By Dayna Mason
Whether it’s the outcome of the upcoming presidential election, the projections of the pandemic on our economy, or anticipating the consequences of a mistake we’ve made, the feeling is the same: We are not safe. When we’re fueled by fear, we are motivated to take action or employ avoidance to feel safe again, which inhibits optimal decision-making. This keeps us from living our best life.
If most fear is learned, we can unlearn it
In the 1950s, a psychologist was interviewed on The Steve Allen Show who stated that we are born with two instinctive fears: the fear of loud noises and the fear of falling. It makes sense that our only innate fears would be falling and loud noises, because babies are driven by sensations not thoughts. Loud noises and falling would be frightening sensations. If this is true, then all other fears are acquired or learned.
According to Elizabeth Phelps, a professor of psychology and neural science at New York University, fear can be learned through direct experience with a threat, verbal warnings, or by observing others.
The verbal warnings or fearmongering of our current cultural climate reminds me of a children’s story, Chicken Little. In this story a chicken is hit on the head by a falling acorn and is convinced that the sky is falling. He incites mass hysteria as he persuades the other animals that the sky is indeed falling. A cunning fox takes advantage of their fear and ignorance by luring them into his cave and eating them.
In this example fear was acquired through blindly believing the words of a chicken. How many times in our lives have we become fearful simply because of something someone told us? Wouldn’t it make sense to at least attempt to validate the words we are being told, especially if they cause us to be afraid?
Regardless of how our fear is acquired, most fear requires thinking about the object of our fear to become afraid. Fear is primarily in our minds. Our thoughts cause and perpetuate the fear. When we are able to think differently about the thing that is making us afraid, the fear subsides. When you change how you think, it changes how you feel.
The downside of fear
Fear isn’t all bad. It points us toward issues that need to be addressed as well as alerts us to potential danger. But when it isn’t notifying us of impending death, it can rob us of our happiness. Fear is focused on the negative. It only sees the failure and pain. It tells you to react without thinking. Fear tells us to stay in our comfort zone even if that zone is an abusive relationship or job we hate. Fear constricts rather than expands who we are. It can cause us to try to control everything and everyone around us—or can cause us to avoid making decisions altogether.
When we’re afraid, we are less likely to take the risks necessary to experience our best life and more likely to settle for less. We may avoid speaking up when we disagree or go along with others to avoid disappointing them. When we abandon our needs and desires to appease our fear, we cause ourselves emotional pain that we may then attempt to numb with food, alcohol or staying busy.
Overcoming fear, fostering peace, and having the life you desire
The first and most important step to tackling our fear is to acknowledge it. Often, we don’t even realize we are afraid. We just react to whatever situation has triggered our fear. Instead, if we take a moment and ask ourselves what we are feeling, what is our fear, we move the fear from the background into our awareness where it can be dealt with. When we describe our fear and allow ourselves to feel it, known in psychology as “affect labeling,” we reduce that fear.
Fear distorts our thinking and can cause us to exaggerate potential negative consequences, understate potential positive consequences, or ignore the cost of inaction. Questioning our fear puts distance between us and our fear, loosening its hold on us and helping us to think more clearly. When we take the time to acknowledge our fear, we alleviate our anxiety and are empowered to make better decisions.
Often the source of our fears are thoughts about what might happen; therefore, most fear can be dealt with in our minds. In the words of the philosopher Seneca, “We suffer more often in imagination than in reality.”
We can ask, “What’s the worst that can happen?” In the TED talk “Why you should define your fears,” speaker Tim Ferriss suggests using an exercise he refers to as “fear setting” to explore worst-case scenario and prevent or repair the consequences of our fears coming true. In this 3-step, “define, prevent, repair” exercise he suggests that we define what is the worst thing that can happen. Then think of ways to prevent it from happening, and lastly, if the worst were to happen, how do we repair or fix it? Once we’ve completed this exercise, we can assess on a scale of 1-10, how likely it is that the worst will happen.
Whether it’s a contentious interaction with someone about their political views, something you are avoiding, or something you are doing reluctantly, the next time you feel anxious, take one small step toward peace by simply asking “What am I afraid of?”
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