All animals, including the slug, are born with the ability to feel fear, and human beings, being animals, have that capacity too. Fear has kept us out of danger. Fear is an automatic response; we don’t consciously decide to be frightened. Our subconscious picks up on a danger signal or on a threat to our well-being and before we know it, we’re experiencing fear. This triggers the (in)famous fight-or-flight response.
So as you can see, there’s nothing wrong with feeling fear. It’s the appropriate emotion to be having when you cross somebody with a drawn knife in a dark alley in one of our big cities. It’s the appropriate feeling to be indulging in when you slam the brakes on in your car only to find out that they’re not working!
Joking aside, I sincerely hope that you have never been the victim of any of these silly examples and I sincerely hope that fear is not preventing you from doing exactly what you want to in life, providing that it doesn’t threaten your survival or well-being. All I’m saying is that there’s no reason to be upset if once in a while you are the victim of fear. We all feel it at times so it’s perfectly normal, desirable even. The only problem with fear is that some people seem to go through life feeling it constantly and often they don’t even know what precisely they’re fearing. Let me explain.
Fear is the response to a perceived threat and as I mentioned earlier, most animals have the capacity to feel it. We as humans have taken this a bit further because, contrary to most other species, we have a developed ability to project ourselves into the future. We anticipate. This is how we invented anxiety. Anxiety is the emotional state where the threat is not present but anticipated. If you’re anxious, you’re not reacting to a threat, you’re anticipating a future threat. This threat could be more or less definite in your mind. So why would you want to anticipate threats?
Beat’s me. Maybe it’s a way of functioning that you have become used to and like a bad habit, it’s hard to break. Maybe the idea of being prepared for the worst can be a comforting thought but to me, it’s nothing but a thought. There’s no joy in anticipating threats and there’s no preparing for an emotion. If you can see that it’s going to rain, you can remove your washing from the line so that it won’t get wet. If you don’t want a scratch on your car, you can avoid parking it in a space where other drivers are obliged to get really close. If you don’t want to be homeless, you can pay your rent on time. But please notice that all these are action steps, action being the thing that pulls you out of fear (as I said in my blog post 9 Steps to Making a Sound Decision NOW). You CANNOT PREARE FOR FEELING DISAPPOINTED IN ADVANCE, you cannot dispel the agony of loss by feeling into it in advance. There’s no controlling emotions IN ADVANCE. You’re much better off building your confidence so that you know that you’ll be able to deal with these emotions as they come along.
If you follow my reasoning, you’ll agree that to combat living in fear (which is really more often than not anxiety), you have to flex your confidence muscles to build them up. Once you feel confident in your ability to deal with whatever blows life chooses to deal you, there’ll be no need to anticipate. You’ll be able to enjoy the here and now, making material/practical provisions for the future because you’re capable of anticipating, leaving you free to enjoy the present instead of living halfway into the future. The more time and focus you spend on anticipating, the less focus you have for now. Joy and happiness are to be found in the here and now. In fact, I would say that all feelings are in the NOW.
Some of the negative consequences of a life lived in fear are higher blood pressure (the body’s attempt at making you ready to fight or to flee by pumping more blood round in your body faster), impaired digestion and immune system (non-essential functions that take away energy from emergency functions (that you need because you’re under threat, remember?)) and inability to focus (attention mobilised by watching for where the threat might be coming from). These are all deceases that many people are suffering from in our societies, high blood pressure, digestive problems, immune disease problems and attention deficit! So not only is it highly uncomfortable to live in fear, it’s also physically damaging to our bodies.
That’s why I’ve come up with a recipe for how to break free of fear.
Start by eliminating insidious sources of fear from your every day life. To my mind, the biggest source of fear is television and Internet. I know it’s a bit radical to tell you to get rid of your television and Internet and this is not really what I’m advocating. I’m just saying that there are different ways of using them.
Lots of people watch television at breakfast and before going to bed. These are moments when you’re not on your guard. After all, you’re not expecting anything bad to happen to you in your own kitchen, in your own living room. This is where you could be wrong. Your defences are down so you’re not actively filtering what you let into your subconscious mind. Think of it! In the morning, you tune into all the disasters that have happened all over the world and in your area while you were fast asleep. There’s an urgency in the newscaster’s voice! You might not be picking up on it because you’re half asleep, but your subconscious is. It’s thinking: “Something’s wrong, somebody’s upset. I need to search for the source of danger!” Now why would you be feeding it these disaster stories, this urgency, this hype over something you can probably do nothing about anyway? It puts your subconscious on alert and it stays there!
You go through your day highly or slightly on alert and when the moment to relax comes, you choose to spend it with yet more television, watching a crime story, murder and violence. You’re thinking that this is “only” television, fiction, but your subconscious isn’t aware of this distinction. It is concentrating on everything that is bad! And it’s feeding it to your entire being.
Now, if you want to include television in your daily life, why not choose to watch something gentle, something life-affirming or informational? And I could say the same about Internet. There’s so much good information out there that there’s really no need to cultivate the bad. Careful: I’m not saying that you should stay oblivious to world events or local politics. I’m just saying that you can choose the times of day when you want to be informed and you can choose the quality of the information that you obtain. It’s not necessarily the people who cry the loudest that are right.
Television is an enormous source of fear. There are others. Try and go through your day with a pen and paper. Every time you hear something disturbing, write down the source. Who’s saying it? Is it believable or do you suspect the person is exaggerating? Does the person have your full confidence? If not, ask for further information on the subject. Some people enjoy making others feel scared. Some people believe all the scary things they hear and feel obliged to share them with you. You don’t have to listen to them. You can choose who you want to listen to. If the person is close to you, you could have a talk with them about relaying disaster information.
