Do you ever think about what it is that you are really afraid of? And if you do think about it, have you ever taken it a step further and asked yourself why it is that you are afraid? We probably consider these sorts of thoughts all the time—fleetingly— but most of us rarely spend the time that we need to seek the answers to these important and crucial questions. The truth is, though, that the answers to some of these universal human questions can provide us with a great sense of relief.
It was 3:20 am on Saturday morning when my dog woke me up and needed to go out. While the last thing that I wanted to do was walk him, I looked at his sweet face and I couldn't resist. So I walked out of my building and took him for a quick walk. As I was walking back to the building, a big van pulled up next to me and as the door opened, I raced to my building and realized that the doorman was nowhere to be seen. My heart was beating so fast and I was certain that the guy in the van was following me. I walked into the package room calling for someone, and when I turned around, I realized that the guy who came out of the van was carrying a newspaper. “Did you think I was coming after you?” the guy asked me with a smile. For a few seconds, I was embarrassed and since I was still shaken and scared he said, “I deliver the newspaper to your building every day.”
This experience made me think of fear and how many of us think of fear as a negative emotion, when in fact, it is designed to protect us. Fear is a powerful and very natural human emotion. We all experience fear at some point in our lives and I am certain that you are familiar with some of the physical symptoms related to fears. Fear alerts us of a danger whether it is physical or psychological. Fear is also an ingredient in various types of anxiety disorders such as agoraphobia, generalized anxiety disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and social/separation anxiety disorder, but I will not touch upon these specific disorders here.
With the past few months filled with so many scary experiences and so much uncertainty, I’ve been reflecting on everything that’s been going on and found myself thinking about the emotional effects of Covid. While there are so many different emotions that this pandemic brings up, today I want to focus on fear. I consider myself a brave woman and on most occasions I don't allow fear to stop me from achieving my goals. Of course, this wasn't always the case. As I have matured, I learned that fear is there to serve as a protective mechanism, and if I allow this state of alert to give me clues as to what it is that I need to do, I can channel it into very productive places. I want to share with you how a shift in mindset from fear to challenge can help you overcome your fears, feel much better, and achieve your goals! I hope that this helps you feel more empowered.
Tip 1: Know the origins of your fear.
Fear is more complex than you might think, but if you develop a deeper understanding and awareness of the causes, you will be able to gain more control over your emotions. Some fears may result from traumatic experiences, while others may represent fears from something else such as fear of flying or being in closed places.
Attending to our emotions can be very uncomfortable and different, but it’s a vital emotional exercise that needs to be done. Just as in anything that you do in life, the more you practice, the better you will get at it and the less intimidating it will become. When I think about my past as it relates to fears, the list is very long, but one specific example that stands out is growing up in Israel and living in a constant state of fear that any day we could enter a war—this is an existential fear.
I left Israel when I was 20, and when I was 26, I went back to visit and took a bus to see a friend of mine who lives in the center of Tel Aviv. A couple blocks from her apartment, the bus ahead of me exploded, and to this day, when I hear a big explosion, I am reminded of this day where so many people lost their lives. I was lucky to be a bus behind the one that exploded, but I can still visualize the images of the smoke that came out of the bus, the bodies that were removed, and the chaos that followed. Being aware of the triggers of fears and understanding them is the first and most important step in channeling your fears into something productive. Commons fears include:
Real environmental dangers, such as my experience walking the dog in the early morning
Specific situations or objects such as flying or bugs
Fears created by our imagination, such as fear of failure and success
Uncertainty—fear of the unknown (which is extremely relevant these days)
Having an awareness of what might be causing you fear and identifying the triggers can help you take the first and most important step toward freedom from fear. If you find that you are having a hard time processing your thoughts and emotions on your own, it can be so helpful to find a professional to talk to and I highly encourage you reaching out to explore what a therapist can do to help you in this journey.
In a study by the Harvard Business Review by James Hayton and Gabriella Cacciotti (2016), which was also validated by other researchers, they interviewed 65 entrepreneurs about fear of failure, and among other things, they identified seven sources of fear including:
Ability to fund the venture
Personal ability/self esteem
Potential of the idea
Threat to social esteem
The venture ability to execute
Tip 2: Change your mindset by turning fear into a challenge.
