How to Work With Fear and Pain in a Moment of Crisis

Even when it feels like you’re lost in the universe, Emily Horn explains, you can face the unknown with a still and calm heart-mind.

Emily Horn
9 March 2020
Photo by Jeremy Thomas.

As I watched the snow fall on the mountains outside my hospital room, where I was undergoing treatment for an illness that had progressively worsened over the previous months, I was reminded once again that this life moves and changes with each breath — we can not know what will happen in the future.

But we’re not powerless. Our power rests in our ability to train our hearts and minds. Here I was in pain, sick, and unable to use my left hand or arm. Still, I was still in love with my life.

Before I’d been admitted to the hospital, I underwent a painful spinal tap. As my body lay upon the doctor’s table, I used the technique of out-loud counting to calm my mind. With the steadiness of the counting, my fear gradually evaporated.

Pain can easily become laden with fear and stories, which only adds to our suffering. Through practice, we can recognize that we always have access to spacious loving, which can empower us to face fear with a calm heart-mind. Mindfulness supports the understanding that some of our storylines are needless, letting them arise and pass without believing them.

Here are a few suggestions to help come back to your center during experiences of fear or pain.

A Short Practice for Working with Fear and Pain

  1. Find a focal point in the room or outside (a point in on the wall, a tree, a chair). Set the intention to return to this point if and when experience becomes disorienting. Allow your attention to gently rest with this point of seeing. Know that you are seeing.
  2. Count to ten, starting with one and returning to one after you reach ten. You don’t have to find your breathing at this point. Just allow the counting to ease you a little more into the moment. If you feel comfortable, say the numbers out loud. Allowing your attention to rest with the sound of your voice.
  3. Notice your body in the room and the space it takes up. You don’t have to zoom in on the pain or the fearful sensations yet. Allow your body to be your anchor as your weight drops more into the space. From here you can decide what you need to do next, whether starting again or moving on to whatever is needed next.

Emily Horn

Emily West Horn is an authorized teacher of mindfulness and insight Meditation. She’s been mentoring mindfulness teachers in a certification program led by Jack Kornfield, Ph.D and Tara Brach Ph.D for over 7 years and leads teacher development groups at MindfulnessTeachers.Space.