Letting Go of Fear:
Powerful Mindset Shifts to Help You Move Back Into Love


letting-go-of-fear-underwaterletting go of fear is infinitely easier when you understand exactly how it operates in the heart and mind. photo: angus

In June 2013, I was on my book tour for Mind Over Medicine, driving in a borrowed minivan from Chicago to an event in Indiana where I was scheduled to speak to 300 cancer patients. I

was tooling along on the freeway at 65 miles per hour, listening to music, feeling happy and calm, grateful for the opportunity to do work I love, enjoying the present moment. If I had been able to monitor my nervous system, I suspect it would have registered a relaxation response, with my parasympathetic nervous system dominating and my natural self-healing mechanisms doing their thing.

Then, in a split second, from out of nowhere, some unidentified piece of metal tore off another car and came flying right at the minivan. The unexpected road debris punctured both tires on the left side of the vehicle, causing it to lift to the left, as if it might flip over.


“True fear is a survival mechanism meant to protect you. It’s the kind of fear an animal experiences when a predator stalks it.”


Fear flooded through me, and I felt the rush of electric warmth as my fight-or-flight responses were triggered. If I had been hooked up to monitors, surely researchers would have been able to measure high levels of cortisol, epinephrine, and norepinephrine; and they would have noted that my heart and respiratory rate increased, my pupils dilated, my blood glucose levels spiked, and blood got shunted to my large muscle groups, giving me strength and fueling my ability to quickly maneuver the disabled minivan off the crowded freeway, where my life really was at risk.

A surge of energy and focused attention helped me grip the wheel and bring the car safely to the shoulder of the highway without getting hit or hitting somebody else. My body was out of danger at that point, so in an ideal world, researchers monitoring me would have noticed that, after 90 seconds, my stress hormone levels would start to drop, my vital signs would stabilize, and my nervous system would return to homeostasis helping me to let go of the fear with the parasympathetic nervous system in charge. But alas, that isn’t what happened. As I sat there, trembling from the rush of epinephrine coursing through my body, my imagination went nuts and my mind began to generate all the things that might go wrong now.

True Fear and False Fear

The first wave of fear that rushed through me was what I’ve defined as “true fear” because it’s the kind of fear that demands action and can help save your life. When the car was out of control and I was trying to get it safely off the road, my life really was in danger and my stress response was appropriate. But the secondary fears that came up once I was safe were all what I call “false fear.” These fears were just stories I made up in my mind, stemming from imaginary concerns that might or might not come to pass. Were these imaginary fears helpful? Were they going to help me avoid negative outcomes? No. There was nothing I could do to change the fact that I was stranded on the side of the road with 300 people anticipating my arrival in an auditorium 50 miles away. While the true fear that fueled my safe exit from the highway protected me, the false fear thoughts only kept me stuck in stress response. When you’re in that state, it’s nearly impossible to problem solve creatively.


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True fear is a survival mechanism meant to protect you. It’s the kind of fear an animal experiences when a predator stalks it, triggering the fight-or-flight response that may save its life. True fear is what you experience when your minivan goes out of control on the interstate. False fear, on the other hand, shows up as worry, anxiety, and ruminations about all the things that could go wrong in an imaginary future. It’s always the finger pointing toward something that needs to be healed in your mind. In this way, both true fear and false fear can help you if you know how to interpret them in healthy ways.

The Voice of True Fear

While false fear can be useful for shining a light on areas of your life in need of healing, it’s not false fear that motivates responsible decision making: It’s integrity and intuition. These are what fuel you to take good care of your children, excel at work, commit yourself to healthy relationships, make sound financial decisions, and take care of your body. The voice that your intuition speaks with is the voice of the part of you I call your Inner Pilot Light. When you’re tapped into this inner guidance system, it will steer you to make decisions that are aligned with your truth; and the good news is that fear can point you toward your Inner Pilot Light if you learn how to bridge the two.

For example, let’s say you find someone’s wallet in the grocery store. Your fear of financial lack might make you think you should pocket the wallet; but, if you learn to examine your fears consciously, you’ll see that such fears point toward your growth edges. You may realize that your money fears are tempting you to compromise your integrity, but the more attuned you are to the voice of your Inner Pilot Light, the more likely you are to turn the wallet over to store security in case its owner comes looking for it. On the other hand, if you’re out of touch with your Inner Pilot Light and your fear of financial lack is running the show, you might rationalize why you should keep the wallet and pocket the money. When you’re tuned in to your Inner Pilot Light, this inner guidance system will help you do the right thing.

Keep in mind that the “right thing” might not correspond to society’s rules. Your Inner Pilot Light enforces your soul’s values, not those of society. The law might say that you shouldn’t give money to beggars, but your soul might say you should. Society might say you should stay married until death do you part, but your Inner Pilot Light might steer you otherwise. How can you tell whether you’re being guided by your Inner Pilot Light? Because it will feel good. Not in a short-lived, hedonistic, ego-gratification way, but as deep, nourishing soul-food fulfillment. You’ll be able to tell the difference because following the voice of your Inner Pilot Light leaves you respecting yourself as well as others. Because your Inner Pilot Light can be trusted to protect you, this wise part of you will lead you to take any necessary precautions that will ensure the safety of you and your loved ones, and the good news is that this kind of guidance improves your health, rather than threatening it.


“We unconsciously take on the fears of our parents, often by the age of six.”


