How to Deal with Fear When You Let it Lead

A few weeks ago, I wrote about letting joy lead after reading the memoir Fierce Joy.

This whole idea made me explore what happens in my life when I let fear lead. It’s been an interesting exercise in feeling the emotions of fear vs. joy in my body and seeing how I respond.

I encourage you to explore both how fear shows up in your life and how you deal with fear. Here are a few ways to explore it:

  • get out your journal, grab a pen, and write
  • sit and feel into it in a quiet meditative space
  • go on a walk and talk it out with yourself (one of my faves as I’m a talker)
  • do whatever works for you to get in touch with your inner voice/self and explore your fears

I did all three of the above, but mostly I’ve been exploring them in my deep soul writing.

Here are some questions to get your exploration started:

  • How does fear impact the decisions you make when you choose how to spend your time?
  • What are your biggest fears?
  • What does fear feel like in your body?

In the Fear

Let me preface this section by saying that even sharing this list is scaring the crap out of me. It’s super scary to be vulnerable – in fact, looking at my journal and getting ready to enter these ideas on my blog is making my heart race.

But I’m taking a deep breath, facing it, and moving through it.

Here’s what I’ve discovered I DO when fear leads:

  • I silence myself and refuse to use my voice to avoid upsetting others (even when I have no idea if they’ll be upset or not – how nice of me to decide for them).
  • I finish watching movies I don’t like and finish reading boring or poorly written books.
  • I say yes to doing things that I don’t really want to do, even little things like watching a show I don’t care to watch when I’d rather read a book.
  • I say no to what I want to do because I’m afraid of failure.
  • I hide. I’m afraid to share my writing or my new business directions with friends or on social media or even with loved ones because I’m terrified of being judged negatively or not doing something “right.” I can ruminate on the potential negative response for far too long, though I’ve gotten much better at this as I’ve become aware of watching my thoughts through meditation.
  • I take on too much client work rather than saying “no” or “yes but next week” because I’m afraid they’ll get upset.
  • I apologize for being me.
  • I’ll drink too much to fit in socially, even though I don’t like how I feel when I drink more than a glass of wine and drinking too much almost always leads to a migraine.
  • I work too much and don’t do things I love to do like quilt or write because I think that I should always be doing something that makes money.
  • I pick up my phone all the time to keep from feeling or connecting. It’s a total way to keep from creating and writing.

Here’s how I FEEL when fear leads:

  • In my body, I get clogged, literally. I get all phlegmy and have to clear my throat. Even writing this list, I’ve had to clear my throat about five times!
  • My heart races and sort of moves up into my throat, so I feel a lump in my throat that is oddly attached to my racing heart.
  • Migraines or twinges of migraines strike hard.
  • My throat tightens up.
  • My shoulders turn into rocks which then trigger migraines.
  • Pretty much everything in my body gets clogged and stopped up – yep, even the backend!

Writing this list and sharing it on my blog terrifies me. I’m having a physical reaction to it. I’ve had to physically relax my shoulders and clear my throat. Even writing about fear sucks.

Or, maybe it’s just really recognizing how often fear still leads, despite all the work I’ve done on my own self-awareness and healing. It’s a sneaky little bugger.

Our fears provide a super vulnerable place to play and explore. The physicality of the fear in my body is real. I can feel it just typing this out.

The paradox is that JOY is on the other side of fear. We have to go through the fear to find the joy, otherwise, the fear is driving us all around in crazy-making circles, none of which are happy circles.

I’ve found this out over and over this year, both literally (see the post on swimming the class V rapid) and metaphorically.

Facing the Fear

When I was in Belize last month, we went into the ATM cave. We had to swim into the cave and crawl through rocks in pitch-black darkness to get to the Mayan artifacts, which included the remains of adult and children who’d been sacrificed.

We had headlamps but our guide had us shut them off for a bit to experience the pure darkness. You would think that this would be terrifying. The scary part of my trip.

It totally wasn’t. The cave was such a fun adventure. It was a physical adventure, and I totally trusted my body and Hector, our guide.

The terrifying part of the trip was getting off the plane by myself, navigating customs, and getting a cab to Belize city…alone. I’ve traveled quite a bit but never totally solo in an unfamiliar country. I was super nervous, and even after I got to the hotel, it took me a good hour to get over my fear and walk four blocks to the museum by myself. It was the terror of the unknown that got to me.

Even writing this is bringing up a tightness in my chest, as my body “re-members” the fear and brings it right back.

