Responding wisely to fear and worry

Reading time: 6 minutes
There’s a lot going on at the moment and it’s ok to feel overwhelmed. Here Dr Kitty Wheater, Mindfulness Chaplain, shares how we can recognise how we’re feeling and respond to it in a helpful way.

Amidst the crisis in Ukraine, we are hearing from you. In every classroom there is someone affected: family and loved ones in Ukraine, Russia, or neighbouring states; the weight of grandparents’ stories; the raw disappointment and pain that war at the eastern borders of Europe should be the next chapter in the story of our world. And with this come great fear and worry. We know many of you are struggling to sleep, feeling painfully distant or isolated, and that the ordinary stuff of the day is paling at best into insignificance, and at worst into cruel nonsensicality.

In the current climate, equanimity – engaging steadily, pragmatically, and with care – may seem a quality easier said than done. That is why mindfulness is inherently a practice, and not just something good to think about. To respond wisely to fear and worry, we look first this week at how the mind typically reacts to difficulty; then we look at how to support ourselves through grounding, and Tara Brach’s practice RAIN.

Our psychological reactions to difficulty and uncertainty are made up of many interlocking layers: there may be initial anxiety, fear, and worry. Thoughts may take the form of questions – ‘what will happen?’ ‘What should I be doing?’, or images, or statements: predictions about the future – ‘THIS will happen’ – that feel just as real and solid in the moment as this screen in front of you now.

When difficult emotions and thoughts come up, the mind catapults into its age-old protection and survival mode, and so our secondary reactions usually fall into one of two camps: avoidance, or ‘fixing’. Avoidance strategies are myriad: distraction, procrastination, various kinds of addiction, and so on. In ‘fixing’ mode, the mind jumps in and tries to help. We may ruminate, creating endless lists and possible scenarios in the imagination, all with that underlying sense that if we can only think of everything, we’ll be ok. We may scroll repeatedly through Twitter for opinions and news. We may keep our phone on at night, to be sure we don’t miss something.

Avoidance and fixing both have their place. The mind is after all trying to protect us; it is important to give yourself psychological respite from difficulty, and, equally, to act where it feels important. So wise avoidance, and wise action, are vital – and often have a sense of clarity to them. But the most intense varieties of avoidance and fixing, like denial or panic, often feel foggy and blobby. If we were to put them under a cognitive microscope, we would see that they are made up of layer upon layer of inter-reacting thoughts and emotions, whizzing around and feeding each other without interruption. We rarely notice all the elements of this complex inter-reactivity happening, because the protect-and-survive mode of mind is so powerful. We may only be aware of a sense of compulsion, escalation, and conviction about the truth of the potential scenarios playing across the cinema-screen of the mind. And so getting stuck in avoidance or fixing typically happens when we are most frightened of, or angry about, our own fear and worry, so that we do not fully acknowledge and investigate it, enabling clarity of thought or action, but rather compound it.

Here’s how we might begin to settle.

1. Grounding

If fear is acute, it may be difficult for us even to acknowledge it without getting sucked into the worry. For these moments, focus on grounding. I often encourage students who are panicking to sit on the floor, with the back against something supportive, and sense the places where the body is in contact with what’s holding it up. You might tap the feet on the floor, rhythmically and slowly, to help you sense this contact at the soles of the feet. This allows the mind to begin to shift mode out of the fight-flight response. You can find more guidance on grounding during panic in this particularly helpful article from Psyche on panic attacks.

On difficult days, you may find it useful regularly to attend for a few minutes to the soles of the feet on the floor, and the sit-bones on the chair. ‘FOFBOC’ – succinctly standing for ‘feet on floor, bum on chair’ – was developed by the Mindfulness in Schools Project, as a brief practice to help teenagers’ minds to settle at the beginning of class. You can listen to me guide a five-minute FOFBOC here.

When you feel a little more grounded, you might begin to tend your fear and worry with some more investigation, using the four-step practice of RAIN, below. Know that you can return to grounding at any point in this process: my colleague Chris Cullen, from the Oxford Mindfulness Centre, advises returning to the sense of feet on floor, and seat on chair, in between these stages. On some days, moving from grounding to the exploration of RAIN may feel impossible. Know that this is ok, and that just by grounding, over and over again, this will be a hugely valuable way of supporting yourself.

2. RAIN: Recognise, Allow, Investigate, Nurture

When our impulse is to bat away our anxiety, fear, or anger, the first stage of RAIN is to recognise it with care, curiosity, and gentleness. To notice what’s here, it helps to drop in some questions: what emotions am I feeling? What thoughts are coming up in the mind? Recognising and naming difficult thoughts and feelings can bring a sense of clarity. OK, anxiety is here. So that’s what I’m feeling.

Once we see what is here, it is important to allow it to be here, again bringing as best you can a sense of gentleness to your emotions. You might even mentally note, ‘it’s ok that I feel this’; ‘it’s understandable that I am thinking this’. Allowing our fear and worry to be here in experience is not the same as saying that the situation is ok. Rather, it is acknowledging that it is ok for you to feel the way that you feel about it. Wanting to get rid of those feelings and thoughts, instead of allowing them to be there, is what tends to drive a sense of denial or panic.

Once we have recognised, acknowledged and allowed what we are feeling, Tara writes, we can investigate this experience a little more. ‘To investigate, call on your natural curiosity – the desire to know truth – and direct a more focused attention to your present experience. You might ask yourself: What most wants attention? How am I experiencing this in my body? What am I believing? What does this vulnerable place want from me? What does it most need?’ Notice if the mind tips over into rumination or avoidance again, and as best you can, bring it back to a sense of embodied listening. ‘Whatever the inquiry,’ Tara writes, ‘your investigation will be most transformational if you step away from conceptualizing and bring your primary attention to the felt-sense in the body.’ Read the full piece.

When we gently attend to and investigate our intense experiences with a sense of care and curiosity, we can nurture and tend wisely to what we have discovered. It often helps to drop a question into the mind, like a pebble in a pond: what does this need? Often a thought or an image will arise in response to that question. While denial mind would have us continue on autopilot, and panic mind would have us do the biggest thing imaginable, often the small things are powerful: remembering to eat lunch, or drink a cup of tea; a phone-call to a friend, or a particular action or conversation. When we create space through reflection, sometimes a certain line from a poem, or something someone has told us, emerges as a source of comfort, wisdom, and good sense.

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Mindfulness lunchtime drop-ins run 1.10 to 1.50pm, Tuesdays online, and Fridays at the Chaplaincy Centre in Bristo Square. Free, no sign-up required, and open to all.

Photography: Sam Sills