This sounds a lot easier than it is! It isn't as simple as it sounds, but it can be done. Just like with many other things, with the right attitude, attention, intention, and consistency, you will be able to change your mindset and overcome your fears. If you have read any of my previous blogs, I often write about the use of cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) as a skill that can help you redirect your thoughts to a more positive place where you feel more empowered. If you’re interested in CBT, there is a lot of research and tons of studies that show its effectiveness.
As an example, I want you to try this exercise : Think about something that you want to do but are not doing because you are afraid. Identify what it is that you are afraid of. Let’s assume that you are afraid that you will disappoint your parents/friends/others. Now, how would you feel if instead of telling yourself that you will fail and disappoint others, you challenge yourself to give it a try and do the best that you can without allowing others to affect your decision?
If you allow the fear to affect you to the point that it prevents you from taking the steps toward achieving your goals, you will never find out what you are really capable of. Whether you succeed or not isn’t the point here. As I am sure you know, many people fail many times before they succeed. However, this is a whole other topic, which you can read about in my Resiliency series that I have written for ThriveGlobal.
When I was looking for research about fear, I was surprised to find mostly studies about fear as an inhibitor of achieving a goal or a dream. Since the goal of this blog is to help you overcome your fears, I was hoping to find research where fear was studied as a motivator. However, knowing how fear prevents us from achieving our goals can help motivate us by challenging us to work on the various sources that might be creating the fears in the first place.
Tip 3: Share your fears with someone else.
For many years, I didn't talk about my fears. I thought that I was the only one who had these thoughts and I was worried that others would judge me for feeling this way. The interesting thing is that when I did open up, I found what most of you will too, which is that what we experience is normal and universal. Just by talking to someone about it, you immediately feel that you are not alone and that your fears are validated. As a therapist, I help people overcome their fear so that they can be more present and achieve their goals without the blockage produced by the fear.
As I reflect back on the fears that I’ve had in the past and how I overcame them, I was able to come up with the following list of things that I am afraid of:
Fear of failure
Fear of having no money and ending up poor like my parents
Fear of losing what I have
Fear of getting sick and dying
Fear of not achieving academic success
Fear of rejection
Maybe your list is similar to this one or maybe your fears are much different, but the brave act of sharing and speaking these fears into existence goes a long way in overcoming them. In addition to sharing your fears with someone else, it’s important to have effective communication with yourself.
Tip 4: Expose yourself to the fear.
I realize it sounds scary, but repeated exposure to similar situations or experiences that scare you will lead to familiarity, which will dramatically reduce the fear response. Exposure treatment for fear is based on the psychology of fear and uses techniques like systematic desensitization and flooding based on the premise that fear is a learned behavior that needs to be unlearned. Therapists will do this by exposing the client to a vast quantity of the feared object or situation in a safe place until the fear diminishes.
For example, if you are afraid of needles, then you will spend the first session talking to your therapist about needles and over the subsequent sessions you will be working toward the goal of holding a needle in your hand, and ultimately, being able to go to the doctor without fearing that blood work might be required and having panic attacks. This is accompanied by other coping techniques that help the patient manage their response to fear. This treatment is very effective, but depending on the severity of the fear, such confrontational approaches should only be undertaken by a mental health professional.
Tip 5: Practice mindfulness.
Often when we feel an uncomfortable emotion, such as fear, our initial reaction is to put it away. Why do you think your first tendency is to push that emotion away from you and not be present and just feel it? Fear has a negative connotation and what I hear a lot, especially with my teenage clients, is that if they show fear they will be teased and bullied for it. The main goal from practicing mindfulness is to pay attention to your breathing, which will allow you to activate the parasympathetic nervous system (also known as the “calm system”), to be present with your emotions with the right intention and attention, and to be free of the judgments of other related thoughts that you tend to have otherwise. I know that for some people it can be challenging, but I will give you some way to make this transition easier. Prior to practicing mindfulness, take a step toward reacting by asking yourself the following:
Why is it that I am feeling this way?
Be VERY curious about whatever it is you are feeling and ask as many questions as you can.
If you can answer these questions or at least some of them, it will help you with a smoother transition to a mindful state, but just being curious will work as a first step.
I hope that reading this will provide you with some good tips and make you think of fear in a different way that is also constructive and motivating! I didn't mention the basic tips that are always important when it comes to regulating your emotions, such as eating well, working out, and of course sleeping.