Do you consider yourself to be fearless? If so, you’re not alone. Not so long ago I was there myself. This is what I learned when I took an unexpected journey into fear.
- Fear is real. Everyone experiences it. Yes, everyone!
- Despite what you’ve been told, you cannot eradicate fear.
- Even if you could eliminate fear, it’s not in your best interest.
- Awareness is the first step in leveraging fear to your advantage.
If you’re not afraid, you’re not paying attention.
A few years ago, a co-worker invited me to enroll in a yearlong program focused on social-emotional intelligence. As part of the program, we took a deep dive into emotions: joy, sadness, anger, contentment, hurt, disgust, and – you guessed it – FEAR.
When it came to fear, most of my classmates could identify at least a few things they were afraid of. I was at a loss. I couldn’t relate!
Sure there are negative things that happen in everyone’s life. But spending time fearing what might happen seemed like a waste of energy. After all most of what we imagine might go wrong never does.
And when something bad does occur, we fix it. Right? I’m a fixer. Perhaps you’re a fixer, too. When a challenging situation arises, we analyze the options and take action.
Maybe as a child I’d internalized what my favorite aunt used to say; “We fix the difficult things right away. The impossible ones take us a little longer.” (I always loved her attitude!)
Oh! And the messages we get in childhood? – to be brave, to not be a “fraidy cat”, to “suck it up”. Though perhaps well intended, such messages don’t eliminate fear. Instead they teach us to hide it, to push it down, to be ashamed of it.
What’s more, we grow up thinking of fear as a “bad” emotion. People in leadership positions are especially susceptible to blocking feelings of fear. Though they use fear to anticipate and mitigate issues, their denial of fear can be quite strong. They may actually convince themselves that they never experience it.
Yikes! Was that me?
Anxiety. Worry. Stress. Dread. Angst. Excitement. These are common labels we put on emotions that all have their origin in fear. These labels may sound prettier, more socially acceptable, more grown up. But, let’s just call it what it is. Fear.
Feeling the fear
Once I realized that I had fears but perhaps had mislabeled them, I wanted to know more. I signed up for a weekend of emotional awareness, total immersion. For three days we were subjected to situations that elicited strong emotions. As emotions were triggered, we focused our attention to the physical sensations in our bodies. Common reactions to fear included:
- Sweating (cools the body during exertion, such as running)
- Pounding heart (caused by the release of adrenaline)
- Shallow breathing or holding your breath (freeze and you might not be seen)
- Dry throat and mouth
- Goose bumps
- Muscle tension (designed to prepare us to run away or fight back)
These physiological reactions are triggered in the unconscious brain. The body starts to respond even before our conscious, reasoning mind kicks in.
A little science:
Deep within the brain is a small almond-shaped collection of neurons known as the amygdala. The amygdala is often referred to as the “primitive” brain due to its role in human survival. It is primarily involved with the emotions associated with fear and pleasure.
When it comes to fear, this primitive part of the brain is largely responsible for the messages (fight, flight, freeze) that have kept our species alive, allowing us to continue to learn and evolve. And, of course, the pleasure mechanism is designed to ensure that we procreate.
If you have a functioning human brain, you have an amygdala. And this means you experience fear. Everyone experiences fear. As long as the amygdala is functioning, fear will exist. So, you cannot eradicate fear.
In fact, getting rid of fear is not even in our best interest. If we hear an unexpected gunshot or explosion, we want our adrenal glands to kick in, prompting us to duck, take cover, or run. We might not have time to wait for our conscious mind to analyze the situation.
Fortunately, these days we are rarely faced with life threatening, fight or flight situations. Yet we still have fear. Most of our fears today have to do with social anxiety. Here is a partial list:
- Fear of failure
- Fear of success
- Fear of being disliked
- Fear of making a mistake
- Fear of humiliation
- Fear of losing social status
- Fear of rejection
Since fear isn’t going away, you may as well make friends with it.
I’ve learned that my fear usually manifests itself as queasiness, a churning feeling in my stomach. Or, what some might call butterflies. Now that I recognize this as fear, when I feel the sensation I frequently just smile and nod. Sometimes I speak directly to it. “Ah, fear!” I say. “There you are! Well, come along then. Let’s go.”
Next time you feel anxious, as though you are not in control of your body’s reactions, take a moment to reflect. Why might your body be reacting this way? What fears might have triggered these physical warnings? Are you really in danger? Probably not.
Then take a deep, calming breath and congratulate yourself for your awareness. Recognize that you can leverage this boost of adrenaline. Think about the edge it gives you. Instead of letting fear hold you back, use it to propel yourself forward.
What are you afraid of? How do you deal with your fears? Leave a comment below. I’d love to hear from you!