This is Why You’re Afraid
A guide to confronting and reimagining irrational phobias
Fear means different things for all of us. For some, it has eight legs and a thick, hairy body. For others, it’s a room full of people. Whatever it is specifically that causes us to feel afraid, we can’t argue with the fact that every single one of us worries from time to time.
And yet, as familiar as it is, fear is in many cases our worst enemy. It prevents us from talking to that attractive girl at the bar. It tells us to avoid entrepreneurship and take a safer career path. It convinces us that we, for whatever reason, aren’t good enough to do the things that we wish to do.
What’s worse is that after many years of feeling fear and allowing it to fester, the lines start to blur. Eventually, we lose our ability to distinguish between the things that deserve terror and those that provoke it.
Rationality goes out of the window. Asking ourselves whether or not we should be afraid becomes futile. It doesn’t matter — we just are, and it feels like we can’t do anything about it. And for as long as we continue to live fearfully, we continue to put a hold on our deepest hopes and aspirations.
In the wise words of Les Brown,
“Too many of us are not living our dreams because we are living our fears.”
That’s no way to live, is it? Something must be done. But what?
An Ancient Mechanism
To truly contend with fear, we first have to understand it.
The only difference between the timid and the bold is this: at some point in the nervous person’s life, for whatever reason, their capacity to logically separate real danger with perceived danger has been damaged.
In other words, when we’re scared, we’re confused. Our brains don’t fully understand the reality we’re presented with. We can’t distinguish that which is dangerous from that which only appears dangerous.
What’s more — our reasons for feeling afraid don’t make any sense. When we think of fear today, we might imagine walking into a party alone or speaking in public.
Our phobic mechanisms, however, aren’t designed to protect us from social dangers. They’re far more ancient than the society we now find ourselves a part of. The feeling of fear isn’t there to preserve our reputation or shield or dignity — but to keep us alive.
Back when we were cavemen, fear (more specifically the fight/flight response) served the purpose of protecting us from danger. It acted to prepare us either to confront threats or run away from them by momentarily altering our physiology.
A Neanderthal roaming the African savanna, for instance, might be met with all kinds of perils: lions, cheetahs, neighboring tribes. When a saber-toothed cat leaps out of the tall grass, what’s the first thing the poor guy feels? Fear, of course.
That fear is like an energy spike. Adrenaline starts coursing through his veins, his heart pumps double time, his muscles contract. His palms start to sweat and his knees begin shaking. In short, he’s prepared to either fight or get out of there.
Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Not the sudden ambush from a pack of hungry felines, but those classic sensations that remind us of that old rival of ours: anxiety.
The thing is, in today’s world, we’re pretty safe. We aren’t met with imposing danger or the prospect of sudden death at every street corner, and there are no saber-toothed cats waiting to pounce out of the bushes.
And yet, regardless of our safety and security, we’re constantly feeling afraid — afraid of things that really aren’t that important. What’s going on?
In our neolithic prime, we probably wouldn’t have cared so much about social acceptance. It was important, of course, and being a valued member of a tribe would certainly provide security— but rejection probably wouldn’t have felt quite like a life-or-death situation.
Since then, society has developed pretty quickly. Too quickly, in fact. We’re still walking around with our cavemen brains and primitive bodies trying to make sense of it all.
Our phobic mechanisms haven’t caught up. They haven’t evolved to account for the fact that, at last, we can live peacefully knowing that we’re safe from impending doom. As a result, our mind is constantly searching for threats and reasons to be afraid — in a hopeless attempt to keep us safe.
As Kendra Cherry puts it,
The fight-or-flight response can happen in the face of an imminent physical danger (such as encountering a growling dog during your morning jog) or as a result of a more psychological threat (such as preparing to give a big presentation at school or work).
What does that mean? It means the lines are blurred. Our brain doesn’t have the capacity to distinguish between those things that are an immediate threat to our life and those that are just minor threats — like a plane crash compared with messing up a presentation.
As a result, we have exactly the same response to those minor threats as we would to major threats. It’s like our brain literally thinks that if we say the wrong thing and make a fool out of ourselves, we are going to die.
Whilst interesting, none of this information really acts as a solution. It’s important to know your enemy — to understand the force you’re contending with. But you came here for a solution.
Digging Our Way Out of the Hole
In order to climb our way out of that all-too-familiar pit of despair and worry, we need to do something that will feel at first completely unnatural and discomforting. We need to ignore our senses.
We need to learn to see those very senses, that trembling upper-lip and butterfly-filled stomach, for what they are: crude tools that have almost no practical value; misguided measurements of reality.
To quote French philosopher Rene Descartes,
“The senses deceive from time to time, and it is prudent never to trust wholly those who have deceived us even once.”
We must learn to distrust our senses. To hone our capacity to distinguish between reality and emotion. To understand that an impression or an emotion is not a fact.
Let the mind scream. Let it rant. Let it ruminate. And then ask it: is there really anything to be afraid of? Are you sure? Yes, it will retort, but you know that it’s wrong. Watch as the panic unfolds and refuse to get involved. Separate yourself.
Breathe deep, feel the emotion and then do what you set out to do anyway. Know that those feelings are nothing. Your thoughts are just suggestions, not commands.
The challenge, in essence, is to stop giving ourselves new reasons to feel fearful. Our task is to disconnect from our busy and confused minds and reacquaint ourselves with reality. Then, and only then, can we truly be free from fear.