It all comes down to choice: you often (not always) have a choice in what you let into your mind. Please use this capacity for choice as often as possible.
To help you break free of fear, here are 7 practical steps that will shift your thoughts away from fear and encourage you to take the necessary action.
Step 1: Stop trying to understand why you’re afraid. Knowing why is not as useful as knowing what to do about it. Try and pinpoint your fear. Can you name it? If so, DO! Then accept it. Accept that you’re feeling this fear. If you can’t quite name it, accept this fact. On a scale from 1 to 10 with 10 being to most fearful, where would you say your fear was situated? A 5? A 10?! Make a note of it.
Step 2: Once you’ve identified your fear, learn about it. Can you find any facts and figures about it? If you’re afraid of a burglar entering your house while you’re asleep, check out statistics about burglary in your neighbourhood. How many burglaries are there in a week? Where exactly? How did the burglars get in? Did they break anything to get in or could they just walk in because of an open window? Find out because once you do so, you’ll see that there are many things you could do to avoid burglary (like closing your window).
Let me digress a little: it reminds me of a summer in France where all the media were full of stories about people drowning at the beach. This naturally scared people and some were reluctant to bathe in the sea, thus depriving themselves of much fun and relaxation. However, it transpired that out of the 18 people drowned, 18 couldn’t swim! So if you could swim, you’d no longer be in the category of people who were liable to drown. These were people who’d gone bathing in the sea without surveillance and without being able to swim. Now why didn’t the media immediately relay this information? Because it’s not headline news to say that people who can’t swim are more likely to drown… (more about headline news later).
Step 3: Practise. Take baby steps to explore your fear. If you’re shy in company with strangers, what you need to conquer this fear is to practise. If you’ve got a social event coming up and you’re fearing going to it because of your shyness, you could decide to get just a tiny bit uncomfortable. It’s like going to the gym: the first time you go, you come out of there feeling very sore because you’ve used muscles that you’re not used to using. The second time less so. The 30th time, you’ll be smiling! It’s the same with going to a social event, feeling shy, you’re going to have to do something you’re not used to doing. An idea of how to take a baby step in the right direction would be to decide, before going, that you’ll talk to 3 people at the event. 3 people are not 10. Just 3. I’m not suggesting that you make a speech in front of 200 people. This would not be a baby step and would feel more than slightly uncomfortable. It might plunge you directly into a fight-or-flight response. Decide ahead of time what you could possibly say. It could be something like: “Hi, I’m (insert your first name). I live (insert your place of residence). And then prepare to keep the conversation going by asking (discreet) questions. You could also tell the other person something about yourself. You could make this more or less revealing, as your courage allows you.
Step 4: Look at your acquaintances. Is there anybody who isn’t suffering from your fear? Probably. Study them. What is it they are doing that you’re not? Imitate this. I’m not saying change yourself, become like them. Just notice little things that you might be able to integrate into your personality or into your way of expressing yourself. Ask yourself: “Would I be able to do something similar?”. Try it out. Don’t expect to be perfect the first time. Spend time with them so that whatever it is that they’ve got rubs off on you.
Step 5: Work on your self-talk. Treat your subconscious mind as if it were a child. After all, you wouldn’t scold a little child for not being able to do something; why would you scold yourself? Be gentle. Coax yourself into taking the baby steps that will conquer your fear. Tell yourself about the advantages of these little changes or better still, journal about them. When you write things down, you make the two halves of your brain, the conscious and the subconscious parts, communicate. When you’ve got them both aligned, you’re so much stronger because there’s no self-sabotage going on. Everybody’s going in the same direction!
Step 6: Forget about the big picture. If you’re telling yourself that you’d like to make a speech to 200 people but that you’re afraid to do so, decide rather to talk to 1 person. When you pick up your kids at school, decide to talk to one of the other parents. Have something prepared. Say: “Would you mind my asking where you got those Wellingtons? I think they look fantastic and they must be so practical!” Nobody can be offended by that, and you’re flexing your courage muscles all this time. The person you ask might be really chuffed that you asked. You’re not worrying about making a speech. You’re taking the first baby step. Once you’ve taken 100 baby steps, you’ll be ready for your speech, but thinking about making the speech won’t actually help you to start off with. Save the big picture for later. It won’t always feel as daunting if you’re practising.
Step 7: Time for appraisal. Once you’ve started learning facts about your fear, once you’ve started practising overcoming it with baby steps, once you’ve learned how to be kind to yourself, ask yourself: “How has my life changed for the better?” Journal about it. Explain to yourself in writing everything you’ve done to conquer your fear. Congratulate yourself for having done it. On a scale of 1 to 10, where would you say your fear was now? Has it moved from your original appraisal? Can this embolden you to yet greater efforts? How far are you from zero fear? Outline the steps you’re going to take to get there, taking inspiration from what you’ve already done. Decide to learn more facts, decide to talk to more people. Are you willing to risk a joke now? Feel into what would feel a bit risky now to do to practise baby steps but wouldn’t be too scary, and then decide when and where to take these steps.
Fear is rarely an emotion you can just talk yourself out of. It takes action. Taking these action steps will calm both your subconscious and your conscious minds and open them up to new possibilities. If you take too drastic action steps, you might end up being even more frightened. The idea is to slowly but surely get used to being in the situation where fear pops up. By exposing yourself to tiny amounts of fearful situations, you’ll be able to see that you can actually handle these situations. Dispensed in small amounts, the fearful situations become familiar, unthreatening and something you’re now able to handle. You might even end up enjoying flexing your new-found courage muscles.
Please don’t forget to congratulate yourself. It took courage but you made it. You are now a powerful person who has conquered fear. What will be your next field of application?
I hope that this has been helpful. I’d love to hear from you. You can write to me at email@example.com
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