Overcoming Fear: Feeling the Fear and Doing it Anyway
Overcoming fear is one of the hardest things any of us can do. It isn’t a pleasant thing. At its worst, fear can be traumatic and damaging. At its best, it is still uncomfortable.
It also isn’t always easy knowing when we should listen to our fears and when to try to overcome them. As we will see, fear is a natural, useful response. It can keep us safe, immediately, from acute threats. This is why people are scared of heights – falling from a great height can injure or kill us. In the long run, it keeps us safe as we fear the consequences of losing our jobs, being unhealthy, and so on. In working to avoid these situations, we live, we prosper, we stay safe.
However, many of us don’t see fear an as ally. We see it negatively. This is fair enough – it’s an unpleasant feeling. It can get in our way, stopping us from progressing, from doing what we want or need to do.
But what, exactly, causes fear? What does it mean and do to us? And when and how should we try to overcome it; when should we feel the fear and do it anyway?
What is fear?
Fear is one of our most basic, primal instincts. It is an emotion, in essence. However, it is also a complex physiological, biological process evolved to keep us safe and help us survive. As above, it is necessary. It can also be crushing; it can stop us from doing what we need to do, from being who we want to be.
Many of the instances of fear you will typically experience in your modern daily life will be intimately tied to this atavistic, primal instinct.
Think of a common fear. We’ve mentioned a legitimate fear of heights. I’m sure many of us fear snakes and spiders. Many of them can indeed be dangerous. However, even a fear of a snake or spider we know to be completely safe is legitimate in this way – it plays to the same processes.
Many people find films scary, despite knowing that they are works of fiction with no real-life danger attached to them. Again, it’s a gut reaction, atavistic and primal.
Overcoming fear is tough. You might be able to reason your way around these kinds of scary situations. You might be able to recognise that they aren’t actually dangerous, so shouldn’t be scary. However, the physical reaction remains. It is automatic and cannot be entirely reasoned away. It is intense and can impair our reasoning faculties to quite a large degree.
The physiological response to fear
All of our emotions come with a physiological response in the body. They begin in the brain and affect everything else.
Fear is no different. It begins in the brain, in the amygdala. A threat stimulus, in evolutionary terms the sight of a predator or something similar, triggers this fear response. This elicits physical effects throughout our body. These physical effects help us to adjust to our new, fearful state. They put us on high alert and allow us to respond more appropriately to danger.
You will often hear this called a ‘fight or flight’ response. We are preparing to either engage something in combat or run away from it. As part of this, our sympathetic nervous systems ready for action and our body is flushed with stress hormones like adrenaline.
Overcoming fear means getting to know how this all operates.
The three stages of fear
We will usually experience fear in three stages:
- First, we will freeze. This is an evolutionary mechanism. It keeps us hidden from potential predators. It is harder to see a still animal than a moving one, and we are no different.
- Then we will attempt to get out of the situation. We will try to run or hide. Again, this is a very reasonable response – you sense fear and you want to remove yourself from it and get to safety. This is where adrenaline comes into play – it allows your muscles to move more powerfully, your cardiovascular system to push you harder, and so on. You will be able to move more quickly than normal as you get away from the danger.
- Finally, with no other recourse, we will fight. This is a last resort response if we cannot get away from the trigger. Again, adrenaline will help to keep us strong and sharp. You will be able to fight harder, more aggressively, with greater speed and strength when scared than when calm.
Few of us need to hide or run from predators these days, outside of a violent altercation or possible military situation. Our day to day lives simply don’t see us threatened in this way. However, we retain the same fear responses. We will still always react to something scary or intimidating by freezing, then trying to run, then trying to fight. Overcoming fear will take acknowledging these responses and coming to terms with them.
The physiological changes
Most of the changes we experience in the presence of fear occur in the cardiovascular and endocrinal systems – the way we breathe and the hormones that flood our bodies.
When triggered by fear, your heart rate will increase. Your blood vessels with constrict, your respiratory rate will increase, and your adrenaline levels will rise. Other organs can be affected, too, most notably the pancreas and liver. However, the main ones you will feel will be your breathing and energy levels through adrenaline spikes.
Your muscles will also tighten as they prepare to either flee or fight with greater strength and explosivity than they usually provide. This is a good thing in isolation. However, long term fear and anxiety can cause muscular tension and chronic pain through this mechanism.
In a bid to generate more energy, quickly, your body will go through some metabolic responses. This can affect glucose levels. Again, this is good in isolation – it will fuel the fight or flight you’re about to experience. In the long term, however, this can lead to chronic concerns such as type II diabetes, heart disease, kidney disease and vision problems, among others.
