Riots. Political unrest. Pandemics. Social Distancing. What does this list bring up for you? Some feel angry. Others are doubtful. A few even claim indifference. For most of us, though — if we’re being honest — fear is the constant. Fear affects us profoundly, whether acutely, in the form of racing hearts and knotted stomachs, or more covertly, by way of a constant low-grade buzz of dread.
“Fear has many eyes and can see things underground.”
-Miguel de Cervantes
You see, fear is alive. It’s present-tense. It has a pulse. It’s the boogeyman.
It lurks in the shadows, never fully revealing itself for us to confront and vanquish. Instead it toys with us, menacingly dragging a ragged, razor-sharp claw against the recesses of our consciousness, reminding us that we’re never truly free from it: even on the good days. Even when we think we’re winning the fight.
And make no mistake: this is a fight. If we lead with fear, we lose. Life loses its luster when we placate our fear by opting for a safe, predictable outcome. It’s vanilla. The practical midsize-four-door-sedan path. Who wants that? What is life without adventure, passion and freedom of choice? But even the bravest among us who have the most agency over their lives feel afraid. The goal, then, is to figure out how to live in spite of fear. But how?
Why Traditional Modalities For Conquering Fear Don’t Work
I’ve read books about overcoming fear and have followed countless strategies to mitigate the impact of fear on my goals, relationships and productivity. There is wisdom to be gained from these resources, for sure, but eliminating fear requires a more nuanced approach.
Why? Unfortunately, fear isn’t tangible. It’s tied up in childhood memories and complexly woven into our worst moments, both real and imagined. It’s our past muddying up our future. Worst of all, fear is a shapeshifter, so believing there exists a singular process that will magically catapult us into fearlessness is futile. If we can’t put our finger on exactly what we’re afraid of, how can we eliminate it? We have to get creative.
If you accept this notion, then perhaps you’ll agree that we’ve been going about it entirely the wrong way. What if the solution isn’t to overcome fear, but to learn to live with it instead? On the surface it seems like both tactics net the same outcome, but nothing could be further from the truth.
You see, our fears inform our behaviors and decisions. Fear is always in the mix. It’s healthy to listen to our fears when deciding whether to engage in a physically dangerous activity, for example, so to eradicate fear altogether can paradoxically put us in more danger. Rather, working with our fear and using it as a diagnostic tool just might be more productive.
“Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. The fearful are caught as often as the bold.”
— Helen Keller
Work on Your Fear Meter
I’ve spent a lifetime managing fear. What am I afraid of? Everything. Even the opposite things, like failure and success. Love and heartbreak. Life and death. Life, though, is best enjoyed — and is its richest and most vibrant — when we take risks. Putting this into practice means that we must allow fear to enter the equation. We must be brave.
Self-awareness is a buzzy, new age term for the old adage, know thyself. The fact is, we’re creatures of habit. We form ideas, tackle problems and challenges, and interrelate pretty consistently. As such, we form patterns. Identifying these patterns and consciously modulating the impact they have on our behavior — and the interjection of fear — is where we must begin.
Here are some ways that you can consciously modulate fear in the moment:
- Name your fear. While I believe that fear is ambiguous, its tentacles also reach into more tangible — and therefore identifiable — areas. Maybe you’re afraid of public speaking and you just found out you have to give a speech at your best friend’s wedding. Perhaps you fear poverty and your job is in jeopardy. As best you can, list your tangible fears and try to apply a process that can mitigate the ‘what if’ component. Practice the speech. Polish up your resume. Direct action that helps to confront the micro-fears you can name will become the building blocks for a more measured approach to our less tangible fears.
- Chip away at the fear. 5 years, 5 months, 5 days, 5 hours or 5 minutes. How long is this thing you fear going to affect you? What’s the worst that can happen? What if ALL your fears come true? What then? Remember, it’s unlikely that everything you fear will come to fruition. What if only 50% of your fears become reality? 25%? 5%? Fear despises logic. Gain some perspective on the magnitude of your fears and realize that the odds are against them manifesting in totality. What if you lose everything tomorrow? What would you do? Can you start over? This isn’t catastrophizing: it’s rationalizing. There’s a big difference.
- Adopt a universe-oriented point-of-view. We’re a speck. A little dusting of humanity over millions of years of life on this planet. So many before us have shared our fears and many that come after us will too. Sometimes it pays to send your fear-filled thinking through the filter of simplicity. In other words, the sun will rise again tomorrow whether you’re afraid or not. Up is up, down is down, left is left, and right is right. These are universal truths. Pull back from the overthinking that fuels your fear and look at the trees. Sip your coffee more slowly. Rest in the moment because in that moment (and so many of our moments throughout the day), there is no danger. It’s all in our minds. Breathe.
- Say ‘so what’ and do it anyway? Full disclaimer: I can’t do this yet. Many of you can, though, and I encourage it. Just plow ahead. Ignore it in the most childish, denial-laden method imaginable. Coping strategies aren’t always pretty. There are no pictures on the scorecard. Again, this requires some intestinal fortitude, but many of us can compartmentalize and if you’re one of them, I say go for it. Trust me, there will be plenty to ruminate on later. For now, it’s all about action.
- Find a less scary risk and overcome it. We can back into fear modulation by focusing on a different, less overwhelming task that still requires some risk. Example: let’s say you wake up feeling dread. It’s the 50,000-ft. level kind of dread, so you can’t identify it. You feel heavy and frozen in place. Pick up the phone and call that friend from high school that you haven’t spoken to in years. Sign up for the online workshop you’ve been eyeing for weeks. Skirt around the big, hairy monster at the center of your thoughts and hit it with an upper cut.
Is Fear Just Another Form of Anxiety? Or vice versa?
Fear and anxiety are quiet companions. They overlap and yet they’re parallel. Fear can be acute, as in fear of bodily harm when we sense imminent danger, but anxiety is more of an overarching haze. My theory is that by acknowledging and modulating fear, your anxiety will decrease. It begins and ends with fear.
While this is not an absolute — and I am not clinically qualified to diagnose or treat any psychological condition — I know from experience that I tend worry about something all the way up until the moment it happens. Then I come down from the hyper-vigilant state and almost always experience a few moments of mental rest. A feeling that the danger has passed. But I always started from a place of fear.
“…fear begets anxiety”
Try examining your anxiety and asking yourself if it’s fueled by a fear. Is the fear general or can you name it? Is the anxiety always with you or is it sporadic? What were you thinking about right before you experienced a wave of panic? Again, I’m not a licensed therapist, but I am someone who suffers from sometimes debilitating fear, and my fear creates anxiety, not the other way around. If we look at it through a sequential lens, as in fear begets anxiety, then to resolve the anxiety we must back up a step and address the fear.
Bringing It All Together
We all want to live an authentic life unburdened by limiting beliefs. We want to reach our full potential. Getting there takes strength and faith, along with a willingness to feel discomfort. Fear at its core is existential discomfort, an activation of our ages-old fight-or-flight response. In our evolved world, we no longer fear the predator hunting us for food. The predator is ourselves. Our psyches. Our perceptions and how they negatively impact us.
Start today. Cultivate a mindset of working with your fear. Chip away at it and know that tomorrow the sun will rise. Breathe.