Fear can be a constant companion. For a lot of people, it haunts everything they do, affects their decisions, and accompanies them whenever they have to do something new. Often, people don’t want to admit just how much fear affects and controls what they do, but this doesn’t change the impact it has on their life. Denying fear only makes it worse, which is why you need to learn strategies to overcome fear if you think it’s interfering with your life or your goal achievement.
Fear is an unpleasant emotion that’s caused by a threat. This threat can be physical, such as a car barreling at you on the wrong side of the road, or it can be mental or emotional. Often, fear that’s caused by mental or emotional dangers can be as bad as if not worse than fear caused by physical threats. In western countries, the majority of people rarely encounter physical threats. And even when they do, most of the time these threats are short lived, though that doesn’t mean that the effects of them can’t linger. But mental and emotional threats are a little harder to eliminate. They can linger for years, and this is where the real damage comes from.
How is fear affecting your life? If you could control and overcome fear, how would your life change?
The Evolution of Fear
You’ve probably heard this before, but fear evolved to keep you safe. It’s a protective instinct, meant to help preserve your life and prevent you from doing things that could kill you. That’s why you’re probably afraid of snakes even if you’ve never been bitten, and why you avoid standing on the edge of cliffs (unless you’re a bit of a thrill seeker). The ability to feel fear was passed down to you by generations of your ancestors. To put it bluntly, the ancestors that survived long enough to have children were usually the ones who felt fear and avoided danger.
Unfortunately, we don’t only fear real threats. Human beings have the ability to anticipate danger as well, and this is most often manifested as a type of anxiety. Anxiety is why lots of people are afraid of flying despite never having been in a plane crash. Their brains can imagine and anticipate the possibility of crashing, and that’s enough to cause fear. This too has an evolutionary purpose. In the past, the people who learned that a rat could mean the plague were probably safer than those who tried to pat it. So this ability may have helped our ancestors survive, and may protect us to a certain extent as well. But that doesn’t erase the effects of fear’s negative side.
Fear in the Human Brain
Fear starts in the brain, though the exact location hasn’t been identified yet. But almost more important than the origin of fear is how you react to it. This is controlled by an almond shaped structure in the temporal lobe called the amygdala. This part of the brain decodes emotions and determines your initial reactions. Basically, if you start sweating every time you think about public speaking, this is your amygdala creating a very unhelpful reaction to your fear of public speaking.
The reactions caused by the amygdala are designed to prepare the body to fight or flee in response to the danger. That’s why your heart rate increases, your breathing picks up, and more blood starts flowing to your skeletal muscles. Your body is preparing for battle.
Your amygdala reacts to perceived threats before your brain has finished actually processing the threat. This is why you jump when something frightening happens in a movie. But soon after that, your hippocampus and prefrontal cortex kick in and evaluate the threat. They let you know if the threat is real or not. Which is why you don’t go screaming from the cinema when the monster lurches towards the screen, these parts of your brain let you know that the threat isn’t real.
The Benefits of Fear
As stated before, fear is an early warning system. It lets you know when certain behaviors are dangerous, or could be dangerous, and it helps to protect you from injury and death. However, this isn’t the only benefit of this emotion. Some other benefits of fear include the following:
Fear is often a warning that something’s wrong. If you’re walking in a dark alley and start to feel afraid, pushing the fear aside will probably end very, very badly. Fear is there to protect us, and sometimes it’s well worth listening to.
There’s a lot of talk about how everyone needs to overcome fear and build a better life. And this advice is absolutely true. But it isn’t always immediately true. Fear drives us to be small. It drives us to curl up and protect ourselves. And sometimes we need that, particularly if we’ve just been through something really traumatic and terrible. Sometimes we need to retreat from the world and make ourselves small while we heal. And as long as we don’t remain there forever, this can be a valid and very way to recover in safety when we need it most.
Fear reveals what’s important
If you’ve ever sat in a doctor’s office and heard bad news, then you understand how clarifying fear can be. In that moment of abject fear, everything that’s unimportant falls away. Suddenly, all you can think about is your family, your friends, the people you love, and the things you always dreamed of doing. Fear can offer you that clarity, as well as the impetus to make changes to live more in alignment with what you really want and need.
It gives you energy
There’s nothing more energizing then fear. If you’ve been in a slump in your life or business and suddenly find yourself confronted with a crisis, you might be surprised at how much energy you have. In the past, this energy was meant to give you the strength to run or fight. But today, you can use it to make changes in your life or get work done that you’ve been avoiding.
It can make life exciting
Some of the most exciting things in life are also frightening. If you’ve ever skydived, lived overseas, taken a big business risk or told a crush that you were in love with them, then you know how exhilarating fear can be. Without fear, there would be no excitement, no risk, and nothing really worth fighting for. So the next time you feel fear at the idea of a big change in your life, remember to savor it.
