Overcome your obstacles: deal with fear head on!

Written by Varouna Baroud on Thursday, 19 October 2017. Posted in Self development


 Whatever it is that scares you, it is not the fear itself that is holding you back. It is the suffering that inevitably follows the misinterpretations of our mind.

Fear itself can be a healthy mechanism that warns you of potential danger. Rational fears motivate you to remove yourself from a vulnerable situation. Healthy fears that protect you from unhealthy behavior. For example, fear of lung cancer can make you stop smoking.

How fear effects you

When the threat is real, fear is a healthy mechanism. But when the threat is imagined it leads to unconstructive behavior. A great example of this is the story of the monk in the jungle.

A monk was meditating in the jungle and it was close to dark. Being a monk he was alert and aware of his surroundings. Going into meditation he heard the sound of branches twitching. He listened carefully, trying to interpret if it was a small or big animal and assess if he was in any danger. It had gotten dark but with his eyes closed he listened carefully and from the sound of the branches, he figured it was a tiny animal. He went back into meditation until he heard the sound again. From the sound of the branches cracking he realized it was a medium-sized animal. No reason to worry. He tried to go into meditation again but suddenly he heard the animal approaching. He heard the loud cracking of the leaves on the ground and when he concentrated he could suddenly hear the heavy breathing of the animal. His heart was beating as he realized this was a big animal. He carefully reached for his flashlight to see the big animal he was dealing with. His hands were shaking as he shone his light in front of him. And there it was, looking back at him was a tiny mouse.

This is what fear does to us It is the interpretation of fear that often leads to unhealthy behavior. In our conviction and expectation that something bad is going to happen, we exaggerate the situation and let it cloud our perception of reality. We don’t act out of the fear but out of the imaginations of our mind.

Acknowledging fear

We all have different fears but there is often one big fear that lies behind many other fears. My biggest fear is fear of rejection. I am aware that it is, I have spent many hours working on it and still I catch often catch myself seeking confirmation. It has become such a habit that often I don’t even recognize the fear behind it anymore.

I realized it is of no use to fight our fears. For me, the first step of dealing with our fear is acknowledging it. Fear only gets worse when you deny it or fight against it. Just try not to be scared when you are scared, it doesn’t work. Once you acknowledge that you are scared, you can explore what your fear is really about. 

For example, fear of flying is often not a fear of being on a plain, it is the thought behind it that you have no control and could crash. My fear of rejection doesn’t always present as a conscious thought. Often I experience it as a fear of speaking in public, fear of commitment or getting attached, fear of showing who I really am. It is not until you get to the root of your fear that you can start dealing with it.

Dealing fear 1

Understanding fear

What also helps me (but maybe that is because I am a psychology nerd) is understanding what happens in my brain when I feel fear. Fear is essentially a chemical process. Your brain releases hormones in reaction to a stimulus that is perceived a threat. In humans, fear is modulated by the process of cognition and learning.  In other words, through experience, we learn if a fear is perceived as rational or irrational. And then we learn an automatic response: freeze, fight or flight. Although we can have different reactions in different situations, we usually have one dominant response. That’s why some people always walk away when things get tough, others immediately go in offense mode and others just pretend it is not happening. It can help you, knowing your dominant reaction.

Fear is closely related to anxiety, but anxiety only occurs when a threat is perceived as inescapable. The funny thing is that the physical reaction that occurs when we feel fear is almost the same as our response when we feel excitement. Our thoughts make us perceive the physical arousal as either fear or excitement. This knowledge can help when you are dealing with instant fear in a situation. If you are afraid of flying, speaking for a group or doing something new that scares you, just consciously tell yourself that you are not scared but excited.

Reframing your thoughts

This is actually a well-known trick used by motivational gurus to help people get over their fear. It is a way of reframing your thoughts. It makes sense, right? If fear derives from the interpretation of a situation, a way of dealing with fear can be reinterpreting the situation.  You can’t control what happens but you can control your thoughts. When you get in a situation that scares you, analyze your thoughts, challenge them and then replace them with one powerful positive thought. That new thought can help you reframe your thoughts and control your fear.

dealing fear 2

Practicing mindfulness

Since fear is learned, we can also unlearn fear. I have a paralyzing fear of heights that I try to challenge by making myself go on a ride or jump off of something high.  I have made it a goal to do something I fear at least once a month. That can be something physical but it can also be something out of my mental comfort zone. Stretching my comfort zone has a ripple effect. Not does it get easier every time I try jumping off a high cliff because I have had a successful experience doing it before. The confidence gained from it spreads to other areas of my life. If I know I can control my thoughts and fears in one situation, I feel more powerful in other areas of life as well. We all are a work in progress and every little step counts.

Accepting reality

You can use the natural power of your body to control your mind. Meditation and breathing can help you stabilize your emotions. Your brain does not only interpret external stimuli. It also works the other way around, your brain interprets your physical state. So if you regularly practice mindfulness, ground yourself and do breathing exercises, your body is in a general calmer state and you are less likely to experience fear or anxiety. By the way, it doesn’t work if you only use these mindfulness techniques when you are already scared or anxious. Mindfulness is like building up muscle, you train your body in being more resilient to stressful stimuli.

For me, the most important and useful insight of the last years in dealing with anxiety or fear is the acceptance that fear is part of life. We all feel fear. And no matter how much we try, we can not avoid fear. Negative emotions, like pain, hurt and failure are inescapable. The more we try to fight or avoid them, the more they influence our life! But if we can accept that it is part of life, of who we are, if we accept our vulnerability, we can learn to let go of the patterns that grow out of our fears and our need to avoid these negative events. 

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