The constriction in your blood vessels will also lead to a spike in blood pressure. This can be long term if you are experiencing fear, anxiety or stress on a regular or ongoing basis. This can put you at risk of life-threatening conditions such as heart disease and stroke.
If you are struggling with ongoing fear, stress, or anxiety, you should seek some form of help. Lifestyle changes can make a drastic difference. In extreme cases, your doctor will be able to intervene medically to reduce your stress levels.
Understanding and overcoming fear
Fear can heighten your awareness. You can use it mindfully, in this way. It can sharpen your reactions and allow you to work more instinctively. This is healthy. Allowing it to control you, however, can be damaging.
Fear can be paralyzing. It often isn’t appropriate to freeze, to run or to fight. This is especially so in the modern world. If you’re scared of applying for a promotion, making a drastic lifestyle change, going to an interview, beginning or committing to a new relationship, or any of the big, stressful life events we all go through, you don’t want any of these reactions. You want a cool head.
You also don’t want to be fearful in general. If you live a life marked by anxiety and stress, you will be putting yourself at risk of various health concerns, as above. More immediately, you simply won’t be having a nice time of it. You won’t be leading your best life.
Overcoming your fear: some common techniques
The best thing you can do to overcome your fear is to acknowledge it and then set it to one side, move beyond it. If you know you struggle with stress, remove as many stressors as possible. Then you will be able to devote more attention to dealing with necessary stressors more healthily. If you are scared of certain things, work out whether or not your fear is realistic or unfounded. If it is realistic, work with it. But if not, if it’s unfounded, try to move beyond it.
There are some common coping mechanisms you can think about as you try to overcome your fear. Or, rather, there are some positive thought patterns and viewpoints you can adopt that will be useful. They can help you to develop a healthy relationship with your fear, to feel it, accept it, and go forwards regardless.
There are four main thought changes I like to put in place when trying to deal with my own fears. They can lend you perspective, allow you to welcome your fear for the positive, useful emotion it is, and give you the ability to move beyond it. In short, they will let you overcome your fear. You will master it, rather than allowing it to master you.
Overcoming fear: see it positively
Firstly, appreciate that fear can be positive. We have seen that it is healthy in the right contexts. It is a survival mechanism, after all. This can apply more broadly, however. The mere fact that you are scared can be a good thing. It shows that you are pushing yourself outside of your comfort zone. This can lead to growth, positive change, a discovery of new strength.
It is scary to start a new course, for example. This fear is OK. It shows that you are about to take yourself out of your comfort zone, which is exactly what you want to be doing.
Overcoming fear: acknowledge and learn from your fear
Secondly, acknowledge your fear. Don’t bury it or pretend it isn’t there. Don’t try to tell yourself it is illegitimate and so shouldn’t matter. It is real and it matters. It is important. We all feel fear in different contexts, driven by different triggers. However, use it as a learning process.
Every time we are scared, we are presented with a new opportunity to learn something about ourselves. Figure out what exactly you are scared of in any situation. This will help you to come to terms with it. It will enable you to more ably with a similar situation in the future.
Overcoming fear: seek new growth
Fear often accompanies new challenges. It is often the cause of new challenges. This is OK. It can be a really good thing. It might be a sign that you need to seek a new avenue for growth. You might find an area in you ripe for self-work and development. Use your fear to pinpoint these areas for growth – it can be as much a diagnostic tool as a physiological response.
Overcoming fear: learn pride
Pride is meant to be one of the seven deadly sins. Many see it as a bad thing. I don’t. I see it as one of our greatest motivating forces and a key bedrock for self-esteem.
Overcoming fear is tough. It is a challenge. However, as with any challenge, there is a sense of accomplishment to be found afterwards. Allow yourself to feel this accomplishment. Seek it out. Seek out fearful situations to overcome. Be proud of yourself as you come through the other end. You’ll have earned it.
Overcoming fear in addiction recovery
Coming into recovery from addiction can be down right scary. Everything feels different without the guise of substances. This is where overcoming fear is paramount. If not careful, fear can rule your life and send you spiralling back into active addiction.
Recognising that fear is just a feeling and doing things that invoke fear can be extremely empowering, not to mention beneficial.
In recovery there may well be many things that you need to face, feel the fear, and overcome. The good news is that you do not have to face these fears alone. There are many sources of support from counselling to mutual aid groups, whereby others can guide you and support you, making the fear factor less of an issue.
No one grows from staying inside of their own personal comfort zone. It takes challenging beliefs and stepping outside into the unknown. This is where the magic happens, this is where personal growth comes into its own.
Author - James