Fear isn’t something we want to feel if we can help it, except we do feel it. We feel it when we don’t know what to expect. It sneaks into our minds when we’re trying something new, and it wiggles into our guts when we have no control over a situation. At night, while attempting to sleep, we entertain a plethora of worst-case scenarios on replay. It’s annoying.
From an evolutionary standpoint though, it makes sense. Those who assumed the worst when faced with an unknown situation had a better chance of surviving. So it’s safe to say, assuming the worst is programmed in us.
But the thing is, just because our Fear tell us the worst-case scenario — doesn’t mean we have to listen.
Why Do We Feel Fear?
The instinct to be afraid is encoded deep within the DNA of pretty much every living thing, including plants.
Fear is an emotional messenger sent to warn you of impending danger. When physical danger is near, as in the case of an attack, Fear floods your system with adrenaline. This adrenaline is the source of your fight or flight mode.
If danger isn’t immediate, then Fear teams up with Anxiety. Together they warn of possible future problems. Back in hunter-gatherer days, this might include the changing of seasons. Today, it might mean your presentation at work next week.
Society has changed over the last hundred years, let alone the last thousand, and what we fear has changed along with it. For example, instead of warring tribes, it’s internet trolls we have to watch out for.
Fear in Everyday Life
By this point, I think it’s safe to say we’re all experts in being scared. Even still, physical danger isn’t the only thing Fear is tasked with protecting, it also protects your ego.
Sometimes, Fear speaks on behalf of Anxiety and Insecurity. This means you might feel like danger is near without realizing insecurity is the culprit. You aren’t actually afraid for your life during your presentation, you’re scared people will laugh at you, or you’ll mess up.
That’s why it’s important to know not only which emotion you’re feeling, but also why you’re feeling it. At the heart of most fears, there seem to be three common underlying causes.
Fear of the Unknown
Generally speaking, we aren’t fans of the unknown. We’d much rather know what’s coming and prepare accordingly. When we don’t know or if there’s missing information, our brains get to work filling in the gaps. You might recognize them as the “what-ifs”.
What if there’s traffic? What if they don’t like me? What if the flight is canceled? What if it rains? This train of thought might feel like you’re being proactive but if you let the What-Ifs run wild, all you’re really doing is allowing yourself to tumble down the rabbit hole of anxiety. Left unchecked, this type of fear leads to the next one on the list.
Loss of Control
We love feeling in control, period. It doesn’t matter what we’re controlling, we seek it everywhere. The reason is simple, we want control because if we don’t have it, it means someone else does. And if someone else has control, then it leaves us vulnerable.
A common example might be when your kid gets their driver's license. You want to keep them safe but it’s out of your control when they’re out driving alone — so you feel terrified for a while, until you get used to it. At the heart of it, a lack of control over is similar to the next form of fear.
I’m pretty sure our fear of change dominated the majority of 2020. We’ve practically confronted change every moment of every day. The good news is, humans are adaptable — it’s part of how we’ve lasted this long without going extinct. The bad news is, we prefer to adapt at the pace of a sloth when possible. Rapid change makes us cranky unless of course, we’re the ones initiating it.
Our fear of change is actually the result of the first two combined. When we’re not in control of change, then we don't know what changes to expect or when. Which could mean something bad will happen. As I mentioned before, this is because we instinctively focus on worst-case scenarios instead of positive outcomes.
How to Find the Why behind Your Fears
You don’t have to wonder if you’re in danger when an ax flies toward your face. It’s obvious. But when your fears aren’t physical, understanding the source of them is a little harder. The tips below will help you identify the source of your fear so you can choose how to handle it.
Challenge Your Fear
Fear isn’t a psychic, it’s a dramatic doomsayer. Nor is it the most logically minded emotion. Its only job is to outline all the problems and pessimistic possibilities of life. Your job is to evaluate the information and decide the best course of action — and you do this by challenging your Fear.
Fear has quite the imagination if you’ll entertain its ideas, which is why it’s important you find holes in its prophecies. Listen to Fear’s predictions like a judge hears evidence. Asking questions will help you stay objective, it’s possible your Fear has no real case at all — once you realize it’s baseless, it’ll usually slink away on its own.
Get the Facts
When we’re missing information we take the liberty of filling in the gaps ourselves. Fear loves this game. It’ll come up with elaborate possibilities to complete the story.
You’re the one responsible for distinguishing the facts from fiction. Focus your energy on gathering more information so you rely less on assumptions. You don’t want to have a meltdown over a miscommunication.
Take Your Time
No one wants to feel afraid, so we act fast to rid the feeling — usually through distracting ourselves. Doing this though doesn’t usually solve your problem or get rid of your fear though, it actually makes it worse.
Instead, show yourself the kindness your Fear isn’t. Understand you don’t have to overcome everything at once. Focus on getting through one day at a time. Look at your fear from new angles or break big problems into smaller, more manageable tasks. There’s no need to put yourself on a time limit unless you have to.
Look at it with Curiosity
Everything we know of has its natural opposite— hot and cold, good and evil, light and dark, up and down. Well, curiosity is the natural opposite of fear. The same way water drenches fire, taking a closer look at your fear through a sense of curiosity and wonder, makes it less scary. The best way to spark curiosity? Ask, why.
Curiosity will conquer fear even more than bravery will.
— James Stephens
Fear plays a vital role in your life, but it doesn’t need to run it. Learn to listen to what it’s telling you, then use your logic and reasoning skills to decide how to handle it. Take your control back so you can spend your time on more important things than being scared.