was fine. However, the progression of his ability to see how his thoughts fed his emotions of terror continued to be illuminated over time, especially during the next three health scares around him.

Can you identify how your thoughts positively or negatively impact your feelings & actions?

While this story is about George and his scary feelings, it’s also about you and me. Understanding how our thoughts impact our feelings and emotions, especially how they amplify them, can help us see what’s important. This is a life-long practice — unless you are naturally balanced and keenly aware, most of us tend to make things harder for ourselves during challenging moments. So it’s a vital focus to see how our mind and the subsequent thoughts can be a negative emotion amplifier or a realistic reassurer. 

The point isn’t to get over fear or even our thoughts of fear. The point is to realize we can’t change our feelings directly more often than not. However, we can learn to change our thoughts and focus them more on the reality we’re facing. The idea is to keep them focused on the present and not exaggerate the scary or anxious future scenarios. 

This is a major journey to learning about ourselves and how to develop courage, wisdom, and self-compassion. There is no shame here, just the foresight to realize the immense impact our thinking has on how we feel about certain situations. We can change our thoughts about our feelings, but we can rarely change the feelings ourselves. This is a golden key that can be applied not only to illness or fear of dying but also to anything that presents as scary to us.  

We are all human and face a mortal existence; our culture tends to deny this. This denial impacts many people (probably you), and our emotions and thoughts often overreact to or suppress reality in difficult times. We all need to do our best to have the courage to face reality in front of us and see that our minds can be our best friends or our worst enemies.

We need to help ourselves, our families, and our friends. If you’re interested in developing this capacity to care for yourself better, I encourage you to watch the Friendly Mind guided meditations and read Chapter Two in Awareness that Heals — after all, a friendly mind can be one of our greatest allies in life.

Robert Strock practiced psychotherapy for 45 years. He is a distinguished teacher, author, and humanitarian. His unique insights are shared through a comprehensive selection of online videos, blogs, and guided meditations at Robert’s work resonates with anyone seeking inner peace and a compassionate engagement with the world. He co-founded a non-profit organization,, to innovate, create alternatives for underprivileged communities, and develop initiatives to combat the climate crisis. For more information and media requests, visit