F is for Fear
Updated: May 26, 2021
“Fear is not real. The only place that fear can exist is in our thoughts of the future. It is a product of our imagination causing us to fear things that are not present and may not ever even exist.” Will Smith
Everyone experiences fear. Some give in to it and use avoidance to stop themselves experiencing it; others ‘feel the fear and do it anyway'. If we allow it to, fear will stop us becoming the best version of ourselves and achieving our dreams.
Fear is a natural, ethnological defense mechanism we are born with, it will never go away. It exists primarily to keep us safe. Fear, like all emotions has a purpose, it is not inherently bad or good but learning to use it as a tool helps us to make better decisions and inform our actions rather than let it control us.
What we accomplish in life or are capable of is dependent on how we deal with fear. We are only born with two real fears; the fear of falling and the fear of loud noises. These are called primal (or natural) fears, everything else we learn and are referred to as intellectual (or conditioned) fears.
When we experience fear, we experience two different types of reactions: a biochemical response and an emotional response. Biochemical reactions are those physical responses that occur, such as an increased heart rate, sweating, and higher adrenaline levels... whereas emotional responses are individualised feelings in reaction to fear. Some people actively seek out this physical adrenaline rush while others will seek to avoid theses powerful sensations at all costs.
There is an acronym for fear: False Expectations Appearing Real i.e. we make stuff up and worry about future things that may never happen. If one can learn to fear different things, then by definition we can unlearn those fears and reverse our thinking too.
Fear exists on a spectrum. There are many types of fear; are as many fears as there are individuals because our fears are built on, and depend solely on, our past experiences. Common fears are those such as the fear of the reaction of others, eg anger, ridicule or rejection or fear of non-reaction ie indifference.
Moments of fear can be seen as opportunities to develop courage and expand our life i.e. we need fear to live courageously. For example, successful people also experience fear but don’t let their fear stop them doing what they want to do. Courage is the opposite of fear; it is the feeling of fear but facing it and working through it in order to achieve our goals anyway. There are many techniques to help us convert fear into courage.
It is generally accepted that running from our fears only makes them worse yet as most of us know; it is extremely hard to override ingrained habits of avoiding what scares us because we as humans will automatically take the easy option (the path of least resistance). Only by systematically confronting what scares us over time will we become less afraid and have a greater freedom. (One known approach is called "exposure therapy" or “systematic desensitization” because we expose ourselves to what we're afraid of, and is a type of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT))
There is another more direct approach called ‘flooding’ which involves completely immersing the person in situations where the fear is completely present.
Phobias are when fear is generalised and can affect everyday life. People with phobias try and avoid their extreme fear at all cost. All phobias are learned but some phobias stem from past traumatic events. Whenever you are dealing with trauma, a specific type of psychotherapy is necessary to heal from such stressful events. Well known, efficient trauma based therapies include : EMDR therapy, Brainspotting therapy and Lifespan Integration therapy.
The key is to learn and apply (with help when necessary) the right coping techniques to help manage your fear responses. Just like the process of defusion with our thoughts in ACT therapy, when we find a way to manage the fear we experience, we can eliminate or at least be aware of any unhelpful fear responses.
Self-awareness can help to overcome our fears. If we are certain that our fear is not originated from a traumatic event, it may be useful to try and recall and process (with a therapist?) why we began to fear something in the first place, where our fear comes from etc – i.e. from our own experiences or passed on from other people.
Understanding the root of our fear gives us further insight into our responses and is of help when identifying ways that we can begin to face and change our responses to fear, generally by changing the condition in which the fear was learnt by reprogramming using guided visualisation and other therapeutic tools.
We can think about our fears logically asking ourselves what we are afraid of, breaking it down into manageable bite-sized steps and working to change our mindset, a better way to overcome fear is not to think at all, but really connect with our emotions, accept what we feel without judgement but benevolence
When seeking to face our fears, we need to be honest with ourselves. If we don’t admit our fears to ourselves, we can’t change the situation. Facing our fears takes courage! We can’t ‘think our way through fear’ i.e. by analysing what triggered the fear or projecting what could happen next /how we’ll deal with it etc. Those types of thoughts don’t diminish fear; but can actually increase it. Instead we need to do the counter-intuitive thing: I.e. let ourselves feel the fear, identify what we are exactly afraid of then take our fears apart logically and break them down into small bite-sized steps ie rather than a paralysing whole.
Confronting fear is a skill we can practice and get good at, like anything else. When we determine to consistently face our fears head on, it reduces the impact of those fears and we feel more in control.
"Fear of a name only increases fear of the thing itself." Hermione Granger
Obviously there are times when we need to know when to be afraid, but also we need a way to determine when not to be afraid. I heard the phrase recently “Danger is real but fear is a choice” Although fear, as an emotion, is a biological response to danger, we can try our best to have a healthy response to fear, one that guarantees our survival as it was programmed to do.
When we deliberately move towards what we're afraid of, our nervous system takes in the new information, assimilates it and learns a new behaviour response, thanks to our amazing neuroplasticity capabilities, sending a message to our brains to reconsider its original fear response. By providing our nervous systems with the right information, we can create a different pattern / schema and break the cycle of fear and avoidance.
Consistency and repetition help creates new neural pathways and changes our mindset i.e. we conquer our fears by repeating activities until the fear diminishes and confidence and courage becomes the new norm (Habituation)
Useful questions to ask ourselves are:
What do I want to achieve? Why am I acting in this specific way? What does this reaction cost me? How could I react differently?
What exactly am I afraid of?
What secondary benefit am I telling myself to support my fear and avoid my goals/dreams? How is clinging on to this fear having a negative impact on my life? What is this fear stopping me doing?
What am I missing out on by having this fear?
If you are interested in some more reading on the subject, here are a few links to get you started:
Rob Dial podcast no 819
“Taking action is hard but regret is even harder”