Fear can be useful when it gives us pause to consider, or protects against, something detrimental to us. But when fear becomes more than a warning signal, and when the anticipated threat has become bigger than its likelihood, then we find ourselves refusing experiences or possibilities that might be positive. One of the problems with fear as an emotion is that we have a physical response to it, caused by a surge of the stress hormone adrenaline. This gears the body up to the fight/flight/freeze response, putting us on red alert, making the heart pound and our breathing faster. It can feel horrible and we can in fact become fearful of that feeling, so learning to manage this becomes important. But how?
Naming your fear in order to face it, working with something tangible rather than something that’s abstract can be helpful. It’s also useful to work out whether it’s the fear itself, or a re-living of the past experience that you fear. Are you fearful of all dogs, or the one that barked horribly at you and scared you as a small child? Maybe you are hanging on to a fear for some unconscious purpose.
If you feel that the world is precarious, the certainty of something, even fear, can feel like a life raft on which to unload your anxieties. But if holding on to that fear stops you from doing or getting what you want, it’s counter-productive. Review your beliefs about particular fears calmly (or maybe with a therapist) and they may no longer be valid. Then, in facing them, you can let them go.
I don’t like flying. I think that hurtling through the sky at high speed in a metal tube, 37,000 feet above the ground is dangerous. But I still do it. Why? Because I want to get from A to B, visit new places or friends, and this is usually the quickest way. And, rationally, I know it’s statistically safer than crossing a road. But I used to hate both the flying and the anticipation – so there were two issues there.
Breaking it down and separating out the actual fear from its physical response can be helpful and thinking this through when not in a state of anxiety works best. This is because the fight/flight/freeze response comes from a deep-seated part of the brain (the amygdala) and when we’re in that state, it temporarily knocks out a cognitive, rational response (because when survival is at issue, the body is telling you to react, not stop and think).
Managing the fear response and how it restricts you, starts with understanding its cause, recognising it for what it is and drawing on previously learnt and practiced resources like mindful breathing or grounding techniques. If professional help or CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy) could be helpful, then try these. Calming the body helps calm the mind, and vice versa, which is why mindful breathing stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, helping to decelerate the heartbeat and the fear response.
Fear can be avoided through procrastination, too, when we put off doing what makes us anxious until it looms large and immobilises us. Thirty years ago, psychologist Susan Jeffers published Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway and there is something in just the title alone because often the energy we use to swerve all this, all the ruminating and avoidance tactics, actually surpasses the energy necessary to get it done.
Sometimes that fear is of failure, or being laughed at or losing control, but only by challenging those beliefs can we see if they are true or not. It can also be helpful to visualise a situation, to remember when we did something similar with confidence, and to think it through calmly, holding a picture in mind of a successful outcome – a safe flight, a job interview, or speaking in public.
Facing our fears often turns out to be way less frightening than living with them. And as the ad says, sometimes you have to ‘just do it’.