When I was a child, I was afraid of everything, all the time. My Top Five Fears were:
- Nuclear war with Russia
- My parents getting divorced or something happening to my sisters
- Getting an incurable disease
- Auditioning for the plays I loved to do
To cope with these fears, I:
- Cultivated a life-long battle with insomnia by staying awake all night, kneeling beneath my bedroom window, watching the sky for signs of a missile attack.
- Obsessed over every word, fight, emotion and unspoken dynamic in my family. I bossed around my sisters, which they LOVED (sarcasm).
- Went into hysterics every time there was a thunderstorm. I lived in Indiana, so this was an every-other-day occurrence.
- Compulsively watched every Made-for-TV, Disease-of-the-Week movie about kids dying from illness.
- Forced myself to audition through uncontrollable nerves that prevented me from landing the roles I wanted.
On the slightly healthier side, I had a mantra I repeated whenever I was terrified to go through an experience. I would imagine myself as an adult and say to myself: When I’m 23, I won’t be afraid of this. When I’m 35, I won’t be afraid of this. For some reason, knowing that I would someday outgrow the fear helped me to move through it in the present.
My entire life has been an exercise in overcoming fear. Nearly every relationship I’ve formed, trip I’ve taken, audition I’ve shown up for, conversation I’ve had, and new experience I’ve tried, has been dearly fought for through a fog of fear. I’ve been pleased to discover that, indeed, as an adult I haven’t been so afraid of the things I feared as a child. I’ve also learned that repetition and practice is my best ally and the foundation of confidence.
For the past year, I’ve walked through much of what many people are starting to experience now: health challenges, job loss, housing loss, no regular income for a year (and still none), fear, uncertainty, and social isolation—all while navigating crippling grief and heartbreak. None of my financial, housing or social challenges have resolved yet, although I’m deeply grateful for the return of my health. I was hoping to turn a corner soon but may have to exercise patience even longer than I was expecting, as jobs continue to fall through and social opportunities decline. It has been surreal to witness the current climate with a feeling of familiarity instead of novelty. To that end, I’d like to share some of the things that have been helpful to me, with the hope that they will be helpful to others as well.
I believe that learning to face and manage fear is our hardest but most important task:
- Feel fear whenever it arises, without resisting or ignoring it.
- Acknowledge it and allow it to move through and out of your body.
- Become an Observer. Step outside of the paradigm of fear, realizing that it is not you, and that it can be experienced without it having to mean anything.
- Get present. Feel your breath moving in and out of your body. Get in touch with your senses. Recognize that, in this moment, you are almost certainly okay. This is true even within difficult moments, if you take them one at a time.
- Connect your Mind and Body. Our feeling of separation from the Whole is what causes most of our suffering and this is true when our bodies feel disconnected as well. When we walk around with racing brains and numb bodies, it’s a recipe for fear to take charge.
My Favorite Ways to Ground & Connect:
Meditation. If you do nothing else for yourself, even 10 minutes of meditation per day will change your life. When we become still, we discover that we are not our bodies, our relationships, our jobs, our finances, our successes, our failures, our environment, or our politics. We simply are…something much greater and deeper than any of those things. We step outside of identification with the personality. Connecting with the Source of who we really are is the beginning of the end of fear. Here’s a meditation practice for Inner Peace.
Nature. Getting outside is truly the best medicine. In a world that moves fast and revolves around technology, nature has a different rhythm. It is slow, cyclical, seasonal. Things come and go, rise and fall. Connecting to nature’s rhythms can provide immediate relief from fear, anxiety and depression, and give us the fortitude to move ahead.
Yoga / Walking / Dancing. Any exercise that connects the two halves of the brain, drops you into your body and releases endorphins is a fantastic way to combat fear. When I couldn’t do any exercise at all, I missed it terribly, but the benefits were still there when I remembered to align with my breath and inner spaciousness. My favorite at-home classes are Yoga with Adriene.
Breathwork. Most people are breathing shallowly, from their chest, or unconsciously holding their breath. Deep, diaphragmatic breathing and pranayama techniques strengthens and settles the nervous system, boosts immunity, processes old trauma, releases stuck emotion, and helps us to stay mindful of the present moment. I’ve even used this on an airplane during bad turbulence and it worked. Here’s a great series to learn some basic breathing techniques.
Tapping. EFT Tapping provides almost instant relief from anxiety, spinning thoughts, fear, and physical pain. It’s been proven to be as effective as acupuncture and can be done safely and easily by anyone, anywhere, of any age. My favorite Tapping coach is Nick Ortner.
Chanting. Chanting a Sanskrit mantra along with music is a powerful way to focus one’s mind and energy. In Kundalini Yoga, one aims to chant for at least 11 minutes; I can promise that you will feel differently when you end than when you began. I had chants playing on repeat during my hospital stay, through the late hours when I couldn’t sleep, and it was incredibly comforting. My favorite music for chanting is White Sun.