We feel fear for a reason. Like if we see a snake, our brain and bodies respond with fear so we get the hell away from it.

The problem is when we let fear lead when our fears are NOT life-threatening, like navigating customs, grabbing a cab, or walking to a museum by myself in a busy city. Then, we’re in a permanent state of stress and fear, and we never break through to the other side where the joy is.

Because the joy comes when we’re living in alignment, and saying “yes” to ourselves. For me, that’s exploring and learning, having adventures. For someone else, that might have meant staying at the hotel with a good book.

Had I stayed in the hotel, I would have missed out on the museum which was both wonderful and admittedly, horrifying – the rooms devoted to the slave trade made me cry, and I had to take breaks and go to the butterfly room. The slavery displays were raw and real, unlike American history books that never conveyed the intensity of it. The Belize museum even had an actual display of the racks from a slave ship that held the slaves on their journey across the sea. Seeing and touching it was physically jarring and nauseating.

It definitely counted as an adventure. I had to go through the fear of navigating a strange city alone in order to say yes to the adventurous side of me, and I had a great time. I saw a part of the city that I wouldn’t have seen.

When fear leads, we deny ourselves. It’s like we say NO to being ourselves, to living in integrity and alignment with who we are.

The challenging part is being aware of when fear does lead, saying “no” to that and “yes” to ourselves and our joy, trusting that we’re being guided to our own highest good.

It’s definitely a process and a journey, one that I’m still on and probably always will be though just becoming aware of how fear feels in my body and how I behave when it’s present is a huge help to denying it its power.

Assessing Your Fears

When I look at my list of fears that I shared above, not a single fear is life-threatening. They’re all about not fitting in or getting rejected.

If I lived 100,000 years ago when I needed my tribe to survive, yes, rejection would be a life-threatening fear. As humans, we evolved with a deep desire to fit in because it impacted our survival. We needed our tribe to live. If we got booted from the tribe, we died a miserable death of starvation or being a meal for some scary predator. Even though we will no longer get eaten if we get rejected by a colleague, that fear runs deep in our human psyche.

Now, the key is to recognize that when I feel fear in my body, I need to assess whether or not it’s life-threatening (it never is) and move through it in a way that’s in alignment with my highest good and that’s in integrity with my values.

How do you move through it?

  • Breathe deeply and oxygenate your system. There’s a whole bunch of neurological and physical stuff that happens when we breathe deeply, and suffice it to say, it totally works to physically and emotionally calm your entire system. In a nutshell, it feels good!
  • Apply Byron Katie’s work and ask, “Is this true?” 99.99% of the time, it’s totally not true.
  • Face your fear and do whatever it is that you’re afraid of (because your fear probably isn’t true anyway).
  • Talk yourself through it, like you would talk to a little child with kind, gentle words.
  • Refuse to let fear drive. It can be a passenger and stay with you, but it can’t be in charge. Elizabeth Gilbert explores this in her amazing book Big Magic.
  • Smile – seriously, it helps, and it’s super easy. Just move your face.
  • Discover your own fear busters – they’re there because I guarantee you’ve faced, approached, and gone through fears before. Think on how you did that. What worked for you?

If you can identify your fears and how they feel in your body (which is like a red flag that you’re facing a fear), you can take some concrete steps to walk through them and find your joy.

I’d love to hear how it goes in the comments.




  1. Susanne Takacs on December 30, 2019 at 3:28 pm

    Amy you are an amazing woman, and thanks, this is just what I needed. Thank you!!

    • Amy Isaman on December 30, 2019 at 4:32 pm

      Thank you Suzanne!!! This is one of those posts that Re-reading is a good reminder to me too, to remember that so often the fear isn’t real, even when it feels real, the “danger” is so often made up.

  2. Mariann Seriff on January 17, 2020 at 3:46 pm

    Amy, thanks for your bravery in sharing your fears — and the reminder that avoiding them is not the solution. You are right, even when it feels like real danger, it is often made up. I am struggling to push beyond a lot of fears and it can be overwhelming. Thanks for the reminder to push and feel my way through.

    • Amy Isaman on January 17, 2020 at 5:34 pm

      Yes, fear can be, well, terrifying! I think so often it’s the stories we tell ourselves that are scarier than the actual thing, and it can definitely be a struggle to keep going!! But I think the alternative, and staying where I am is scarier – even though my brain doesn’t think so. It would keep me right where I am forever because it’s familiar and comfortable. But the other side of fear is where the fun is! And sometimes getting through the fear can be quite the adventure. Thanks for sharing.

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