Why is it that we teach children how to overcome fear from an early age yet spend much of our adult lives struggling to cope with our own? Of course, a healthy person will naturally feel anxious and scared from time to time, but these negative thoughts can become severely detrimental beyond a certain point.
The tricky bit is that fear isn’t always a bad thing. On the contrary, much of the time, fear is a helpful, if moderately disconcerting, friend. Nonetheless, we sometimes feel terrified of things we’d rather not be, which gets in the way of life being as messy and beautiful as it can be. So how do you learn to overcome something you don’t want to eliminate?
Fear Is a Healthy, Necessary Emotion
Every emotion can be helpful. Even the ones that feel mostly negative are still there for a reason:
- Anger prepares us to face things we find threatening
- Grief guides us through difficult life transitions
- Guilt and shame teach us how not to repeat past mistakes
Like these other emotions, we need fear for a healthy life. Specifically, fear is our early warning system. It draws our attention to things that may cause us harm.
Most emotions work quickly, reacting to things in our environment before our rational thinking has time to process what’s happening. This ability to make quick judgments is essential to our health and safety. However, the action-readiness of our emotions comes at the cost of precision; they don’t always read the situation as accurately as our slower rational thinking.
Usually, fear has the right idea. Many things that scare us either are dangerous, or at least subconsciously remind us of something that is.
From an evolutionary perspective, avoiding things we fear is often in our best interest. In the past, fear has protected humans from predators, poisoning, and precarious situations of all sorts.
The problem is when fear goes too far and starts to interfere with other aspects of life.
When Fear Becomes a Problem
Each of us carries a unique mix of phobias and anxieties throughout life. Most of the time, these work exactly as they should without issue. But sometimes, our fears become irrational. Anxieties like these can take up an undue amount of our attention, leading to excessive worrying, perfectionism, and avoidance of things we might otherwise enjoy.
In severe cases, fear can cause panic attacks, extreme social anxiety, and other acute symptoms. If you regularly experience any of these and are not already working on them with a mental health professional, consider seeking a therapist or counselor. Modern methods like cognitive behavioral therapy could be invaluable in helping you develop healthy coping tools.
In the day-to-day sense, fear often lingers in the back of our minds, quietly steering us away from choices and actions that could significantly benefit our lives.
Have you ever feared any of the following?
- Meeting new people or attending an unfamiliar event
- Taking a risk or leap of faith in your career
- Speaking up or advocating for yourself
- Trying an exciting or thrilling activity for the first time
For most people, situations like these naturally trigger our fight-or-flight response. Our primitive mammal security systems warn us that these things are new, and new things can be dangerous.
However, we can rationally assess that these things feel scary, but they generally aren’t threats to our physical survival. When we give into the fear of doing new and exciting things, we sacrifice the potential that those new things could have given us. New friends, connections, experiences, opportunities, and memories await us on the other side of our ability to face our fears.
5 Ways to Overcome and Manage Fear
Overcoming fear does not mean silencing or getting rid of fear entirely. It is an essential tool that keeps us happy and safe. In the ideal case, fear is still present and able to give warning signals, but it is not able to prevent us from taking action that will improve our lives.
The healthy way to conquer fear is to change your relationship with it. Like all emotions, fear is a helpful tool with which you can communicate. When it speaks to you, you can listen, process what it tells you, and decide for yourself how to proceed. The following techniques can help you keep fear and anxiety in check without trying to eliminate them.
Fear prepares our bodies to face the types of threats we would typically encounter in nature, such as predators. One of the ways it does that is by readying the body for action: increasing our heart rate, dilating our pupils, etc.
The problem with that response is that we rarely face threats like those in our modern world. Instead, the things that make us feel frightened are usually more conceptual:
- Fear of failure
- Fear of success
- Fear of rejection
- Fear of public speaking
While the warning signs fear sends you in these cases may be helpful, the feeling of having a panic attack is not.
For this reason, the first step to conquering fear is to breathe. When something triggers your fear response that is not an immediate physical threat, start with a few deep, slow breaths. Deep breathing communicates back to your nervous system that you are not in immediate danger, and eases the physiological effects of fear to help you get back to deciding what to do next.
Face Your Fear
Exposure therapy is one of the oldest and most reliable techniques when it comes to overcoming a specific phobia. When you confront the thing that makes you feel nervous and afraid, you can gradually build a tolerance.
Underlying many fears is the fear of the unknown. For instance, we don’t fear the dark because we think the darkness itself is dangerous. Instead, we fear the dark because we don’t know what’s hiding in it.
By intentionally dismantling the unknown part of the things we fear, we can reduce the hold those things have over our emotions.
Make sure to give yourself plenty of leeway here. It is challenging to confront your fears, and none are easy to overcome, so it’s okay to go slow. Try to expose yourself to it a little bit at a time, and you will likely notice yourself slowly taking back the power that thing once had over you.
Listen to Your Body
We’ve established that fear is our basic warning system for potential dangers and that sometimes we need our analytical brain to step in, punch in the code for the alarm, and say, “Things are okay. We are safe. Don’t worry about that thing.”
However, the physical feelings of the fear response are still quite strong. Therefore, one fascinating way to deal with fear is to change how you interpret it. As health psychologist Kelly McGonigal demonstrates in her fascinating TED talk, stress is only problematic to those who view it as such.
The physical symptoms of stress or fear, like a raised heart rate, flushed skin, and faster breathing, are all ways of getting your brain and body ready for action. But, intriguingly, these are also signs of excitement. The difference is a matter of interpretation.
Step Out of Your Comfort Zone
It’s a fine line between fear and excitement if there is one. Many things that people enjoy, like roller coasters, video games, and horror movies, tap into this sensation. Are roller coasters frightening and dangerous, or are they thrilling? There’s not much difference between the two experiences, physiologically speaking.
The situation depends on whether you take a negative or positive view of the experience.
You don’t have to like horror movies and roller coasters. They’re not for everybody. But when it comes to overcoming fear, whether it’s a fear of heights or anything else, you have more power than you may realize.
When you can separate the emotion of fear from its physical component, you’ve unlocked the door between you and a whole world of fun, excitement, growth, and possibilities. That world is your discomfort zone.
With some deliberate questioning and a bit of practice, you can overcome all the fearful voices in your head holding you back from chasing your goals and dreams.
Find Your Courage and Take the Leap
It’s normal to feel fear and self-doubt holding you back from significant changes in life. But when something matters to you, the only way to overcome fear is to intentionally choose the possible pain of it not going perfectly rather than the guaranteed pain of never trying.
Making major changes and inviting new things into your life isn’t always easy, but letting all your chances pass you by leads to nothing but regret. So instead, assess the risks and take the first step. Take yourself from 0 to 1; chances are, you won’t regret it.
To paraphrase an old saying, to be courageous is not to have no fear. To be courageous is to feel fear and proceed anyway.
Your Life, Your Goals, Your Fears
Life is scary, and to some extent, it always will be. It is healthy and beneficial that some things frighten us. Yet there are many things we do not need to fear, and letting those things stop us prevents us from living our fullest lives.
There is no need to eliminate fear to have a healthy relationship with it. Instead, the way forward is to know when to listen to the things that make you feel nervous and when to overcome your fear and see what life has in store on the other side.