But while your Inner Pilot Light can be trusted to guide you, you’ll have to learn to distinguish this voice from another, often much louder voice in your head, the voice of your Small Self. You could call this part of you your Gremlin, your Inner Lizard, your ego, or the voice of fear itself. I prefer calling it your Small Self because like a child, it is small and can’t be trusted to make healthy, discerning, adult decisions. This is the voice that speaks loudest when fear is running the show, and it keeps you from taking in the useful messages your fear has for you.

Whose Fear Is It?

Where did the frightened voice of your Small Self come from? Why is this voice always spouting off false fears? It’s enforcing a series of rules you learned in childhood, ostensibly to keep you “safe.” Yet the false fears of your Small Self may not even belong to you. They may come from much farther back.

We tend to inherit fear like a virus that gets passed from generation to generation. We unconsciously take on the fears of our parents, often by the age of six, when their “programs” get downloaded into our subconscious minds without our consent. Such patterns can become the operating instructions for your entire life. Common operating instructions passed on from generation to generation include beliefs such as:

Bad things happen when you’re not in control.

You’ll be judged if you let yourself be vulnerable, so keep your guard up.

Fly under the radar and don’t ever rock the boat or all hell will break loose.

Prioritize what’s certain, secure, safe, and right, even if it makes you unhappy.

You have to work your ass off in order to survive.

Life doesn’t work if it’s pleasurable.

Don’t follow your dreams, because it’s not realistic or responsible.

Everyone is out to get you, so protect your heart at all costs.

Self-sacrifice is good. Self-care is selfish.

Don’t enjoy sex or you’ll go to hell.

Be perfect or you might get rejected.

You may have inherited these fear-based rules from your parents, they inherited them from theirs; and unless you wake up and let them go, you’ll pass your fears along to your own children, usually in the name of keeping them “safe.”

These generational fears can show up as a result of a cultural trauma, such as the Holocaust. Many who have survived such genocides have passed on a fear of persecution, long after the real threat that once triggered true fear in the ancestors is gone. Financial lack represents another common generational fear. For example, those who survived the Great Depression had true fear about starvation and poverty, and they passed on a fear of lack to generations of plenty. This fear may show up as an insatiable need for more and more money, even when there’s a bounty of food on the table and plenty in the bank.

Scientific evidence backs up this idea of generational fear. In a study conducted by Brian Dias and Kerry Ressler at Emory University, published in Nature Neuroscience, mouse parents were exposed to electrical shocks whenever they smelled the scent of cherry blossom and almond. Subsequently, the children and grandchildren of the scared mice startled in response to the scent of cherry blossoms, even though they had never been exposed to the scent or shocked when they smelled it. Offspring of the scared mouse parents also had more neurons that detected the cherry blossom scent than mice whose parents hadn’t been shocked when exposed to that scent. Such fear can be transmitted at the level of the DNA: Researchers found that the DNA in the sperm cells was imprinted with the association between fear and the scent of cherry blossom. A gene that codes for the molecule that detects this odor carried a chemical marker that they postulated may have changed the behavior of the gene.

The ability to inherit fear from your parents may have developed as a survival instinct, a way to learn what can threaten your life without having to be exposed to the threat; but in modern society, this biological adaptation has a dark side that may explain how seemingly irrational phobias, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder develop—to say nothing of your everyday fears, such as fear of never having enough money or fear of being rejected by those you love.

However, as Bruce Lipton teaches in The Biology of Belief, you are not a victim of your genes. Just because your genes may have been programmed by your ancestors doesn’t mean you’re destined to abide by their rules. Even if your genes reflect the influence of these fears, how your genes express themselves depends on a variety of epigenetic (“above the genes”) forces, which include your thoughts, beliefs, and feelings, your physical environment, and the people you surround yourself with. And once you realize that these fears don’t even belong to you, you can start to let go of the fear and the past and focus on what’s happening in present time. By letting fear illuminate what’s in need of healing, not just in you but in your family, you have the potential to heal not only yourself, you can break the chain of generational fear and heal your entire bloodline.


“Just because your genes may have been programmed by your ancestors doesn’t mean you’re destined to abide by their rules.”


Becoming aware of the fears you’ve inherited from your ancestors isn’t about blaming your ancestors or playing the victim. Your ancestors need your compassion, not your judgment, and you can be grateful that the fears you’ve inherited are helping you heal. Like you, your ancestors inherited these fears from their own predecessors. Awareness allows you to forgive them while reprogramming your subconscious mind, so you are free to act from a new set of operating instructions—the instructions of your Inner Pilot Light.

It’s important to be gentle with your Small Self as it tries to impose its inherited rules and false fears. This part of your psyche needs your compassion too. Rejection only makes your Small Self act up. Instead, offer love. What will unfold is healthy decision making that takes into consideration appropriate precaution without letting false fear run the show.

This article on letting go of fear is excerpted with permission from The Fear Cure: Cultivating Courage As Medicine For The Body, Mind & Soul by Lissa Rankin. It is published by Hay House and is available at bookstores or online at hayhouse.com.

About The Author

Lissa Rankin, M.D., is a bestselling author of Mind Over Medicine and The Fear Cure, a physician, speaker, founder of the Whole Health Medicine Institute, and spiritual seeker. Passionate about what makes people optimally healthy and what predisposes them to illness, she is on a mission to merge science and spirituality in a way that not only facilitates the health of the individual; it also heals the collective. As she became aware of how fear dominates modern culture and how such fear predisposes us not only to unhappiness but to disease, she began researching ways to befriend fear so we can let it heal and liberate us, opening us up to greater compassion, not just for others, but for ourselves. Visit her website: lissarankin.com


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