The world is full of people telling you you need to confront your fear.
Don’t let fear control you, they say. Your greatest desires are just beyond your greatest fears, they say.
Very few of these “fear experts,” however, seem to offer much concrete advice on HOW to push back against fear.
They seem to think that the reason you’re not confronting your fears is because, I don’t know, you’re not sufficiently motivated to do so? As if they only need to give you enough good reasons to confront your fear, and then you’ll do it?
That’s not been my experience as a therapist.
My experience, rather, has been that the reason most people don’t push back against their fears is because thy simply don’t have many good ideas how to do so.
Fear is paralyzing. Fear can be overwhelming at times. Fear is hard-wired into our evolutionary brains, and is literally designed as a tool to keep us alive.
Overcoming fear isn’t just a matter of motivation.
The good news is, acquiring the skills and tools to handle fear IS possible, once you frame the problem in a manageable way.
First thing’s first: let’s reduce the problem of “fear” to its component problems.
For most people “fear” comes down to two component problems: thoughts and physiological sensations.
Fear thoughts are usually framed in catastrophic terms: “If I do X, then disastrous consequence Y will almost certainly follow.”
(We usually don’t think in full sentences when we’re afraid, mind you, but when we take a few steps back from the fear to look at what we ARE actually thinking, that’s the basic thought process that emerges.)
Our brains often add layer upon catastrophic layer to our fear thoughts, but in the end, it still boils down to: “I am in danger. This situation or stimulus needs to be avoided if I am to either survive or avoid pain.”
The primary tools you’re going to need to cope with fear thoughts are self-talk and reality testing. They’re both tools that mainly come manly out of cognitive behavioral therapy, though other forms of therapy (such as neuro-linguistic programming and hypnotherapy) also teach various ways to manage your self-talk and effectively reality-test.
Self-talk is literally learning to contribute to your own internal dialogue. It’s teaching yourself to respond to catastrophic thoughts by becoming your own “coach” or “therapist” in a fear-provoking situation, and calmly and realistically talking yourself down.
This doesn’t mean lying to yourself. This means learning to put something in your brain other than the panicky, catastrophized thought of “WE’RE ALL GOING TO DIE!”
Even if a situation IS objectively dangerous, even if you ARE at risk of pain, there is usually a way to talk to yourself that de-escalates the situation rather than ramps you up further.
The reason why this is such an important tool is because we can’t access the tools we need to productively handle a situation (even if what we need to do is effectively escape!) if we’re panicked and screaming at ourselves.
Responding to a situation with calm, realistic self-talk is an acquired skill. It requires practice and patience. It may sound like a simple tool, but that doesn’t make it easy.
Reality-testing is a tool that helps you establish the actuality of the threat in front of you.
Most of us, when we’re afraid, exaggerate the realistic potential a situation holds for pain or harm.
This doesn’t mean that we’re WRONG about that potential existing; it just means that, when our fear thoughts get going, it becomes hard to separate the facts of the situation from the catastrophic fiction our brains are conditioned to produce.
Learning to realistically gauge the threat presented by a situation is essential if we’re going to choose the most effective response.
Again: neither of these tools, self-talk or reality-testing, is necessarily easy to use when we’re overwhelmed by fear. They take time, effort, and commitment to develop. If they were easy and obvious, then nobody would need therapy.
Learning to deal with fear is not easy or simple.
The physiological responses we have when we’re fearful— the involuntary shaking or shivering, the sweating, the shallow breathing— have to do with the activation of our sympathetic nervous system. It’s an automatic response to feeling threatened or pressured.
Learning to ease the sympathetic nervous response to fear calls for the tools of grounding and progressive or systematic relaxation. These, too, are learnable skills— but they don’t come naturally. It takes awhile to master them.
The good news is: the tools work.
“Overcoming fear” is NOT just a matter of motivation.
But it is possible to not let fear paralyze us— when we learn how.
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