Journaling. Many years ago, I began doing Morning Pages, which is at least three pages of stream-of-consciousness writing first thing in the morning. This practice has brought me more clarity than almost anything else I do. It’s a great place to dump the fear so that it leaves your head and doesn’t dump onto other people instead. Here’s the explanation of Morning Pages from Julia Cameron.
I can honestly affirm that walking through fear builds strength, resilience, confidence and compassion. There are many gifts to be found within this tumultuous time. We humans have been and will continue to be challenged for as long as we inhabit the earth. The only difference now is that we are much more connected through technology and so everything can appear to be worse or more overwhelming (which, objectively, it is not). I make a habit of limiting my news and social media intake and try to observe the fear, non-judgmentally, instead of participating in it. This is a choice that each of us has the power to exercise and it’s a choice that uplifts the collective instead of taking us all down in a toilet-paper frenzy.
My almost-three-year-old niece has an adventurous spirit and often says to me, “Don’t worry, Aw Daw (Aunt Dawn), I save the day!” And then she’ll repeat her own mantra: I Am Brave and Strong. I love to witness how she has already outgrown so many of her early fears and I hope that her spirit stays wild and free as she walks through this world. We are all brave and strong; let’s keep reminding each other of that.
Growing up within close proximity to Chicago, the Steppenwolf production of True West was an important play for me and probably my introduction to the world of Sam Shepard. I recorded the PBS airing (on a VCR) and wore out the tape, virtually memorizing Gary Sinise and John Malkovich’s definitive performances. None of my community theater experience had exposed me to anything so real, so raw, or so close to home. It was the kind of acting I wanted to see and wished that I could do. In college, I recall many hours sitting on the floor of the library, pouring over Curse of the Starving Class, A Lie of the Mind and Buried Child. If I wanted to lose myself, that was how I did it. Sam wrote about things that shocked me…not because they were unfamiliar but because of how deeply and intimately I understood the secrets he brought into the light.
Sam also tapped into a restlessness that seemed to overtake me on a regular basis, especially when I was younger. There were many nights when I had to talk myself out of walking out of my shared house, getting in the beater car that probably wouldn’t have made it to the state line, and just driving west without stopping or telling anyone where I was going. I craved the wild deserts and gritty, open spaces that he constructed…knowing, somehow, that space had an intangible quality that could fill me up inside.
My first directing effort was a production of Waiting for Godot that, in my mind, was an homage to Sam’s world of weary cowboys and empty landscapes. I still feel that it’s a perfect marriage of playwrights. One of my only rewarding acting experiences in college was a production of Fourteen Hundred Thousand, directed by a close friend. It felt like a breakthrough in many respects: I was afforded a rare opportunity to perform, I finally got to experience some growth as an actor, and the material was something that resonated with me.
The summer I battled those incessant urges to flee west, I directed my own version of True West in a found church space. To this day, I don’t know how I did everything I was doing at time: working full-time as a live-in nanny for two pre-schoolers, working open-to-close on Saturdays and Sundays at a physically exhausting car wash, taking a semester of French and a semester of Algebra (with tutoring on the side) and directing that demanding play. I remember combing through antique shops for beautiful electric typewriters that got destroyed (along with my heart) with a golf club during every performance. And there’s a story that lives in infamy among my circle of friends: The guys in the show were goofing around with said golf club one night after I’d left rehearsal. It slipped out of someone’s hand, flew through the air, and smashed a hole in one of the upper-story stained glass windows. The guys spent frantic midnight hours running to the store, cutting up milk jugs (I believe), painting the plastic with watercolors and trying to patch up and hide their mistake. I didn’t learn about the mishap until years later, and the church never allowed another theater group to use their space after they must have discovered the secret. But it seems so darkly funny and appropriate that it happened in Sam’s creative territory.
Years later, I was in L.A., at the start of my attempt to return to acting. I was terrified to try–yet unable to stay away from–the thing I loved most in the world. I didn’t know if I could do it; I had never known if I could. I found a class with a teacher who was the first person in my professional life to tell me that it was possible. And one of my earliest breakthroughs as an actor came in a scene from Fool for Love. There was a moment when active listening took over, when I fell into the unknown, and when I allowed that powerful beast of a play to have it’s way with me. I had never before felt that kind of energy take me over, and it was a light-bulb moment that laid a foundation I was able to build upon in the years to come. I don’t know if anyone but Sam could have facilitated such a creative surrender during that time of my life.
And now, present day, I’m in development on my own feature film. The very first conversations I had with my screenwriter contained multiple references to Sam. I knew I could trust this writer’s taste because she loved him, too, and understood the tone of the story I wanted to tell, which remains profoundly under Sam’s influence.
If I’d known Sam Shepard personally, I’m sure I would have known an imperfect and complicated man. He wrote about the kind of world so many of us have struggled to grow up in…a world of secrets, shame, aimless wandering, confusion and desire. He defined the human condition on his own unique yet universal terms. I know that so many of us must feel less alone, less freakish, because of his singular and achingly beautiful art. I will miss knowing that he’s out there in that world with us.