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Fear. That pesky feeling that arises when you are at your most vulnerable. It roots itself deep within you, telling stories that seem so real that your body responds as if it is true. It can be such a visceral feeling that at times you’d rather acquiesce to than challenge it.
It’s a given that fear is part of the human experience, but where does it come from and why does it sometimes dominate your life? How do some people navigate through the fear and come out the other end not only intact but even happier? Yes, it’s possible that the best things in life are on the other side of fear.
Perhaps it’s not fear itself that you need to be afraid of, but how you carry the fear. Fear will always be a part of your life, but it doesn’t have to be in the way that you may think. What if you turn fear into a motivator? How different your life could be!
What Is Fear?
Here is a helpful acronym:
Your fears may be myriad and their roots can be deep and difficult to overcome. Most often they are steeped in irrational thought, having you believe things that impede you from living life to the fullest. This is not to negate what you are experiencing as something that can be easily tossed aside. Your fears are real to you. Your body is alerting you to something that is wrong and this shouldn’t be ignored. The challenge becomes learning how to identify the type of fear you experience. Identifying means you must face the fear and get to know it.
At its most basic level, fear can be categorized into two types: survival and irrational. Survival fear is anything you experience to help you stay alive such as the feeling when approaching the edge of a cliff or facing a predator. An example of irrational fear is when your dreams of becoming an artist, dancer, or teacher are thwarted by the feeling of grave danger. Once identified, appropriate steps can be taken to begin navigating through the emotion.
History of Fear
Not all fear is bad. The ability to experience fear has primal origins. Your body came with a built-in automatic response system to danger and helped your early ancestors stay alive. When faced with a predator, the fear center part of your brain known as the amygdala sends a distress signal, prompting the release of stress hormones causing physiological changes such as increased heartbeat, sweating, breath quickening, and muscle tensing. The body was being primed for the fight-or-flight response, which meant you would have to decide to fight the predator or flee. Your ancestor’s lives would have been consumed by this way of life—dominated by hunting and foraging for survival in addition to staying safe.
The world is different today; what consumes your attention is no longer influenced by the same needs of your ancestors. The predators are no longer the lions and tigers and access to food and shelter is easier. Despite this, you face other dangers, at least according to what your brain perceives.
You routinely deal with stressful situations that can be external (for example, a new job or being stuck in traffic) and/or internal (worrying about something from the past or future). In these circumstances, you know your life is not in danger, but the area of the brain responsible for sounding the alarm does not know the difference. The amygdala and the rest of your body does its job well. Your body prepares itself to fight or flee the scene whether it’s for survival or a common stressor—it all feels all the same internally.
Some individuals live in fight-or-flight mode. Imagine what this does to your mind and body over time. This primal stress reaction was put in place as a temporary response to danger, not as a prolonged state of being. Chronic stress is a major problem and is the precursor to many mental and physical illnesses—including addiction. The world is stressful. There is much pressure to perform and succeed and it’s often accompanied by the familiar feeling of fear—of failure, of succeeding, of being judged, of being rejected, and so on.
Fear limits you in every possible way. As you feel your body constricting and tensing, the same happens within your mind. It becomes hard to see beyond to other possibilities, confining attention and energy to only what’s in front of you. You are familiar with self-talk that plays over and over in your mind and the accompanying feelings when confronting something that is uncomfortable. You must learn this to acknowledge that this is not representative of the real you.
Sometimes you need some extra help from a professional to process certain fears. Your experiences are valid. Despite the rational mind knowing that something is irrational, you need to respect where you are in life and allow time and space for healing as needed.
To help you familiarize yourself with your fears, get a piece of paper and write them down in a list. Then, next to each fear label it as “survival” or “irrational.” You will find that most of your fears are irrational. For example, say you want to go back to school but fear that you are too old and won’t be able to keep up. Where does this fear come from? Did someone tell you this? Most likely not. Instead, you get into a rut influenced by what if’s. Years go by and nothing happens. Get to know your fears and see what drives them.
How to Use Fear to Motivate You
Once you have your list, take a step back and review it. Start to notice how much untapped potential there is for you to have a fulfilling life. Opposite of each imaginary fear is the potential for true joy. Fortunately, you have the tools to help you coexist with fear and use it to help motivate rather than allowing it to keep you from living the life you desire, even if it seems scary at first.
When you start to feel uncomfortable or threatened, try the following to start developing a new relationship with fear, one that is growth promoting and full of the potential for happiness.
1. Breathe Into the Present Moment
It’s easy to get lost in your thoughts. There is no better time than now to experience life to the fullest. Use your breath to help still the mind and calm the body. Take a few moments to breathe in for four counts, pause, then exhale for four counts. If this feels good to you, there are many breathing exercises you can start to incorporate as a stress-reduction tool.
2. Notice Your Thoughts and Feelings
What were you thinking about? What just happened? How do you feel? You may have grown up learning how to ignore or push away certain feelings and thoughts. Emotions need to be acknowledged if they are to be healed. Try saying out loud to yourself, “I feel sad,” or, “I feel scared,” or, “I am overwhelmed.” Consider talking about your fears with someone. When you bury fearful thoughts and feelings, they can become consuming. It’s best to let them out, even it’s only to yourself.
It’s helpful to remember where the fear reaction comes from—to protect you from danger. It will always be there for you.
Try reframing the fear. You can place your hands on your chest or stomach, wherever you feel the fear and ask yourself the following questions and observe the answers (don’t force them).
- Am I in danger? (Usually, the answer is no.)
- What are you trying to tell me?
- What are other possible outcomes that are positive?
If the answers don’t come easily, it’s ok. You might just feel responses as physical sensations at first. You can also start by first shifting into gratitude by saying, “Thank you for protecting me but I am fine” or, “Thank you for getting me ready to do my best.”
It takes practice to learn how to communicate with yourself. The important thing is that you are building a relationship with fear rather than running away from it.
4. Allow Fear to Be Your Counselor
You are guided by your emotions. There is something to be said about your gut instinct; it can serve you well if you listen to it. However, there is so much uncertainty in doing this and this can be scary. When you experience fear, it is trying to send you a message. Start to be conscious of what that message might be. Ask questions:
- What is holding me back?
- What’s the worst that could happen?
- If things remained as they are, how would I feel?
- How would I feel afterward if I took the action or had the conversation that I fear?
Over time, fear will start to become your friend and counselor. After all, it knows your deepest desires.
5. Take Action
Once you get clear on the source of your fear, it’s time to take action. This can be the hardest step, but also the most important. It’s one thing to think about what needs to be done, but good change only happens when you take that first step. Once you get going, momentum builds and you end up in places and situations you never thought possible.
You deserve to live a life of fulfillment and happiness. Sometimes that means taking action in a direction that you fear the most, knowing that deep down in your “inner knowingness” that it is what you need to do.
There will always be challenges in life, but using fear as your guide rather than treating it as your enemy will change how you tackle those challenges. In the words of theoretical physicist Albert Einstein, “You cannot solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” You cannot conquer fear from a place of fear. Instead, get to know it, appreciate it for what it is and does for you, then take actions that lead in the direction of love and fulfillment.
*Editor’s Note: The information in this article is intended for your educational use only; does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Chopra Center's Mind-Body Medical Group; and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health providers with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition and before undertaking any diet, supplement, fitness, or other health program.