Some Drawbacks of Fear
Although fear has some benefits, there are a number of drawbacks as well. The most common, and the most destructive consequences of fear include the following:
Fear is sneaky
You might think that your fear doesn’t affect your life in any way, but that probably isn’t true. Fear can be sneaky. If you’ve ever thought about doing something, only to be derailed because you realized you weren’t good enough, smart enough, or didn’t have the right temperament, then you were probably influenced by fear. Fear will use any excuse, anything that makes sense, to stop you from doing something new. Because to fear, anything new and unknown is potentially dangerous, which is why it tries to keep you doing small, familiar things and living a small, familiar life. You don’t have to listen to it in this case though.
It goes overboard
Public speaking isn’t dangerous, and yet a lot of people claim that they’re more afraid of it than they are of dying. This is because fear goes overboard. It doesn’t know the difference between a shark heading for you and standing on a stage. It just senses a threat and reacts. This means that you’ll avoid public speaking as diligently as you would avoid shark infested waters. And that becomes a problem if public speaking is necessary for your life goals or for your work.
It can be crippling
Fear is designed to stop you from doing things, and that’s fine if you’re considering doing something dangerous. But it can also stop you from doing things that would be positive for your life. And at its worst, it can turn into the type of fear that stops you from doing things that are necessary for your life. When this occurs, people can become afraid to leave their own house or to interact with other people. If your fear gets to this stage, it’s vital that you look for professional help immediately, because this type of fear can completely destroy every aspect of your life and your happiness.
The Types of Fear
Fear usually feels the same. You get a squirmy feeling in your stomach and you want to avoid the thing that makes you afraid. But that doesn’t mean that all fear is the same. In fact, there are several different types of fear, each of them more or less relevant to your life at the moment. Dr. Karl Albrecht’s 5 types of fear are a good classification system for when you’re trying to identify which fear is affecting your life and how to best overcome that fear.
The five types of fear are:
Mutilation or body separation
This is when you fear something terrible happening to your body, an injury or illness that decreases your functioning and causes pain and turmoil.
The fear of death, though it goes a little beyond that. This is an existential fear that can hit at any time. If you’ve ever lain in bed at night and suddenly ‘realized’ that you were going to die one day, it was probably this fear that gripped you and made it hard to sleep.
Loss of autonomy
For some people, the idea of being controlled or constrained in some way can be overwhelming. In the physical sense, this can manifest as claustrophobia, but it doesn’t have to relate to a physical constraint. It can also make you afraid of being trapped or constrained by a relationship as well.
Rejection or separation
People often talk about the fear of separation in terms of children, but adults can fear it as well. People who have this fear can become people pleasers, who try to keep others with them by saying yes all the time and agreeing with them. And if they are rejected for whatever reason, the loss of that relationship can be devastating in every sense.
Humiliation, shame or worthlessness
Almost everyone fears humiliation or shame. Experiences that cause these emotions strike at the very center of who we are and who we think we want to be. This is called ego death. The ego is a construction, it’s who we think we are, the beliefs and abilities and experiences that make up a person. Humiliation threatens those beliefs. It calls into question everything you believe about your abilities and your sense of self-worth. This threatens the constructed self, an experience called ego death. If you’ve ever wanted to crawl into a hole and die because you felt shame or embarrassed in front of other people, then you’ve experienced this fear and know how truly powerful it can be.
Signs that Fear is Running your Life
People don’t like to admit to fear these days. For some reason, feeling fear is often seen as a weakness. The self-help industry is full of advice that encourages people to push fear aside, destroy it, or ignore it to become their best self. The underlying assumption is that fear is bad and people who feel fear are somehow less than they should be. But fear is natural and almost everyone feels it. The problem is when the fear takes over your life. It’s when your decisions and your choices are unduly influenced by fear. And this isn’t always obvious, which is why you need to look out for these signs that fear is controlling your life.
You need to be perfect
If you always need to do things perfectly, if you can’t accept your mistakes and if you work on things past the deadline because they have to be just right, then fear is probably controlling you. Perfectionism usually stems from the fear that you’re not enough, the worry that people will reject you if you get something wrong. It’s a way for you to protect yourself against pain or rejection, and this form of fear can be absolutely paralyzing.
You can’t say no
This is part of being a people pleaser. If you struggle to say no, if you find it difficult to be assertive and voice your opinions, then you’re probably afraid of rejection or ridicule. People who struggle to say no worry that others won’t like them. And people who suffer from these fears usually end up being overwhelmed and taken advantage of, and that doesn’t make for a happy or satisfying life.
There’s a difference between being realistic and settling. If you’re in your forties, you probably can’t be a prima ballerina. That’s just reality. But if you let your age stop you from taking a dance class, or settle for less than what you want without even trying for your dreams, then fear is probably making you settle.
You have bad habits
Fear is extremely unpleasant. It can make you feel sick, uneasy, and make some activities very difficult to do. Unfortunately, the experience of fear can be so unpleasant that people try to mask it. They numb themselves with bad habits such as watching television, drinking, drugs or overeating. These are temporary fixes that cause more negative feelings in the long run. But in the short term these strategies can feel like the only way to avoid the negative feelings that are associated with fear.
