Fear: Friend or Foe?

fearful man, maggie mcreynolds blog, Signature:1aa0edd3f00ecb0adc8aa215f572f8061f81f2bd7ee14d34f53c48d50acdcb69My son tells me he is afraid. “There are so many things to be scared of,” he says. “I don’t understand the point of fear. Is it to keep you from doing stuff?”

Well, yes. And no. frightened guy

Life without fear would be dangerous indeed, because fear can provide useful information that might help keep you alive. Consider sufferers of congenital analgia, a rare and total insensitivity to pain. People with this disease often don’t live past age 25, because as children, it’s extraordinarily difficult for them to learn to avoid danger when they simply can’t feel the consequences.

While the rest of us are learning—often the hard way—that fire burns, that knives cut, that heavy objects break bones—those with congenital analgia get no such feedback from their brains. They can get third-degree burns from a scalding bath or cut off a finger without feeling a thing.

So if fear can be a good thing, where and how does fear cross the line from serving us by keeping us safe to crippling us by keeping us stuck?

Get a realistic handle on the risk:

Let’s say you’re about to cross the street when you hear a blaring bus horn. Instinctively, you leap back to safety on the sidewalk, often before you’re aware of having a conscious thought. This is the part of your brain called the amygdala, the source of the instinctive “fight or flight” response, in action. Just as our ancestors learned that the roar of a saber tooth tiger spelled bad news, you’ve learned, over time, that the roar of a bus could result in you getting pancaked. Your fear—and your response to it—is appropriate.

Now let’s say that based on this incident, you conclude that walking across the street is unsafe under any conditions. You’re just not going to do it, ever again. Your fear of being hit by a bus has gone off the charts, and is no longer a proportionate response to the potential threat. You’ve crossed the line from fear into phobia.

Figure out you’re really afraid of—and why:

“I’m afraid of being at home alone,” says Beth. If you ask her why, she’ll tell you she’s worried about break-ins, or rapists, or a house fire, or falling and being unable to summon help. If those were her actual fears, there are steps she could take to minimize risk: security precautions, neighborhood watches, smoke detectors, one of those things you wear around your neck that summon emergency help.

But that’s not what really scares Beth. What she’s afraid of is feeling lonely. It might help Beth to ask herself what she is making being alone mean: that she is and will forever remain unlovable? That she is not competent at self-care, or strong enough to emotionally sustain herself?

What Beth needs to do is to acknowledge what it is she’s really afraid of, and then face that fear square in the face. Beth might go through some uncomfortable feelings at first, but feelings have beginnings, middles, and, thankfully, ends. Once Beth comes out the other side of her fear and she has not ceased to exist, it will have less power over her the next time.

Retrain your brain:

Jack is afraid of public speaking. He’s worried that he’ll stutter, that he’ll sound stupid, that he’ll develop flop-sweat, or that, worst of all, he’ll simply freeze up like a deer in the headlights. His fear is costing him at work, where peers who make compelling speeches at industry functions are moving up the corporate ladder.

In Jack’s case, he needs to teach his brain—the amygdala, remember?—that public speaking is not a risk equivalent, say, to playing Russian roulette. If Jack started out small—making speeches to his mirror, his family, trusted friends, a Toastmaster’s chapter—he would learn through small successes that stepping outside his comfort zone is worth the potential risks. In time, he would no longer perceive public speaking as a frightening experience.

Be willing to fail:

Many of our fears can be boiled down to one essential, core fear: fear of taking a risk and falling flat on our faces. Ask yourself: what’s really at risk here? You might not get that job you want. You might not get the girl or guy. You might not win this particular battle. You might look stupid. You might make a mistake. In really rare circumstances, without sufficient safety precautions, you might die.

Weigh what you want against the potential consequence. is it worth it? Can you reduce the risk, so it’s at an acceptable level? More importantly, can you fail, and still be okay?

Look at it this way: around about 11–12 months old, most of us pulled ourselves up on plump, wobbly legs, took an unsteady first step, and promptly fell back down on our Pampered butts. If we had said to ourselves, “Well, that really sucked! I’m never doing that again!”, we’d all still be crawling.

Before we could even form complete sentences, we knew how to take risks. We knew that what we wanted—autonomy!—mobility!—that shiny glass globe over there Mommy won’t let us touch!—was worth the risk of falling down.

Fear is a thought. Fear is a tool. You can use it to keep you physically safe from harm. Or you can allow it to hobble you and keep you from having the life you say you want and being the person you want to be.

The cool thing is, you get to choose. Free will. It’s a beautiful thing.

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