You try to control everything
You cannot control everything. Life, other people, things in the world, they’re all out of your control. But if you find yourself trying to control them, telling others what to do or organizing the minutia of your life so nothing is left to chance, then you’re probably afraid. Usually at the base of this is a fear of the unknown, a fear that the world is hostile and out to get you. The truth is that these fears will probably never go away. But trying to control them doesn’t work. The only thing you can control to any degree is yourself, trying to control anything else is futile and a waste of energy.
It’s very common to have problems with your motivation when you’re afraid. If you find yourself procrastinating on a big task, ask yourself if you’re afraid to do it. Maybe you’re afraid of being judged for the quality of your work, or maybe you’re just afraid of seeing just how good or bad your work really is. But procrastinating doesn’t remove the fear. And it usually just makes the outcome worse than it needs to be.
You don’t take risks
Life is and should be full of risks. Taking risks is how we grow, it’s how we add new and better things to our lives. If your life is free of risk, then it’s probably free of change and challenge as well, and no one should have to live such a small and uninteresting life.
You get sick
Have you ever had a big deadline coming up, an important event, or a big date, and found yourself getting sick right before it? This can be a major sign of fear, particularly if you always get sick before an important event.
How to Overcome Fear
If you want to overcome fear, there’s a lot of information out there to help you do it. And the truth is that the process isn’t complicated. But that doesn’t mean that it’s easy. Fear is one of the most primitive and powerful drives in every animal, which is why it’s impossible to eliminate completely. In fact, this shouldn’t be your goal at all. Without fear, you probably wouldn’t live very long. Instead, you want to learn to manage your fear, so you can work with it and not have to fight it every time you do something. This will give you the best chance of living the life that you really want.
Some strategies to overcome fear include:
Don’t listen to any advice that tells you to ignore your fear or push it down. This doesn’t work. Squashing or masking your fears only causes more negative emotions such as shame or anger. It makes you feel as if you’re wrong in some way, deficient. And it doesn’t help with the fear either. In fact, it usually makes the fear worse or causes outbursts at the worst possible time. Instead, acknowledge your fear. Sit down and admit that you’re afraid and why. Sometimes just bringing it out into the light without shame can make you feel a little less afraid.
Learn about it
This is part of acknowledging your fear. Whether you have a particular phobia or more general fears, learn about them. Read about other people who have gone through the same things. Fear tends to isolate you. It makes you feel like you’re all alone, as if you’re the only person who is so badly damaged. And learning that you’re not can be the key to lessening the shame that often comes with fear.
Have a plan
Everything is better with a plan. If you have to do something that you’re afraid of, design a plan for how you’ll cope. Feel free to do this in depth, because the more you have organized and controlled ahead of time, the less you’ll leave to chance. The unknown is a huge cause of fear when it comes to doing new things, so eliminate this element as much as you can.
Imagine the worst
This sounds counter-intuitive, but it really can work. If you’re afraid of a certain experience, imagine the worst that can happen and go into detail. If you’re afraid of making a presentation at work, imagine people laughing at you. Imagine tripping over and falling face down and your dress flipping over your head. Imagine everything that you’re afraid of. And then ask yourself if those fears are really going to happen. Chances are, they’re just the workings of your overactive imagination. And if they’re not, you can make a plan to avoid or minimize them.
Take your time when you’re going through this process. Your fears have developed over a lifetime, and fear itself developed over countless generations. That means you’re probably not going to overcome fear in a day, so don’t expect otherwise.
Some things you might always be a little afraid of. You won’t be able to eliminate all fear from your life and this shouldn’t be your goal. Learn where your lines are, what fears you can learn to accommodate and what fears you want to really push. If you’re afraid of flying but don’t travel anyway, maybe you should just accept this fear and move on to others that impact your life on a more day to day basis.
Take tiny steps
If you want to overcome fear, then you need to take tiny steps to start with. For example, if you’re afraid of public speaking, you don’t want to book a speech next week in the biggest arena in the world. Instead, take one tiny step towards overcoming your fear. Learn a breathing technique, look up the number for a toastmaster’s class, or confide in a friend and ask for suggestions. Any small action in the right direction takes courage, and moving forward, even at a snail’s pace, grows that courage. Keep taking tiny steps in this way and before you know it you’ll look back and realize you can’t even see where you started from.
Fear is a normal emotion that can benefit your life in a number of ways. It offers you safety, a warning of danger and even a touch of excitement when you try new things. However, those benefits don’t mean that you should allow fear to take over your life. If your fear is influencing your decisions, hampering your goal achievement, or making life more difficult for you in any way, it’s time to do something about it.
This won’t be an easy battle. Fear evolved for a reason, and the instinct to keep yourself safe can be overpowering. But with work and practice, you can learn to acknowledge fear without stifling it, to teach that part of the brain that it doesn’t need to hold so tightly to everything. You can teach your brain to trust more, to trust yourself, your decisions, and your good sense. And working to overcome fear in these ways will allow you to create a better and more exciting life.
Have you ever let fear stop you from doing something you always wanted to do? Share the story with us in the comments below.